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New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s First Weekend

05:01 PM Wednesday 5/2/12 |   |

Contributing Pollstar photographer John Davisson spent the weekend at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and recorded his thoughts for the ages.

Every year, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival brings two weekends of great music to the Fairgrounds Racetrack in the Big Easy. I enjoy going because the festival is such a mix of musical styles, food, and people. I can usually count on some rock, country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, soul, hip-hop, brass, and everything out there. The first weekend is now over but there are plenty of tickets still available for the second weekend.

The first weekend featured a variety of music, as is always the case at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or Jazz Fest for short. Throughout the weekend I thought a lot about heritage and tradition at Jazz Fest. The annual event which began in 1970, is one of America’s longest-running music festivals, a unique mix of French, Spanish, African and Native American influences featuring the local music that has become synonymous with New Orleans.

There are the traditional Dixieland jazz and brass band sounds, as well as rock and blues and gospel. And who doesn’t think of the Big Easy when listening to Cajun and zydeco music? You can feel the pulse of New Orleans when you hear the sound of fiddles and accordions and many people can’t resist moving to the grooves.

Mardi Gras Indians performed on some stages and marched through the Fairgrounds throughout the weekend. Gift shops featured crafts from diverse cultures, with Haitian, African, and Indian knick-knacks.

The food is also one of the attractions of Jazz Fest. I seem to always focus on the same food although next weekend I plan to be more adventurous since the food is so reasonably priced.

On just the first day of Jazz Fest I was able to catch Kirk Joseph demonstrating how a sousaphone can lead a band at one of his performances, Gomez playing some modern rock, and the vocal style of the Dixie Cups. I also heard some jazz by the James Rivers Movement (including a bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace”) and some blues-rock by Eric Lindell. There was also 70’s hair-metal courtesy of Zebra, indie-rock from The Givers and African music from Seun Kuti + Egypt 80.

  • Dixie Cups

    New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
    April 27, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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  • Gomez

    New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
    April 27, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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Rolling Stones touring keyboardist Chuck Leavell played in the blues tent with Bonnie Bramlett joining him on a tune. Irma Thomas did a tribute to Mahalia Jackson in the Gospel Tent. Finishing the day was a rough choice, but I caught a little bit of reggae from Steel Pulse, some rock (with some tasty guitar work) courtesy of Bon Iver, and some songs from the 50th anniversary reunion by The Beach Boys. And that was just one day, with many other acts that I couldn’t catch because I am only one music fan.

There was a lot of New Orleans history in the music I heard. Kirk Joseph, Zebra, Eric Lindell, James Rivers, Irma Thomas, and the Dixie Cups are all based in New Orleans and the Givers are from Lafayette.

There is a unique vibe to Jazz Fest though, a feeling that seeps into your spirit when you attend. It is a laid-back, uniquely Southern feeling that permeates the Fairgrounds and affects everybody, fans and bands alike. It is a little bit outlaw, a little bit rustic and a little bit anything-goes. I love it when the feeling hits me and I feel like I’m able to float above or skirt around my normal routine. And it is great knowing that I am not the only person feeling the laid-back freedom. I can feel it in the music and performances from little things (such as the young children who wandered to the center stage during performances by Eric Lindell and the Dixie Cups).

  • Surf's Up!

    The Beach Boys catch a wave at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
    April 27, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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The vibe overtook me during the first weekend and I worked differently than usual. Instead of drifting from stage to stage to photograph as many bands as possible, on Saturday and Sunday I decided to focus on the headliners and see how the vibe affected them. The only way was to embed myself in the audience and watch the entire sets by the headliners and other bands on the main stage. Since Scott was also photographing for Pollstar, I felt I could neglect some photo ops in favor of fan-immersion. I was additionally motivated because Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is one of the best bands ever and I wanted to watch the entire set. Watching Bruce Springsteen’s entire set was an added bonus as he also does a great live show.

  • Chuck & Bonnie

    Chuck Leavell with special guest Bonnie Bramlett, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
    April 27, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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Early Saturday I did catch some New Orleans country music from Gal Holiday and Her Honky Tonk Revue, some African music from Chiekh Lo of Senegal, and some blues from Luther Kent before hitting the main stage for some New Orleans gumbo by Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. I then caught the entire set by the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, a New Orleans supergroup featuring Dr. John, Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, Cyril Neville, Johnny Sansone, Waylon Thibodeaux, Johnny Vidacovich and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. This nonprofit group focuses on bringing awareness and education about the loss of the wetlands in southern Louisiana, and they play a nice Louisiana Gumbo of musical styles.

  • Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars

    Johnny Vidacovich, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Anders Osborne, Dr. John, and Wayne Thibodeaux pictured.
    April 28, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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Tom Petty played an epic set that touched on many of his hits and also some obscurities that he pulled out of his repertoire especially for Jazz Fest for a crowd that extended all the way across the racetrack around the Fairgrounds.

The first hour was mostly Petty hits (and “Handle With Care,” a Traveling Wilbury’s hit). Then they pulled out “Lover’s Touch” from the Mojo album, “Something Big” from the Hard Promises album (never a hit but Petty said it was one of his favorites), “Have Love Will Travel” from The Last DJ and “Good Enough” from Mojo. During “Spike” from Southern Accents, Petty introduced the song with a long backstory about 441 and the Cypress Lounge, places I am familiar with as I live in Gainesville Florida, Petty’s home town. Petty said “They've got robbers and killers and shrimp boat captains and guitar thieves in there, a sly reference to the recent theft of some of his guitars during tour rehearsals (they were recently recovered).

By the time they finished with “Refugee,” and “Running Down a Dream,” they were over their allotted time. But it is the Big Easy, so they added “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” and the classic “American Girl.” You could tell they loved their first time playing Jazz Fest by the broad smiles they wore during their set and by the way they stretched out rather than playing just the hits. During the set, Tom made several comments about the vibe, including “For years and years we’ve wanted to come here to the Jazz Fest,” and “there is a mojo in this place. Can you feel it?”

  • TP @ NOJazz

    Tom Petty at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
    April 28, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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On Sunday, I checked out the Batiste Brothers, which is a New Orleans family of musicians on the Congo Stage, and a Tribute to Alex Chilton that featured Dave Pirner, Alex McMurray, Susan Cowsill, René Coman and Doug Garrison before heading to the main stage for Dr. John playing his classic New Orleans stew.

Then it was time for a 3-hour set by Bruce Springsteen, returning to Jazz Fest for the first time since 2006, when he played with his Seeger Sessions band to help raise the spirits of the locals after Katrina. This time, he brought the latest incarnation of the E Street Band and opened the set with the classic “Badlands” followed by the new “We Take Care of our Own.”

  • E Street In NOLA

    Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
    April 29, 2012

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He had to restart “Wrecking Ball” to swap guitars, quipping “can't be too far out of tune at Jazz Fest,” and then later exclaiming “It's dangerous up here” after he slipped and fell on the stage. Before “My City of Ruins” he gave a long monolog about the ghosts in New Orleans. He revisited the Seeger Sessions show by performing “O Mary Don't You Weep” and “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” and segued into “Jack of All Trades” from his latest album. Then, he called out Dr. John, who joined him for a run through “Something You've Got.” After the song, Bruce commented that “It's all about the groove, we can't make that groove in New Jersey.”

Bruce ventured into the crowd several times during the show, crowd-surfing during “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” and pulling up a young guy who sang a couple of lines before calling the band back in. He danced with a woman during “Pay Me My Money Down,” before performing the classics “Born to Run,” and “Dancin' in the Dark.”

  • The Doctor Is In

    Dr. John sits in with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
    April 28, 2012

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He also slipped in a few verses of “When the Saints Go Marching In” in a poignant Big Easy moment before closing with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.” Springsteen grabbed a “New Orleans Loves Clarence” sign and a can of beer from the audience. It was a nice three-hour performance that showed Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band can still put on a riveting performance and the fans were packed in all the way across the field and into the racetrack that encircles Jazz Fest.

After the festival is over, there are still plenty of shows happening throughout New Orleans, and plenty of other things to do in the French Quarter. The party never ends in New Orleans. And there is still another weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to look forward to in just a few days. Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, Foo Fighters, Zac Brown Band, My Morning Jacket, and Florence & The Machine are just some of the bands that will be playing the second weekend, as well as plenty of Big Easy bands. More info is available here.


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