The 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival had it all: iconic performers including The Who, Elton John, Jerry Lee Lewis and Tony Bennett; student prodigies from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA); a slew of up and coming country acts including Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves; thunder and lightning closing the first Friday early; and crowds stretching to the fences at several stages on the final Saturday. Here is Count Basin's look back at a busy festival.
On opening day, lightning and heavy rains forced Jimmy Cliff fans at the Congo Square Stage to settle for a five-song set, which appropriately ended with "Sitting in Limbo." The 67-year-old reggae icon led his band through "By the Rivers of Babylon," Cat Stevens' "Wild World" and a rollicking version of his hit "You Can Get It If You Really Want" before the plug was pulled.
The festival celebrated NOCCA's 40th anniversary at the NOCCA Pavilion at the center of the infield, near the Congo Square area. Alumnus Jason Marsalis paid tribute to one of the school's first jazz teachers, his father Ellis Marsalis, in a set featuring a group of young NOCCA grads, including trumpeter John Michael Bradford, Miles Berry on saxophone, Shea Pierre on piano and Jasen Weaver on bass. Marsalis highlighted some of his father's lesser-known tunes, including "The Garden" and "Tell Me" from the 1985 album Syndrome, and "Nostalgic Impressions" from Wynton Marsalis' 1982 album Fathers and Sons.
At the Gentilly Stage, Wilco played a strong set, marked by a dizzying number of guitar changes and smiling, good-natured energy from lead singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy. "On our guitar picks, it says, 'It could be worse.'" Tweedy said as clouds darkened. Before rain ended the set early, Wilco played crowd-pleasing, country-tinged renditions of tracks from a mix of albums including Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ("Kamera," "Heavy Metal Drummer"), Mermaid Avenue ("Secrets of the Sea") and Being There ("Red-Eyed and Blue"). Tweedy delivered a moving and heartfelt version of "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" also from 1996's Being There, that ended with a three-part guitar climax. Pat Sansone wound up his arm, windmill style, and as he struck the final cord, one of the day's largest and closest bolts of lightning flashed overhead.
Some of Saturday's darkness came from the stage. After an hourlong sideways downpour, the sun showed its face during Ryan Adams' high voltage rock 'n' roll set on the Gentilly Stage — and just moments before his goofy "black metal" version of Whiskeytown's "16 Days." His set featured nearly two hours of his heartfelt, neo-heartland rock 'n' roll, including with new album cut "Gimme Something Good" and the New Orleans-penned "Dirty Rain" and New Orleans-recorded "Love Is Hell."
Shovels & Rope
On the Fais Do-Do Stage, South Carolina alt-country lovebirds Shovels & Rope tried to shake off the rain, and the impressive and loose duo traded off guitar and drums (while also playing percussion and a keyboard). The band dug into songs from its acclaimed 2013 album O' Be Joyful and its decidedly darker, water-filled 2014 follow-up Swimmin' Time. Cary Ann Hearst hit solid highs with an electric grin and wild head of hair, while Michael Trent complemented Hearst's growl with his low-key roars. The band's breakout hit "Birmingham" — during which fans erupted in cheers at the song's mention of "making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hoe / with two old guitars like a shovel and a rope" — toned down to a near-dirge as gray skies loomed.
Juvenile & Mannie Fresh
The much-hyped reunion of sorts with New Orleans rapper Juvenile and producer Mannie Fresh was more of a party and a chance to reintroduce Juve to his hometown crowd as he bounced through several of his now-classic New Orleans hip-hop tracks, from a killer a cappella end half of "Ha" to the ridiculous fun of "Back That Azz Up," which he attempted to self-censor to the radio- and TV-friendly version. The former Cash Money Hot Boy also mentioned he's put on some pounds: "I'm a hot potato." Juvenile also performed hits like "Slow Motion," "Set It Off" and "U Understand" before bringing super-producer and affable hip-hop hero Fresh to the stage.
Calling local legends such as Fats Domino the best of the first generation of rock 'n' roll, Jazz Fest Producer Quint Davis credited England with producing the best in rock's second generation when he introduced The Who, British purveyors of the genre's styles from early punk to latter-day arena-rock. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend proved during two hours at the Acura Stage that they can still harness rock's rebellious energy, delivering smash after smash to a singalong crowd. The band lost drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002, but the current lineup still delivers a thunderous drum roll on "Who Are You?", and "Magic Bus" still sounds like an acid trip. Townshend no longer is capable of his signature full windmills because of a torn rotator cuff, but he still wails on his Fender Telecaster, crushing big riffs and delicate moments in "Baba O'Riley." After a monstrous "Won't Get Fooled Again" closed the set, Daltrey summed up the roaring crowd's approval as he joked, "Not bad for a bunch of old farts, eh?"
In the Zatarain's/WWOZ Jazz Tent, vocalist Cassandra Wilson performed many of the songs on her recently released tribute to Billie Holiday, Coming Forth by Day. The centennial of Holiday's birth was April 7, and Wilson lauded her as one of the greatest influences in jazz and sang "Don't Explain," "Crazy He Calls Me," a slow, low-key rendition of "All of Me" and "Billie's Blues." Wilson makes Holiday's songs her own with rich but understated and bluesy vocals.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
Near the end of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga's set, Bennett showed why he owns the song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." At 88, Bennett still commands the stage, and though he sometimes leaned against the grand piano, he carried a third of the show with solos, including "The Good Life," "When You're Smiling" and, in honor of the centennial of Frank Sinatra's birth, "I've Got the World on a String." He also noted Duke Ellington's birthday (April 29) and sang "(In My) Solitude." Bennett and Gaga performed most of the songs on their 2014 album Cheek to Cheek, starting with Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," and including classics by Irving Berlin and Ellington. Bennett and Lady Gaga have a very comfortable rapport that easily eclipses questions about the generation gap and their senses of drama and style. Gaga showed off her wardrobe, changing outfits at least six times. Her looks got progressively more flamboyant, culminating with a shoulderless red dress with a red feather boa shawl and a final mostly sheer sparkling silver outfit with a white wig and white boa. Her version of the 1940s show tune "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" seemed typical of her ability to take a reverent approach to a classic song. The two were charming together on "Firefly," "I Won't Dance" and their finale, "The Lady is a Tramp," though Gaga sang, "The chick is a tramp."
Bonerama Trombone-heavy Bonerama
bulked up its lineup with Mark Mullins' son Michael on trombone and Matt Perrine's son Ben on drums along with an unidentified ace whippersnapper on guitar as the group crushed a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times." The band closed with an original tune dedicated to its "hero, a man that keeps the city's spirit alive after (Hurricane) Katrina" — a funky shout-out to local produce purveyor "Mr. Okra," aka Arthur Robinson.
Despite having his right hand in a cast, Robert Randolph skillfully worked his pedal-steel guitar to create the soulful, sacred steel sound at the heart of The Word's gospel/jazz/jam music. Randolph's slow-burning solo introduced a set that combined instrumental covers of traditional gospel classics from the band's 2001 debut album and the silky funk of its brand-new release Soul Food ("Come by Here" proved a highlight). Tricia Boutte furnished a rousing flourish by applying her otherworldly vocal powers to "When I See the Blood."
Rising country star Sturgill Simpson is hailed by critics and fans as savior to a scene long lost amid over-produced Nashville pop that's dominated the genre in recent decades. Unassuming behind his acoustic guitar and evoking a spirit that harks back with eerie clarity to the glory days of Merle Haggard, Simpson showed in workingman fashion what the fuss is all about. He belted out world-weary, anti-hero anthems such as "Long White Line" (from his 2014 break-out album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music) backed by a crack band that proved adept at sinister slide-guitar blues, up-tempo bluegrass and ragtime piano.
No Doubt re-emerged amid the current '90s revival, and its show on the Acura Stage felt like a trip back in time. Opening with 2001 club jam "Hella Good," No Doubt played nearly every single from its three best-known albums, as well as several songs from 2012 comeback album Push and Shove. Gwen Stefani has always been No Doubt's center of gravity, with her effusive style and easy mastery of an audience, now magnified by the celebrity of her solo career. She led a men-only singalong to the line, "I'm just a girl," before encouraging the crowd's women to outsing guys. Longtime touring band members Gabrial McNair and Stephen Bradley gave Stefani a run for her star power, garnering surprise, delight and bobbing umbrellas as they performed second-line-style horns during a brief intermission. The band closed with its 1995 hit "Spiderwebs" and an expertly choreographed bow.
Irma Thomas drew a big crowd for her annual show at the Gospel Tent, long billed as a tribute to Mahalia Jackson. As of last year, it's "The Gospel Soul of Irma Thomas," and much of the set was dedicated to the kind of contemporary gospel often heard at the tent, but the show started off in revival fashion with Thomas belting out "Down by the Riverside" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." She slowed things down with the classic "Somebody Bigger Than You and I" and then delivered a rousing rendition of "How Great Thou Art," which brought the crowd to its feet.
& NOCCA students
At the NOCCA Pavilion, NOCCA alum Terence Blanchard sat in with a sextet of NOCCA students, including his daughter Sidney Blanchard on piano. The group opened with an extended take on Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" that allowed the young players to show their stuff. On the gently swinging jazz standard "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," Blanchard traded solos with his daughter. The band closed with a slow-burning blues number called "See Me As I Am," a song from Blanchard's forthcoming album Breathless. "I just want to say, I'm enjoying sharing the stage with these young musicians," Blanchard said. "It's great to see the light in their eyes — and the fear. I've been there."
At the Acura Stage, two female singers featured on Galactic's forthcoming album, Into the Deep, added soul to the band's sound. After warming up with a tight set of instrumental music featuring Mike Dillon on percussion alongside Stanton Moore's drums, the band welcomed Macy Gray, who offered funky versions of songs from her 1999 hit album, On How Life Is. On "Why Didn't You Call Me" and "Do Something," Gray wrapped up her appearance with the pensive and lovely "Stoned" from her 2014 release, The Way. Erica Falls, who's been on the road with Galactic and appears on the new album, led the band in versions of its pre-Gray, up-tempo, rhythm-heavy approach by enticing the crowd to clap along with "Right On."
At the Lagniappe Stage, cellist Helen Gillet dazzled the large audience with her impressively looped, experimental baroque-inspired pop. As percussive loops (made by her tapping her instrument) built around her melodies, she hopped around the stage in glittery boots. Gillet wrapped up her set with a cover of "I Live Off You" by X-Ray Spex. "I played drums in a punk band before I realized I could play cello," she said.
Jerry Lee Lewis
A few months shy of 80 years old, Jerry Lee Lewis strolled onto the Acura Stage wearing a white jacket and carring a gold-tipped cane. He seemed frail but was comfortable ripping into the ivories of his grand piano for "Move on Down the Line," "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" and "Before the Night Is Over" (which he concluded by slamming his hand on the piano and exclaiming, "Mercy!"). He suggested he'd rather have a solid gold monument than a headstone and then played "C.C. Rider," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire." He concluded the set 15 minutes early.
Atlanta rapper T.I. executed his set with a simple, often-repeated mantra: "I got hits." The Atlanta rapper packed most of them (mostly abbreviated versions) into an hourlong set, which spanned "Rubber Band Man" from his breakout 2004 album Trap Muzik to his 2008 hit factory Paper Trail, with songs like "Live Your Life" and "Whatever You Like," the latter of which ended a raunchy mini-set dedicated to the women in the audience. The sign language interpreters went blow-for-blow with T.I. as he rapped detailed thoughts on a woman's anatomy, types of guns and what they do, which the interpreters gamely illustrated. He ended his set with a shoutout to Lil Wayne, a request to free former Cash Money rapper B.G., who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2012, and a "rest in piece" to slain New Orleans rapper Soulja Slim.
Steve Winwood said only a few words during his jam-heavy hourlong set at the Gentilly Stage. Winwood and his monster band — a quintet with tremendous chops, including Richard Bailey's octopus-like drumming and multi-instrumentalist Paul Booth adding saxophone, keys and vocals — jammed through hits like Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" and Traffic's "The Low Spark of the High-Heeled Boys" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy." Guitarist Jose Neto's loose yet technical finger-picked style lacked the kind of depth (most noticeably on closing song "Gimme Some Lovin'") Winwood brought to the guitar when he stepped away from his organ. But Neto and the rest of the band exploded with a huge, solo-filled "I'm a Man." The set wound down with a slightly deflated-sounding version of crowd-pleasing pop hit "Higher Love."
Kacey Musgraves' band hit the Fais Do-Do Stage — which was adorned with a few technicolor Mexican blankets, neon cacti and some trailer park lawn ornaments — to Ennio Morricone's main theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The band wore matching Nudie-inspired suits with twinkling LED accents, and Musgraves wore a white leather fringe skirt and matching vest with blue, LED-lit cowboy boots. Musgraves picked from her 2013 album Same Trailer, Different Park, opening with the melancholic "Silver Lining," the lovesick "Stupid," and "Blowin' Smoke," an anthem to ambitions and their dead ends. She shined with her smart sense of humor and ways around words, like "Biscuits," in which she sings, "Pouring salt in my sugar won't make yours any sweeter / Pissing in my yard ain't gonna make yours any greener." But her brightest spots were on her more intimate songs like "I Miss You" and "Merry Go 'Round," which, like "Blowin' Smoke," speaks to a mainstream country audience. But she mostly oozed charm ("I messed up my nails on some crawfish — now that's country"). For a finale, her band kicked up the volume for "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and she shot confetti from two handheld cannons, a fitting (and colorful) choice for Nashville's latest anti-trend setter.