The 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was the wettest one I’ve attended. It also might have been the best, even though the last acts of the day on Saturday were canceled because of severe weather. (I empathize with the folks who sat in monsoon-like weather for hours waiting to hear Stevie Wonder only to find out his set had been canceled.)
I stay mostly in the tents to avoid the sun, the rain and the crowds. My tastes also skew toward the jazz, blues and zydeco acts that are primarily featured in the smaller venues. Every act we saw this year was outstanding. And though I’ve seen Mavis Staples many times, I’m always moved when she sings.
People’s Economy Tent – which features old-school jazz, second lines, wild dancing and smiles everywhere – just might be the happiest place on Earth. We started our festival there with a great set by The Paulin Brothers Brass Band.
Terrance Simien’s shows are always exciting. Terrance and his band mix soul, reggae and a little bit of rock in with their zydeco, and there aren’t many better showmen in the business.
I’ll see 91-year-old Henry Gray whenever I get the chance; he’s a legendary blues piano player and singer. At jazz fest, he performed with energy and soul. I don’t know if he played “Stagger Lee” twice because he loves the song as much as I do or because he forgot he’d already played it. No matter. Both renditions were memorable.
I live just a couple hours from the Windy City, but I’d never seen The Cash Box Kings before. It won’t be long before I catch them again, though.
Bernard Allison’s father, Luther, is one of my favorite bluesmen of all time. Bernard’s a mighty fine guitarist, too.
Brother Tyrone just might be the best soul singer in New Orleans. He and his backup singers sing old-school soul steeped in gospel. It’s gorgeous.
I had to talk my friend Diana into seeing Geno Delafose. His high-energy zydeco set turned out to be one of her favorites of the weekend.
Meschiya Lake and the Littler Big Horns might be the sassiest group at jazz fest. Meschiya sings like she’s straight out of the ‘40s, but her attitude is as brash as any new millennium artist I know. Her sets are always memorable.
I don’t remember which zydeco great Lil Buck Sinegal was accompanying when I first saw him play … maybe Buckwheat Zydeco. But I distinctly remember the first time I heard him play the blues. He’s one of the best blues guitarists in Louisiana, which means he’s one of the best blues guitarists in the world. See him if you can.
I’d been looking forward to hearing Corey Harris live for a long time. He didn’t disappoint. His set was one of the best ones I’ve ever heard at jazz fest.
I caught just a few of Germaine Bazzle’s songs, but they were mesmerizing, as always. She uses space as well as any singer I know, and her voice is lovely.
My friend and I scored front-row seats off to the side to see Gregory Porter in the jazz tent. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of his abbreviated set because hundreds of folks poured into the tent to escape the torrential rains and most of them seemed to stand right in front of us. Then, after just a handful of songs, organizers canceled the rest of the festival on Saturday. (As a result, we missed Arturo Sandoval entirely.) We heard enough, though, to reaffirm that Gregory Porter has the best voice of his generation.
Marcia Ball magnificently blends the spirits of the blues and rockabilly artists of Sun Records. As a bonus, Carolyn Wonderland and Shelley King joined her for much of the set.
My friend didn’t have much desire to see Arlo Guthrie for the 50th anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant,” but she agreed to sit through a few songs because she knew I wanted to see him. Arlo won her over with his charm, humor and musicianship. We stayed for almost the entire set. Sarah Lee Guthrie, Arlo’s daughter, opened the set with a few songs.
We caught the Southern University Jazz Jags because we knew we would be in the blues tent all day. They were much better than a place holder. Loved their set.
I’d seen Spencer Bohren before and liked him. He was great this year. Huge bonus: Aurora Nealand joined him for his set.
Luther Kent has a great voice and a kick-ass horn section.
We thought we’d miss the storms by staying in the tents all day on Saturday and Sunday. We did, sort of. Saturday, rains blew sideways into the tent, along with winds that threatened to knock things over. Sunday, the blues tent flooded in the middle. Luckily, we were in the front.
We’d planned to skip Royal Southern Brotherhood (only because we saw them last year) to catch Midnite Disturbers, a group we’ve never seen. The rain changed our plans. And though I’d love to see the Midnite Disturbers, the Royal Southern Brotherhood delivered one of the most powerful performances of the weekend. Everything’s always amazing when Cyril Neville is involved.
I hadn’t seen Mavis Staples in five or six years, and that’s way too long. She was my only must-see act of the festival, and she gave me shivers. A friend and I used to watch the Talking Heads movie “Stop Making Sense” at the Biograph Theater in Chicago every New Year’s Eve. But I’m sure David Byrne and his pals would agree that no one sings “Slippery People” like Mavis does. She killed Staples Singers classics such as “Respect Yourself” and “Freedom Highway.” And there aren’t many songs I’d rather hear live than Mavis’ rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Thanks, Mavis. You helped make this jazz fest one of the best ones ever … despite the rain, the winds, the lightning.
We listened to some traditional New Orleans jazz at Fritzel’s on our last night in NOLA. Great music, big fun. We’re already looking forward to next spring.