New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2023
New Orleans Jazz Fest poster (2023) by James Michalopoulos / Jazz Fest

A Hero’s Homecoming: Jon Batiste Steals the Show at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

A show with this many moving pieces could easily have devolved into chaos, but in Jon Batiste’s hands, it was a wonderfully diverse, talented vision of what America can be at its best.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2023
26 April - 5 May 2023

Jon Batiste delivered a knockout performance in the headlining slot of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival‘s second Friday, just 13 months after he won the Album of the Year Grammy for 2021’s We Are. Quint Davis, who has played a leading role in producing the Festival since it began in 1970, said Batiste spent months preparing for this performance, and it showed. This was one for the ages.

“This is not a concert,” Batiste said from the stage. “This is a spiritual practice.” He spent an hour and a half proving exactly that, leaving the assembled crowd of tens of thousands deliriously happy. Throughout his set, he had this crowd in the palm of his hand; the audience stayed with him even when he sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It (Clap Your Hands)”.

Batiste grew up in New Orleans, part of a famously musical family that has been a part of Jazz Fest from the beginning, and his roots were on full display during this show. He wore a T-shirt celebrating the Purple Knights, his high school’s sports team, and the marching band (the Marching 100) from that school (St. Augustine’s) was on stage with him throughout this show, as was the local Gospel Soul Children choir. As he sang about the city’s NFL team, the Saints, scoring touchdowns, field goals, and extra points, Batiste brought on stage a troupe of phenomenal New Orleans dancers, which provided exciting visual accompaniment to the music throughout the rest of the show.

Somehow, this performance cohered beautifully, though there was a vast diversity of talents on stage — including, at one point, a Native American pow-wow band. A show with this many moving pieces could easily have devolved into chaos, but in Batiste’s hands, it didn’t. Instead, what appeared on stage was a wonderfully diverse, talented vision of what America can be at its best.

Batiste played a number of tracks from We Are, including show opener “Tell the Truth”, “We Are”, “I Need You”, “Cry”, “Boy Hood”, and show closer “Freedom”. Into the mix, he added a number of covers, most strikingly, “Night Time Is the Right Time”, popularized by Ray Charles. Lest anyone forget that Batiste is from New Orleans, he also delivered a credible interlude on his Steinway that sounded like Professor Longhair, Dr. John, or Allen Toussaint. After “Freedom”, Batiste and his entire group exited through the adoring crowd to the sound of that most classic of all New Orleans songs, “When the Saints Go Marching In”, on his Melodica. It’s good that Batiste’s was the last performance of the day because no one could have followed it.

Before Batiste took the stage, living legend “The Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas delivered a sterling set. Her voice has perhaps lost some of its force, but it’s still in very fine shape, as it has maintained its tone. Thomas credibly took the crowd back to the early 1960s, when she first recorded “It’s Raining” (penned by the late, great Allen Toussaint) and “Ruler of My Heart” (which became Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart”). Even the Tulane frat boys had their phones out to record that part of the show. Also lovely was Thomas’ duet on “Sing It” with Marcia Ball, who took Thomas into her Austin home after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Before Thomas, Big Sam’s Funky Nation electrified the main stage, mixing Sly Stone funk with New Orleans brass band music. Like Chuck Brown or George Clinton, Sam focused on grooves and chants more than on formal songs, culling material from various sources, including hip-hop (50 Cent, the Roots).

At Jazz Fest, when in doubt, it’s usually a good move to check out the Gospel Tent. Josh Kagler and his group, the Harmonistic Praise Crusade, were on fire, like at an old-time tent revival. Surrounded by nine other vocalists, Kagler spun around like a helicopter before moving into the audience to shout about the power of the Holy Ghost. One special feature of the Gospel Tent is the presence of Lady Tambourine, aka Rosalie Washington, who will jump on stage to play with just about any great act.

Finally, watch out for Eric Lindell, who records for Alligator Records in Chicago. His bluesy, soulful ’60s-style vocals and guitar call the Tedeschi Trucks Band to mind. If the crowd’s reaction to him at Jazz Fest is any indication, he has the potential to break out as a much bigger star.