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Purple rains, purple haze: highlights from Jazz Fest 2016 

Count Basin™ reports from the Fairgrounds

click to enlarge Rhiannon Giddens 
performed in the 
Blues Tent.

Photo by Scott Saltzman

Rhiannon Giddens performed in the Blues Tent.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival drew more than 425,000 people to the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, organizers said. Heavy rains on the second weekend caused an early close on April 30, canceling sets by Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg and Beck. But there were many touring headliners (Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt) and a full slate of performers on a dozen stages to keep crowds entertained. Here are some of the notable moments from Jazz Fest 2016.

Scorched earth

Over two hours on the wet, windy and mud-filled final day, Neil Young conjured lightning rods of droning atmosphere synchronized with the whipping rains and winds, turning the warm and humid weather into a cold, sun-absent afternoon. With Promise of the Real (featuring Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah on guitars), Young built walls of sound emulating Crazy Horse's layers of guitars and locked-in instincts for rising and falling moments through each song. The band performed Ragged Glory tracks heavy "F—kin' Up," "Country Home" and "Love & Only Love," as well as a dizzying 20 minutes of waves of twisted metallic solos on "Cortez the Killer."

Out of sight

Stevie Wonder's Saturday morning sound check included Prince's "Purple Rain," seemingly setting up his headlining set at the Acura stage for one of the biggest tributes to the late artist during the two festival weekends. Instead, Wonder sang it with the crowd through a megaphone from the stage after announcing his 5 p.m. show had been canceled.

High strung

In the Blues Tent, former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens opened with Bob Dylan's "Spanish Mary" and Dolly Parton's "Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind." Set highlights included two emotionally wrenching songs Giddens wrote based on slave narratives. One 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 from such a young age: "You can take my body, you can take my bones / You can take my blood, but not my soul ... I was young, but not for long."

  Giddens focused on early blues and country songs, with a few tunes from the Chocolate Drops' 2009 album Genuine Negro Jig. Giddens took up a fiddle and was joined by accordionist Dirk Powell for a Creole song credited to Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin, an accordionist influential in Acadiana's Creole and Cajun music. While there was an impressive array of string players onstage, Giddens' soaring vocals brought the crowd to its feet for several ovations.

Latest Hurray

Returning to New Orleans for the first time since last fall, Alynda Lee Segarra's Hurray for the Riff Raff (with a string section including Yosi Perlstein and Helen Gillet) opened with "Levon's Dream" from the band's 2014 breakthrough Small Town Heroes followed by "Ode to John and Yoko" from 2012's Look Out Mama. Heroes' "End of the Line" transformed from the album's up-tempo folk to a heavier jam, finding a meatier groove in a slowed-down take. The band also performed a song from an upcoming album, showcasing Segarra's confident vocals that are able to belt out muscular lines and hit falsetto highs — the song glimpsed the next stage of Hurray for the Riff Raff's evolution from Segarra's intimate folk to its full-band, high-voltage country- and folk-inspired progressive rock 'n' roll.

  The band closed early with "The Body Electric," Segarra's powerful prayer against violence and oppression. Thunder and lightning boomed behind the stage, and strings reached a crescendo as the song crashed into its stinging chorus. Segarra, who repeatedly thanked the crowd for enduring the rain, closed with three words: "F—k Donald Trump."

Elvis impersonator

It wasn't clear why Elvis Costello & the Imposters started their set with fast and uninspired versions of "Watching the Detectives" (Costello added a siren noise from a bullhorn inscribed with his name — though the song says "don't get cute"), "Mystery Dance" and "Radio Radio." (The band later added a perfunctory version of "Everyday I Write the Book.")

  The 90-minute set had two highlights. Costello stopped to talk about the late Allen Toussaint, with whom he recorded the album The River in Reverse following Hurricane Katrina. Costello told the crowd that while recording, Toussaint never told him what he wanted. Instead, Costello would offer something for Toussaint's approval, and often the response was, "Well, what do you think of that?" Costello said. Costello then played "Ascension Day"— part of which was a tribute to Professor Longhair, but which Costello adapted to Toussaint.

  The album was recorded with the Crescent City Horns, a group featuring Big Sam Williams and other local horn players. The group joined Costello onstage for the last half hour, and the rest of the set was noticeably tighter and more focused, including on "The River in Reverse" and Costello's hit "Pump it Up," which closed the show.


Van Morrison arrived on the Gentilly Stage with a small band (organs, keyboards, drums, a background vocalist, bass and guitar, with Morrison also playing sax and harmonica) that seemed better suited to a twilight amphitheater or intimate jazz club than a sun-beaten crowd of thousands. But he was game to try, and to those paying attention, Morrison and his band delivered nuance, prayers and a weird-but-satisfying rendering of jazz and blues. The boomer crowd sang along to "Brown Eyed Girl" but seemed to tune out for the rest of his hourlong set, where he was at his best performing solos on his sax and wrapping his vocals around the band's intimate jazz grooves, eventually shaping into the low-key, seductive "Moondance," which appropriately dipped into "My Funny Valentine."


Arriving fashionably late to his set in a crisp, green polo and white hat, rapper Mystikal returned to Jazz Fest with a full band (dubbed "Hot Sausage"), bringing heavy horns and heavy metal to his wild raps. From the Congo Square stage, he resurrected his No Limit hits, from "Here I Go," "Make 'Em Say Ugh," "The Man Right Chea," "It Ain't My Fault" and "I Smell Smoke" to his mainstream successes "Move, Bitch" (sans Ludacris), "Bouncin' Back," "Danger" and "Shake Ya Ass." He self-edited his set for PG baby ears, including his own three babies happily dancing onstage or in his arms. He muscled James Brown contortions and dance moves to match his unpredictably voiced raps (he also gave a "Thriller" interlude) and his quick wit — whether the contents of his Instagram DMs or asking an offstage police officer if there was weed (New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison also was backstage). He repeatedly thanked the crowd for years of support despite his "ups and downs" and that "for every youngster who don't know who I am, ya mama know me."

Simon says

While Paul Simon has visibly aged, his abilities haven't. During a 90-minute set, he largely remained the musician most remember (though sound problems at the stage marred some songs). A subdued whistling verse in "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" aside, Simon strummed the well-known riffs, gracefully handled high-note choruses, as in "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and sustained multipart harmonies including an acapella opening to "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." His greatest-hits setlist included "Duncan," "The Boy in the Bubble," "You Can Call Me Al" and "The Boxer." Simon also snuck in two songs from Stranger to Stranger, his album due out June 2. "The Werewolf" had plenty of Simon DNA, with full choir moments juxtaposed against flourishes of Delta blues' harmonica and guitar. He also dug out his Louisiana-inspired "That Was Your Mother." Simon somehow proved to be both of a time and timely.

Irish bayou

The Lost Bayou Ramblers started a set on the Gentilly Stage during a downpour and finished under sunny skies. Early set guest Rickie Lee Jones came onstage to play a couple of songs from her 2015 album The Other Side of Desire, named for street in her Bywater neighborhood. "Valtz de Mon Pere" was inspired by Ramblers fiddler Louis Michot, who plays on the album.

  The Ramblers performed several stomping, up-tempo Cajun tunes, including "Hot Shoes" and "Don't Shake My Tree." before being joined by The Pogues' Spider Stacy, who launched into Pogues songs, including a couple of raucous ones about drinking: "Boys From the County Hell" and "Streams of Whiskey." Andre Michot's accordion drove the Pogues' "Greenland Whale Fisheries." One of the set's brightest moments was its finale, when Aurora Nealand come onstage to sing "Fairytale of New York" with Stacy, exchanging a litany of insults ("You're a bum, you're a punk ... you scumbag, you maggot...") from a couple's drunken spat at Christmas. But it came off like a cheerful duet.

All that jazz

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are modern jazz royalty, having played in Miles Davis' band before going on to their own headlining careers. Together, they entranced an eager jazz tent crowd with an hour and a half of avant-garde fusion jazz. The audience leaned in, jumped back and stared in awe — often all within the same piece of music. Hancock and Shorter constantly displayed virtuosity in subtle ways, with Shorter effortlessly reaching the higher echelon of his alto sax's range to used quick triplets on top of a nimble, contradictory run of 16th notes from Hancock's piano.

  On his signature Kronos synth, Hancock used soaring, space-y voicings and added percussive effects and a loop pedal to craft a bold, almost abrasive beat. It established a rhythm that eschewed any downbeats, allowing Shorter to make screeching runs along the alto's high register as Hancock soon followed suit on piano. The songs — or explorations — stretched 10, 12 and sometimes 20 minutes. Despite the large crowd, it felt like an intimate and relaxed brainstorming session between the two legends, complete with a moments of brilliance.

My morning kimono

Dressed in a coloreful kimono, My Morning Jacket's Jim James showed why he's among the best frontmen in the business. Leading the band to wailing crescendos, accented by guitarist Carl Broemel's sinister step-out leads, James impressed the crowd on Jacket staples such as "Believe." He welcomed frequent collaborator Ben Jaffe and other Preservation Hall players to crush two Prince covers: "Sign o' the Times" and a deep grooving "Purple Rain," which the purple shirt-clad drummer closed delicately on the high hats. The band delivered an epic set-closing "One Big Holiday," featuring James' soaring vocals and shredding Gibson Flying V guitar play.

Take a bow

In his Jazz Fest debut, violinist T-Ray got everyone moving at the Jazz and Heritage Stage. Dabbling in R&B, pop and classical sounds on electric violin meshes lots of influences, and T-Ray showcased them in cover tunes, including a Prince salute — a "Sometimes it Snows in April" rendition complete with a soaring '80s-style guitar solo. T-Ray also revealed his love of French fusion electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

True and natural woman

In the middle of her hell-raising, soul-searching set of high-powered R&B and electric soul at the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do stage, Kristin Diable thanked the weather gods for the good fortune of an overcast sky. The crowd quickly stopped her lest she jinx it. Rain drizzled as the band conjured dueling Crazy Horse guitars with grinding organ, and Diable breathed Southern soul into her elastic voice on tender highlights "True and Natural Man" and "True Devotion" from her 2015 album Create Your Own Mythology. The band closed with a tribute to Allen Toussaint with a loose and light "Yes We Can Can."

The Queen Diva and Prince

Armed with a purple-clad full band and ruffled white shirt and sparkling purple pants, queen of bounce Big Freedia led a massive crowd at the Congo Square Stage in a band-backed sing-along of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" and "Purple Rain," complete with tone-perfect guitar solos — while it rained. Freedia (also wearing a white jacket with several of Prince's love symbols on it) unleashed an arsenal of dancers, including two of her nieces, as she emceed "Azz Everywhere."

Pork and String Beans

At the Fais Do-Do Stage, the folkish funky Creole String Beans shared the stage with T.K. Hulin. The old-school South Louisiana blue-eyed swamp soul guitarist and singer launched into a rousing rendition of "Down Home Girl," a festive field holler about stomping through cotton fields and smelling of pork and beans — first recorded by Alvin Robinson in 1964 and since covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Old Crow Medicine Show. Brian Rini's slick organ groove lifted the cover to huge heights before the String Beans sailed into a jamming, up-tempo "Let the Money Drop" from the band's new album Golden Crown.

The King is dead

Blues maven Bonnie Raitt worked plenty of Afro-Caribbean rhythms into her funky set. As she did at this year's Grammy Awards, Raitt paid tribute to lost legend B.B. King to close the Gentilly Stage following her own set, lending her slide-guitar prowess and voice to "Never Make Your Move Too Soon." Also having performed at the Grammys' King tribute, Gary Clark Jr. joined in the parade of stars to sing and bang his tambourine on "Let the Good Times Roll." The set climaxed with Dr. John teaming up with blues/rock guitarist Elvin Bishop for "My Baby's Gone" followed by Buddy Guy joining in for a spirited rendition of "Sweet Little Angel."

Mountain man

Southern Mississippi/New Orleans troubadour Cary Hudson delighted a friendly crowd at the Lagniappe Stage with selections from his work with Blue Mountain — the seminal alt-country outfit he founded with New Orleans-area siblings Laurie and (Wilco bassist) John Stirratt. "Blue Canoe" and "Soul Sister" set up an uplifting good time full of back-woods hippie praise and prayer tones early in the set. His band, the Piney Woods Players, featured blistering electric guitar work by (Chris Stapleton doppelganger) Jackson Purvis of local Southern rockers South Jones. Hudson switched to harmonica as he gave former touring companion Willie Nelson a birthday shout-out (82!), introducing "Mississippi Country Girl" from his superb sixth solo release Town and Country, recorded last year in New Orleans.

Sunny skies and heavy blues

During sunny but balmy relief from Thursday thundershowers, Gary Clark Jr. told the Acura Stage crowd, "I've never sweated so much in my life. I feel sexy and gross at the same time." He worked up a sweat with a screeching, distorted solo on "When  My Train Pulls In." Clark sang in his high falsetto over mellower sounds on "Our Love," and the band ripped through his upbeat rocker "Give It Up Now" from Blak and Blu. Clark also impressed on the song "Grinder," played slide on "Catfish Blues," and the band turned many tunes into extended heavy blues-rock jams.

Houston, it's a "po-boy"

The Suffers' singer Kam Franklin reminded the Congo Square Stage often that the band is from Houston. With guitars, keyboards and a horn section, it bills its music as "Gulf Coast soul," though it mostly was a jazzy soul band on Thursday. At times, it's a little bit Latin, and at one point was "a little bit cumbia" on "Baila Esta Cumbia."

  In the middle of the sultry come-on "Make Some Room," Franklin sang "Do you want a sandwich?" The audience was quiet, and she stopped the band to say she was disappointed in New Orleans, which she expected would be more enthusiastic about eating — and whatever else the song offers. Several people screamed "po-boy" at her to no avail. She made the band and audience do that part again, and the crowd roared when she asked if anyone wanted a sandwich.

Demolition project

Honey Island Swamp Band celebrated the release of its major-label (Ruf Records) debut Demolition Day, produced in low-fi splendor by Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All-Stars) at Parlor Studio in the Irish Channel. Aaron Wilkinson's lyricism shined on the cut-throat optimism of "Head High Water Blues." Trevor Brooks' keys swirled on an outro highlighted by the pulsing horn trio of trombone, trumpet and the saxophone of ascendant local jazzman Brad Walker (who played with Sturgill Simpson on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

New Movement

Drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matthew Garrison offered jazz fans an outstanding set culled mostly from their debut album In Movement. DeJohnette has known Coltrane and Garrison since they were children (Ravi is the son of John and Alice Coltrane; Matthew's father was the bassist Jimmy Garrison), and he took the lead while leaving plenty of space for his colleagues to step out front. On "Atmosphere" Coltrane's horn and Garrison's rumbling bass added depth and color, and as it built to a climax, Garrison worked in a funk-laced riffs, shifting the texture of the piece. On "Blue in Green," the band's take on Miles Davis and John Coltrane's famous track from Kind of Blue, DeJohnette switched to piano, exercising a light touch on the keys that bolstered Coltrane's soft sound. He returned to long, complex soundscapes on drums for the trio's original composition, "Two Jimmys," written for Garrison's father and Jimi Hendrix.

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