To understand the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it helps to grasp the geography. The annual fest is held on the New Orleans Fairgrounds, the city’s racetrack. Within the turn at each end of the oval track is a huge grassy field with a big stage that hosts the most popular acts. Between these two big stages are four small stages and one medium stage that host the local Louisiana acts and more specialized genre acts. Within the racetrack grandstand are two more small stages and in the adjacent parking are the three large tents specializing in jazz, blues and gospel.
Because the big stages get so densely crowded, there’s a temptation to stake out a position up front in the morning and just stay there all day. And if you had never seen The Who, it might have made sense to camp out at the Acura Stage all day on April 25 to see Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey one time before they die. But to do so, you would have missed out on such terrific Louisiana acts as Ellis Marsalis, Warren Storm, the Mahogany Brass Band, the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, Joe Krown and the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
You have to ask yourself: Why you travel to an out-of-state festival? Is it to more efficiently see the same touring bands that come to your city? After all, a festival doesn’t require you to drive and park for each act; you can park once and see six or seven acts in a day. Or do you travel to a different region to soak up the local culture—not just the food and music, but also the local residents who make the food and music what it is? A Louisiana band plays differently in New Orleans than it does anywhere else, just as a Texas band plays differently in Austin. To hear Trombone Shorty or John Boutte play before a hometown crowd is to understand something about their music you would never get if you heard them in New York or L.A.
I prefer the latter approach. So when I attended Jazzfest, as it’s popularly called, I avoided the two big stages as much as possible to focus on the smaller stages in between. I wasn’t puritanical about it; I did see Trombone Shorty, Alison Krauss, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, the Word and the Meters on the big stages, but I spent much more time at the Fais Do Do Stage tucked between the Gentilly Stage and the Congo Square stage. Named after the Cajun French phrase for “Go to sleep” that mothers murmured to their young children so the parents could start dancing, the stage was mostly devoted to Louisiana’s Cajun and zydeco acts.
The area in front of the stage is usually a green lawn, but on Thursday, April 30, it more closely resembled a beach, because truckloads of sand had been dumped there to cover the mud from the previous weekend’s torrential downpours. By the end of that day, the dancers had pounded that sand into a hard-packed dirt floor. And how could they resist dancing to such Cajun acts as Steve Riley and Kevin Naquin and the great Creole band led by African-American accordionist and Francophone Cedric Watson?
As the weekend wore on, the Fais Do Do Stage hosted the all-female Bonsoir Catin Cajun Band, Leroy Thomas & the Zydeco Roadrunners, and Major Handy & the Louisiana Blues Band. Three acts stood out in particular. Watson’s former band, the Pine Leaf Boys, has stretched the boundaries of their Cajun sound to include the country and rock-flavored swamp-pop sound of South Louisiana. When Wilson Savoy put down his button accordion to pound out Louisiana native Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and one-time New Orleans resident Ray Charles’s “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” he made those local ties seem obvious.
Feufollet has just released a new album, Two Universes, that marks the latest stage in their journey from a cute band of child-prodigy musicians to a top Cajun band in any age group and finally now to bold innovators who are blending Cajun and pop-rock in smart, likable ways. Kelli Jones-Savoy, Wilson’s sister-in-law and the band’s new fiddler, joins founding member Chris Stafford as co-lead vocalist, and they stretch the Cajun foundations of their sound into new harmonies.
The Jambalaya Cajun Band backed up D.L. Menard, a singer who is as important in his genre as Roger Daltrey is in his. He sang his two most famous compositions, “En Bas du Chene Vert (Under a Green Oak Tree)” and “La Porte en Arrière (‘The Back Door),” in French but with such a strong echo of Hank Williams Sr.’s hillbilly twang that you could understand why Rolling Stone put the latter tune on its list of the “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time.”
There was more country music at the festival, but much of it was disappointing. Chris Stapleton unveiled his debut solo album, Traveller, on the Gentilly Stage Saturday afternoon, and he’s still as good a singer and songwriter as he was when he fronted the SteelDrivers. But his new live format—a rock power trio with a female vocalist—doesn’t do his songs any favors, and he could use a second lead instrument to play some melodic fills when Stapleton is playing rhythm guitar and singing.
Sturgill Simpson played the same stage on Friday, but his mumbled consonants and lack of dynamics undermined the inviting texture of his voice. Better, though, was the following act on the same stage: Alison Krauss & Union Station. Krauss, one of the greatest country singers of her generation, has a perfectly balanced band of virtuosos and delivers her smartly chosen songs with crisp clarity.
With such mixed results at the big stage, I headed back to the smaller venues and made one terrific discovery after another. The Electrifying Crown Seekers justified their name at the Gospel Tent. Don Vappie and the Creole Serenaders made banjo-led traditional jazz sound current and contagious in the Economy Hall Tent. Guitarist Kenny Brown, the longtime sidekick to blues legend R.L. Burnside, proved a master of that Hill Country blues sound while leading his own band at the Lagniappe Stage.
New Orleans legend Irma Thomas revealed the roots of her R&B fame by singing her favorite hymns in the Gospel Tent. Cecile McLorin Salvant proved herself the most exciting young vocalist around in the Jazz Tent. Anthony Hamilton proved himself the legitimate heir of Marvin Gaye—equally adept at romantic seduction and social commentary—on the Congo Square Stage.
The biggest treat of the festival, however, was one I never would have heard if I had stuck to the tried and true acts. On Sunday, May 3, the last day of the festival, while Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, Maze and Buddy Guy were playing nearby, Mississippi singer-pianist Bobby Lounge held court at the Lagniappe Stage. He was wheeled on stage inside a silver iron lung and let out by his three attending nurses. He emerged in a long white robe with silver, metallic wings.
Once he sat down at the piano, he started banging out boogie-woogie like a bald Jerry Lee Lewis and singing songs such as “I Want a Ten Foot Woman,” “I Remember The Night Your Trailer Burned Down” and the new “Apalachicola Fool.” His lyrics are part stand-up comedy, part surrealist free-association and part absurdist commentary on the South—all delivered in a tenor that veered from bellowing roar to conversational aside and back again. The result was the funniest, wildest, most imaginative show I’ve seen this year.