There are more festivals than ever on the American music landscape these days, but one of the oldest remains arguably the best. The 45th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival had it all, making for another spectacular good time in the famed Crescent City.
“Welcome to the Church of New Orleans,” wrote OffBeat editor Jan Ramsey in the magazine’s 2014 Jazz Fest Bible issue. “The fact is that Jazz Fest is not simply a music festival; it’s a cultural beacon that shines its light around the world to bring people to experience our city in unique and wonderful ways.”
Ramsey’s gospel is sincere. There’s no other metropolis in America where music plays such an all-encompassing role in the cultural fabric of the city than in New Orleans. Only in New Orleans, aka NOLA, is music almost akin to religion. This makes Jazz Fest a shining beacon indeed for those who consider music to be their primary source of spiritual sustenance.
“Jazz Fest is the Super Bowl of festivals,” local musician Glen David Andrews said on iconic NOLA radio station WWOZ during this year’s festival and he wasn’t just being a homer. No other festival has as many stages, as many incredible culinary offerings, or as many evening and late shows that can take music fans all the way until the break of dawn.
The festival has grown a lot over the decades, adding big time rock and pop headliners to ensure a strong draw. There’s always a deep roster of regional talent and the festival becomes a musical gumbo where you can sample a little of everything in one place. Jazz Fest is a true mecca for music mavens.
Santana, Phish and Eric Clapton were the first weekend’s headliners and each drew huge crowds to the main stage. There was terrible conflict though with all the other great acts playing at the same time. Top jazz players like Branford Marsalis and Delfeayo Marsalis were scheduled in the Jazz Tent opposite of Phish and Eric Clapton on the main stage respectively, making things tough on those who dig both rock and jazz. But it seems like Jazz Fest feels that too much of a good thing is never enough, a fitting policy for a city with no open container laws or venue curfews.
The only hint of trouble in paradise came when Greenpeace flew a banner over the fairgrounds taking the festival’s main sponsor Shell to task for its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. “Love Jazz Fest, hate oil spills #SavetheArctic”, read the banner. “Big oil cannot buy respectability by dropping a tiny percentage of its billions into the arts. Greenpeace showed up at JazzFest to directly communicate with festival goers and to Shell that enjoying good music doesn’t necessarily mean sponsoring environmentally destructive schemes,” blogged Greenpeace’s Arctic campaigner Gustavo Ampugnani . “It’s time Shell faced the music: there’s no way of greening up Arctic oil drilling.”
Jazz Fest organizers would likely prefer a more environmentally-friendly sponsor, yet it’s clearly tough to resist the deep corporate pockets that enable them to stage the festival in the extravagant manner it warrants. “The alliance with Shell first began in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Shell stepped up as the event sponsor to ensure the survival of the city’s signature cultural celebration,” said a May 2 Jazz Fest press release announcing that Shell had renewed its sponsorship for at least five more years.
“Shell’s major support of Jazz Fest is vital to keeping the event at the forefront of American music festivals. In the dynamic business of live entertainment, having committed corporate partners like Shell helps drive creative and production advances, leading directly to the once-in-a-lifetime experiences fans expect and deserve,” said Jay Marciano, COO of AEG and Chairman of AEG Live, co-producers of Jazz Fest, in the press release.
“Without this partnership with Shell, the Festival would not be able to provide the resources that it does to the foundation – which we use for year-round programs in education, economic development and cultural enrichment,” added Anthony J. Ruda, President of the Board of Directors of the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.
The inherent ethical question raises one of the great artistic dilemmas of modern times. Most attendees however were understandably concerned with little besides catching as much music as possible. Here follows one reporter’s attempt to do exactly that.
Thursday April 24
Frenchman Street is the city’s main hub of musical activity in the evenings and it was quite a scene as the famed area teemed with activity. There were multiple club shows happening, an art garden full of vendors whose work rivaled the crafts seen inside the festival and there was a tangible atmosphere of excitement in the air.
The Stanton Moore Trio @ The Blue Nile
The top attraction on Frenchman Street was Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, who launched his 2014 Jazz Fest MVP campaign with a typically hot show at the classy venue. With its watery turquoise lights, clear sound and a space that balances intimacy with elbow room, the Blue Nile is a great place to wind up on any given night in NOLA.
Moore has evolved over the past 15 years from a young gun on the scene to one of the Big Easy’s most prominent musical ambassadors. There’s probably no one who played more gigs in as many varied formats during the festival. His band here featured Robert Walter on keys and Will Bernard on guitar, doling out jazzy funk that leaned heavily on the grooves. Man-about-town Eric Krasno helped the band out with the funk, sitting in on guitar for some hot jams to set the tone for a big weekend.
Friday April 25
Traveling to and from the festival fairgrounds via bicycle was a popular choice and a great way to see more of the city. The weather was unusually perfect all weekend, making for some breezy riding that provided an extra layer of leisurely pleasure to the experience.
Sasha Masakowski @ the Lagniappe Stage
One of the festival’s hidden gems, this smaller stage with shade and seating is tucked inside the race course grandstand area. Local jazz singer Sasha Masakowski’s star is on the rise judging from the sizeable crowd she drew in the 2 pm hour. Masakowski oozes charisma with an exotic, sexy voice that takes the classic torch singer vibe and brings it into the modern age with a diverse repertoire of tunes and vocal stylings.
New Orleans Klezmer Allstars @ the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage
It couldn’t have been more than 12 hours since the end of his show the night before, but there was Moore drumming up a storm in the hot sun with the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars. He was also joined by Galactic bandmate Ben Ellman on sax for a raucous set that blended New Orleans funk with Yiddish folk music for a uniquely vibrant sound.
Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove @ the Jazz & Heritage Stage
Kirk Joseph is best known as a founding member and sousaphone player of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, one of NOLA’s most iconic modern bands. He was a great ringleader here as the group delivered a similar brassy funk sound with an upbeat vibe and some afro-caribbean flavor.
Santana @ the Acura Stage
Carlos Santana and his band took the main stage before a huge throng just after 5 pm and delivered a set heavy on the hits. It may have been standard fare for those who have seen the guitar maestro before, but the band was dialed in and Carlos’ sweet licks sparkled in the sunny late afternoon air. Carlos had described music as “heaven on Earth” in a public interview earlier in the afternoon, a sentiment that feels legit at Jazz Fest.
“Ask yourself – do I truly believe that I’m connected with angels?” Carlos replied to a question about what advice he would give to aspiring musicians. It may seem like an overly new agey sentiment to some, but the guitar legend has long promoted such beliefs in metaphysics. “Black Magic Woman” fit right in with the local voodoo vibe and Carlos led the band into a fabulous psychedelic jam on Jimi Hendrix’ “Third Stone From the Sun” that made it feel like angels were indeed hovering above.
“Evil Ways” featured a great segue into a splendid jam on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” where the angels seemed present once more. “It’s up to me, it’s up to you”, Carlos sang to the crowd, putting out the bold idea that the people have the power to change the world. The set mixed psyche rock with latin rock and jazzy flavor from the horn section in a way that made Santana seem like a perfect headliner for Jazz Fest. It was only too bad Carlos couldn’t stick around to jam with Phish and Eric Clapton.
The Meter Men with Page McConnell + Benevento/Moore Duo @ Republic
The Jazz Fest at Night series has almost as many options as the festival, with a slew of shows at clubs all over town. For the many Phish fans in town, the pair of shows that Phish keyboardist Page McConnell was playing with the Meter Men was the hot ticket. Original Meters keyboardist Art Neville is semi-retired these days and his bandmates have played a series of highly praised shows with Phish’s “chairman of the boards” over the past two years.
The Benevento/Moore Duo opened the show as one of those only at Jazz Fest bonus acts. Keyboardist Marco Benevento rose to fame in a duo with drummer Joe Russo, so it was a treat for fans to see him in a similar format with Galactic’s Stanton Moore. The duo entertained with high energy jams to get the packed crowd warmed up and it was easy to see the pair were having a blast.
Seeing McConnell as a member of the Meter Men was testament to the high level of respect Phish has achieved in their 30-year career, as well as to how the Meters have influenced Phish’s funky jamming style. The jammed club made some wonder why a larger venue wasn’t procured, but the band rose to the occasion with two sets of the funk classics that made the Meters one of the most influential bands in history.
“Hey Pocky A-Way” could have been the Jazz Fest theme song with its upbeat groove and classic lyrics of “Feel good music, I’ve been told, it’s good for your body and good for your soul”. McConnell dazzled on piano, clearly psyched to be back in the saddle with these legends. Drummer Zigaboo Modeliste anchored deep pocket grooves with bassist George Porter Jr. all night and starred on “ Doodle Loop (The World is Bit Under the Weather)”, singing out against pollution and war. The song is one of those NOLA classics that gives listeners a little food for thought while helping them get a groove on.
The stellar show built to a huge climax at the end with “It Ain’t No Use”, a blues rock classic that clocked in at almost 12 minutes on the 1974 studio version. It was the perfect vehicle for McConnell, who maxed out on electric organ jamming to boost guitarist Leo Nocentelli to greater heights as he shredded some of the best riffage of the weekend on the smoking jam.
Galactic @ Tipitina’s
There’s the evening shows and then there’s the “late late” shows that don’t even start until 2 am. Galactic have become kings of the late late show and this one at NOLA’s most renowned venue was no exception. Drummer Stanton Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio were locked in with guitarist Jeff Raines as the band blended their unique funk and blues power with jazzy psychedelic rock for what may have been the weekend’s top dance party. Saxman Ben Ellman, trombonist Corey Henry and keyboardist Rich Vogel were all at the top of their game as the hometown band dazzled with homecourt advantage.
Vocalist Maggie Koerner is the newest member of the Galactic krewe and helped ignite the party with her bluesy vocals and sassy vibe. Koerner owned the room on the new “Dolly Diva”, a down and dirty funk groove where her syncopated vocals sparked a fire. The sharp tune from the band’s upcoming new album also showed that Galactic is still in the height of their creative power. In some ways it feels like Galactic only entered their prime with 2010’s great Ya-Ka-May, where they used multiple vocalists to solve the problem of not having a full-timer. A year with the legendary Cyril Neville on vocals in 2010-11 only made the band stronger and it feels like the best is still to come.
Saturday April 26
The music starts at the fairgrounds just after 11 am each day but, for those who are out all night, it can feel like doing well just to get back in the 2 pm hour…
Royal Southern Brotherhood @ the Samsung Galaxy Stage
With the great Cyril Neville on vocals/percussion and Devon Allman on vocals/guitar (the son of Gregg Allmann), RSB offers a classic pedigree that drew a big crowd. Neville’s work as a member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers has already cemented his status in music history. But the way the soulful philosopher/poet continues to push the envelope of socially conscious groove-based music has him at the forefront of the 21st-century music scene as well.
One of the weekend’s top guest spots materialized when ace saxman Karl Denson sat in for a sensational jam on “Running Water”, from Neville’s great 2013 LP Magic Honey. The fiery jam had the crowd revved up like it was a headlining performance. Neville starred again on “New Horizon”, a deep bluesy rocker where he sings about humanity being “at a crossroads where truth and time collide”. The band crushed it on the set closing “Working Man”, with Neville fronting again for a fierce jam on the classic tune that left no doubt this band is too legit to quit.
Phish @ the Acura Stage
The Vermont jamrock titans drew a large segment of their devoted fanbase to the Big Easy in high anticipation of their first Jazz Fest appearance since 1996. Many hoped the quartet would pull out all the stops with some special guests, while others figured it would only be an average show since the band had been off the road since New Year’s Eve. Bettors on the latter collected at the end of the day as the band delivered a relatively standard show, devoid of guest spots. But it’s testament to the high bar Phish has set for themselves when a three-hour show like this is considered average fare.
Guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell both expressed sentiments about how happy the band was to be back at Jazz Fest, while bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman simply went to work laying down dynamic grooves. A funky “Wolfman’s Brother” highlighted the first set along with the appropo “Party Time”, which Anastasio cited as an effort to write a New Orleans-style second line type of tune. The band stepped it up a gear in the second set by opening with “Down With Disease”, a perennial crowd pleaser that stretched out nicely with some fluid jamming.
It’s always a treat to see people at festivals turning on to the jammy melodic goodness of Phish for the first time, reminding veteran fans why they fell in love with the band in the first place. A mid-set “Sand” raised the bar, another of Phish’s top groove vehicles that features a socially conscious flavor which seemed to perhaps acknowledge Greenpeace’s banner against Shell.
“If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, it’s a little bit like trying to heal a gunshot wound with gauze… If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, then you can’t heal the symptoms”, sang Anastasio over the tight groove. The show isn’t likely to make fans’ top ten lists at the end of the year, but the Phish Nation was unanimous in appreciation to the band for the motivation to come down to Jazz Fest for what most definitely will rank as one of the top party weekends of 2014.
moe. @ the Civic Theater
These New York jam rockers know a good party when they see one, so it was no surprise they booked a two-night stand here to get in on the action. The quintet was in their element with a post-festival crowd ready to keep the good times rolling. Guitarists Al Schnier, Chuck Garvey and bassist Rob Derhak were fired up and ready to rock, while drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin were a force to be reckoned with. The spacious theater had plenty of elbow room, making for a nice contrast with some of the smaller clubs around town.
Like Phish, moe. is a band whose ever-changing setlists and improvisational prowess have won them a core of devoted fans that have seen the band over 100 times. The love was in the air as moe. rocked deep into the night. The second set raged with a guest appearance by percussionist Mike Dillon on “Suck a Head” and fan favorite “Buster”. The biggest jam of the night occurred with “Yodelittle”, as Derhak led an extended workout through one of the band’s slinkiest grooves. The band was rocking so hard at the end of the set that Schnier was moved to get up on top of a sidestage monitor to shred even more. The quintet capped the show with their majestic rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Time” in the encore, a perfect slice of classic psychedelia to send the “moe.rons” out into the night on a cloud.
Sunday April 27
It was another beautiful day at the fairgrounds with vibrant music coming from every direction, as Santana’s description of music as heaven on Earth seemed to genuinely describe the surroundings.
Bonerama at Samsung Galaxy Stage
There was a spark in the air as soon as the fairgrounds were entered thanks to the brassy funk rock that Bonerama was putting out. Trombonist/bandleader Mark Mullins set out to build on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “anything goes” concept and Bonerama does just that with their ensemble riffage that creates a powerful wall of sound and uplifting vibe.
Rebirth Brass Band at the Congo Square Stage
Music fans looking to check out the arts and crafts area in the 2 pm hour got a perfect Jazz Fest soundtrack from the Rebirth Brass Band, one of NOLA’s most iconic groups. Founded in the early ‘80s in the city’s famed Treme neighborhood, the ever-evolving group mixes traditional brass band music with hard funk and smooth soul for a truly festive sound that epitomizes what Jazz Fest is all about.
Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. & the Zydeco Twisters in the Blues Tent
There was another party going down here, with Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. leading a raucous affair that had many blues fans up out of their seats. Dopsie mixed a flamboyant James Brown funk vibe and some delta blues into the band’s bouncy zydeco sound for an infectious sonic flavor. The band went extra deep on an intense rendition of “Hey Joe”, with some smoldering lead guitar that made it feel like Jimi Hendrix’ “electric sky church” was in session. The Blues Tent also featured a nearby beer stand where fans could grab a local Abita Amber Ale, a sole refuge for beer drinkers to find craft brew relief from the MillerCoors swill being sold around the fairgrounds.
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & the Golden Eagles at the Jazz & Heritage Stage
The path from the Blues Tent to the Samsung Galaxy Stage to see Galactic went right by this stage, where the music demanded a pit stop. Boudreaux and his Golden Eagles were dressed in their flamboyant Mardis Gras Indian flair and were rocking a downright mystical rendition of “Who Knows” from Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys LP>. Catching that back-to-back with “Hey Joe” from Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. felt like a synchronistic blessing from the music gods.
Galactic at the Samsung Galaxy Stage
Galactic in the daytime usually can’t approach the late shows where the band is in their true element. But the funkateers were playing to one of the largest crowds of their career here and the energy seemed to carry over from the band’s stellar show at Tipitina’s. Vocalist Maggie Koerner killed it at the end with some deeply cathartic blues on “Does It Really Make a Difference”, then cranked up the rock power on a blistering cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. Drummer Stanton Moore cemented his festival MVP award here, as the hardest working man in town played with as much enthusiasm as he had in his numerous performances all weekend.
Eric Clapton at the Acura Stage
The legendary guitarist closed out the first weekend’s main stage performances with a 90-minute set that was heavy on the blues. Rock fans hoping for some Cream on top were left wanting, but Clapton did deliver a couple tunes from his Derek and the Dominoes project with an acoustic “Layla” and a deep foray on “Tell the Truth”. The energy in the set was up and down, but Clapton showed he’s still one of the greatest guitarists on the planet when he decides to burn up the fretboard.
The “Crossroads” toward the end of the set was a peak highlight. It wasn’t the high octane version that helped put Clapton on the map with Cream, but it was classic blues delivered with authority. It was only too bad someone couldn’t have introduced Clapton to Phish’s Trey Anastasio for what could have been a cutting duel for the ages, since Phish used to play “Crossroads” in the ‘90s.
New Birth Brass Band at Jazz & Heritage Stage
Exiting the main stage area after the Clapton set could take festival-goers past this smaller stage for one more treat where the upbeat sound of the New Birth Brass Band was still going down. The band mixes up influences from the brass band renaissance, Mardis Gras Indian chants, funk and modern jazz for a fresh and vibrant take on a classic NOLA sound. Catching the end of this set was a perfect way to put a regional close on a most memorable weekend at the fairgrounds.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe @ Republic
There were a slew of Sunday evening shows around town, but music fans couldn’t go wrong with these acid jazz stalwarts. Like Galactic (with whom KDTU has toured), saxman Karl Denson has earned a rep as a king of the late night show for his funky boogaloo dance parties that rock out with a psychedelic flair. Branford Marsalis may still be considered the top jazz sax player in the world, but Denson has become the favorite in the rock scene due to his penchant for jamming and sitting in with other bands for guest appearances.
Old favorites like “The Bridge” and “Groove On” showed the band in fine form early on, with drummer Max McVeety and bassist Chris Stillwell laying down crisp funky grooves for Denson and trumpeter Chris Littlefield to work out on. The band also highlighted their strong new album New Ammo with tunes like “The Duel”, a cinematic type of tune where Denson and guitarist DJ Williams riffed off each other like Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. The classic “Front Money” was a highlight toward the end with a James Brown-style groove that never fails to ignite the dance floor.
* * *
Frenchman Street was hopping all night, an ongoing social scene for the night owls that rivals any in America. Then as dawn was breaking, music fans could listen to Phish’s Jazz Fest performance on their porches as the sun ascended thanks to the band’s LivePhish app that always has the most recent show available for free streaming. If Jazz Fest is indeed the Superbowl of festivals, the first weekend of the 2014 festival was a runaway victory for the home team. Viva New Orleans!