Headliners including Pearl Jam and Van Morrison drew huge crowds Saturday at Jazz Fest, but even Sunday's more moderate draw left few seats or patches of grass open at tents and smaller stages.
The crowd had plenty of time to build in the Blues Tent for Rhiannon Giddens' set. Problems with sound delayed the beginning by 20 minutes (though the crowd eventually got the full 70-minute set). It's no small trick to microphone the arsenal of stringed instruments in Giddens' band — multiple violins and banjos, mandolins, stand-up bass, cello, etc., plus an accordion. But Giddens quickly won over the crowd, opening with Bob Dylan's song "Spanish Mary," followed by Dolly Parton's "Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind," which Giddens drains of any country twang or over-pronounced rhyming, delivering a plaintive account of a woman who is sad but firm in shedding a partner who no longer loves her. Giddens offered a similarly earnest and heartfelt version of "She's Got You," made famous by Patsy Cline.
Pursuing the disappointment of love lost in those two songs was only the slightest introduction to two emotionally wrenching and powerful songs Giddens wrote. After telling the crowd she has become interested in slave narratives, she sang two songs inspired by her research. In "Julie," a plantation owner tries to convince a slave that she's better off with her than being liberated by the approaching Union army. Another song was inspired by an 1828 advertisement from a newspaper, in which an enslaved woman's 9-month-old baby also could be bought, "at the purchaser's option," Giddens imagined the life of a human being treated that way at such an age: "You can take my body, you can take my bones / You can take my blood, but not my soul ... I was young, but nor for long."
Giddens focused on a mix of early blues and country songs, and she sang "Waterboy" as arranged by Odetta. A few of the songs were included on the Carolina Chocolate Drops' 2009 album Genuine Negro Jig
. Giddens was joined by former Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins for the entire set. One might have expected an appearance by former Chocolate Drop and new New Orleanian Leyla McCalla, who had performed at Jazz Fest earlier in the day, but she did not appear.
The Chocolate Drops focused on reviving African-American string music from the Carolinas, dipping into folk and bluegrass. Giddens told the crowd she's interested in other roots music, and she (on fiddle) and accordionist Dirk Powell performed a Creole song credited to Bois Sec Ardoin, an accordionist influential in Acadiana's Creole and Cajun music.
While the sound mix marred several songs over the course of the set, Giddens provided many of the highlights singing solo, including a fast tongue-twisting Gaelic song. Her soaring vocals brought the crowd to its feet for several ovations.
The festival also provided a couple of bright spotlights for Afro-Caribbean music. At the Congo Square Stage, Dede Saint Prix of Martinique performed, backed by a keyboards, guitar and several percussionists. He is known for performing the French Caribbean nation's chouval bwa music. His attempts to play flute were at times thwarted by microphone problems, but the group ranged from sunny Afro-pop sounds to Saint Prix sort of rapping over reggae beats.
On the Jazz & Heritage Stage, Garifuna Collective, relying steadily on group vocals and percussion, performed. The group performed "Watina" in tribute to former bandleader and guitarist Andy Palaccio, who died in 2008. Garafuna also performed in the more intimate confines of the Cultural Exchange Pavilion. The Pavilion featured sets by funky punta
rock group Sweet Pain and others throughout the weekend. And crowds were receptive to the body-shaking Belizean response to twerking.