The 46th Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, better-known simply as Jazz Fest, triumphantly concluded its first weekend with impressive headlining performances by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Wilco and The Who despite multiple days of rain, thunder and lightning.
Several stages host more than 500 acts and 5,000 individual performers across two weekends, while vendors serve countless options of Nola’s world-famous cuisine and drink. This exquisite combination made it nearly impossible to go wrong during the first three days of the event, even with tumultuous weather occasionally interrupting the music.
Highlights from the first weekend:
- Festival organizers honored Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, who died earlier this year.
- Unlike larger festivals, such as Coachella, Jazz Fest is integrated into the neighborhoods surrounding the festival. Accommodating open container laws mean that the party starts as soon as you step out the door. Colorful porches of the traditional nearby houses are decorated with voodoo and flags, with people relaxing outside offering icy cold beverages.
- Louisiana’s Southern air felt thicker than green tomatoes smothered in gumbo, and the severe weather on Day 1 never stopped the fans. However, ferocious lightning strikes halted all headliners three-quarters of the way through their sets, ending at 6pm on Friday with Wilco and Jimmy Cliff both yanked from their respective stages 15 minutes early. Fortunately Wilco did not disappoint, letting the attendees know, “We’ll play as fast as we can so that we can through our set before the storm hits.”
- Pink, green and voodoo purple people swam and swayed across the Fair Grounds horse race track, cutting through the sweetness known as ‘Who-Dat’ humidity. Amid floating plastic bags of all colors sizes, bands played on and the youngest fans reveled through the showers, jumping in the mud wearing their rain boots.
- Irish singer-songwriter Hozier had a huge crowd at the Gentilly stage and did not disappoint. His graceful and heavy blues set was filled with blisteringly hard guitar, occasionally woven with folk-rock vibes. Hozier pleasantly performed lesser known song “To Be Alone” and “Work Song” as well as his near-ubiquitous single, “Take Me to Church”.
- Frequent Jazz Fest visitor and country music star Keith Urban managed to complete 11 songs before the storm shut him down. His most amazing moment came during an impromptu pause in his set to appropriately sing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” with no accompaniment.
- Cajun and zydeco bands entertained throughout the weekend at the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage. It also featured alternative genres such as Los Angeles cumbia and bossa nova band La Santa Cecilia, who compellingly used the accordion to keep the crowd dancing.
- The Congo Square stage saw salsa and meringue band Rumba Buena open for Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Angélique Kidjo. The latter’s super electric style and swirling dance moves blended blissfully with her powerful singing.
- After two days of rain, British rock legends and headliner The Who broke through the clouds and lightening mid-song through Love Reign O’er Me. Not a single drop of rain fell after. It was The Who’s first U.S. festival date in almost 40 years and nearly 50 years since their breakout, but they showed no rust. Storming the Acura Stage with heroic swagger, The Who kicked off with “I Can’t Explain” and “The Seeker”, followed by numerous hits such as “My Generation,” “Who Are You,” and “Behind Blue Eyes,” each of which saw Townshend’s trademark guitar windmills. A pinnacle moment came when lead singer Roger Daltrey screeched and howled during “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Jazz Fest producer and festival emcee Quint Davis applauded their set, claiming it was “one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever seen in my life.”
- Sunday brought sunshine after mostly mucky, wet weather. The Big Easy’s Cajun menagerie danced away in their Sunday best outfits, coming from near and far for the opening Sunday blessing in the misty Gospel tent.
- The Gentility stage, located just around the corner from Congo, made it easy for crooner’s and Club Bauhaus fans to shuffle left in time to catch one of the most influential figures in New Orleans, rhythm and blues musician Allen Toussaint. He emphatically warmed up the Steinway grand piano for Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. It’s not the Tonga Room under the Fairmont Hotel, but the Gentility stage is 1/3 the size of Acura stage, and the smoky surrounding air dripped with intimacy and anticipation.
- Headlining Sunday was National Treasure and 88-year-old Mr. Tony Bennett, who last performed at Jazz Fest in 2009. He’s still strong and steady, invigorated by his recent collaborations with 29-year-old pop princess Lady Gaga. Although advertised as a duet, two iconic performers spent barely half of the set on stage together. Bennett stayed more visible than Gaga, who frequently vanished backstage to change outfits. Some speakers were not functioning properly at the beginning of the show, but Gaga kept it classy on “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Her concluding moments during “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” the final track from the Bennett co-album Cheek to Cheek, were exceptional.
- Grammy award winning R&B singer-songwriter John Legend and his super smooth vocals delivered two killer covers during his epic set. He crushed Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” just as the sun peaked out through the clouds after all the rain. Legend also dedicated Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to his late grandmother, who taught him piano and gospel music as a child.
Photos by Carlos Olin Montalvo