Trombone Shorty and his band, Orleans Avenue, brought the 2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to an appropriately excellent end on Sunday evening, filling the prestigious slot traditionally held by the Neville Brothers (and before them, Professor Longhair). For the final minutes of his performance, he was joined by longtime friend Jon Batiste, who turned in his own show-stopping set on Friday evening.
Like wrestling legend Ric Flair, Orleans Avenue took the stage to the dramatic sound of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. Like Batiste’s band on Friday, they packed enough instrumental firepower to set the audience ablaze. Along with two guitarists, two drummers, and three background vocalists, the band also included three saxophone players and Shorty on trombone (and trumpet, too).
Shorty opened with “I Just Want My Heart Back” before launching into a cinematic, chromatic funk instrumental. Then, he paid tribute to two New Orleans funk masters, first with a blistering cover of the Meters’ 1974 jam “It Ain’t No Use” and then with his version of Allen Toussaint’s 1972 song, “On Your Way Down”. Orleans Avenue demonstrated tremendous chemistry throughout the set, ably trading brass and guitar solos in almost every song. The massive “Whipping Post” riff of “I’m Standing Here” stood out, further revving the crowd before Batiste came to the stage.
It’s not hard to think of Louis Armstrong, a patron saint of New Orleans music, smiling from the great beyond as Shorty and Batiste followed in his footsteps, performing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” together. In Armstrong’s honor, Shorty put down his trombone and picked up a trumpet, and Batiste traded solos with him on his trusty Melodica. Batiste stayed on stage with Shorty to finish the set with Shorty’s 2011 song “Do to Me”, plus bits of two other classics, “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Down by the Riverside”.
A few hours before Shorty’s set on the main stage, Galactic delivered another reminder of why the biggest New Orleans bands get prime slots and more than hold their own against the big-name, international superstars who play the Festival. Galactic recently added Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph as their lead singer, and it’s a terrific shift, bringing to mind Sharon Jones’ excellent work with the Dap-Kings.
Instrumentally, Galactic is as tight as possible, credibly channeling 1970s funk in all the right ways (not an easy task). Watching their near-telepathic communication, it’s unsurprising that they’ve been playing together for over 25 years (including more than 20 performances at Jazz Fest). A rendition of Galactic’s most popular track, “Into the Deep”, was a highlight, with Joseph singing the vocal contributed by Macy Gray on the original recording. Two other standouts were covers: Dr. John’s “Qualified” from 1973 and “Compared to What” by Gene McDaniels (which was popularized by Les McCann and Eddie Harris in 1969).
Though they were performing on one of the Festival’s smaller stages, Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias are the kind of New Orleans institution it’s so important to experience at Jazz Fest. Seeing the visuals — multiple generations of the Dollis family, including Dollis’ two young daughters, dancing on stage in their Mardi Gras Indian garb — was just as important as listening to the music.
Early in the day, Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste led his group through funk standards, including the 1974 Meters classic “Africa”. Movingly, Zigaboo finished his set with a song protesting gun violence, singing about how “guns are driving people crazy” and lamenting the fact that “we can’t get relief”. At the song’s end, he said the following repeatedly: “New Orleans is a beautiful place. We’ve got to stop the violence any way we can.” Amen to that.