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Star power: Count Basin reviews Jazz Fest 2017 

Stevie Wonder, Usher, Tom Petty and other highlights from the Fair Grounds

click to enlarge Usher performed with The Roots at Jazz Fest.

Photo by Scott Saltzman

Usher performed with The Roots at Jazz Fest.

Wonder Year

Stevie Wonder started his 15-song service of gratitude and love with a brief sermon to reflect on the past year. "We have a lot to talk about, we have a lot to sing about, we have a lot to pray about. We have a lot to do," said the 66-year-old singer-songwriter. "A lot has changed since the last time I've seen you. I just beg of all of you: Don't let the love I've talked to you about be gone by those who would allow a lot of negativity in this nation ... And you can tell him, Mr. No. 45, tell him I said God gave him that position of being what he is for a purpose of uniting people, not dividing them."

Wonder then hammered into his harpejji, a small electronic unit mimicking percussive clavichord-like sounds, to lead into the big band funk on

Hotter Than July opener "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me," followed by the reggae-inspired "Master Blaster." The stage's rough sound mix evened out as Wonder steered the band through Characters' lively "Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down," climaxing with dueling guitar solos before Wonder sat behind the keys to dig into the squiggly rhythms of Innervisions' "Higher Ground" and the playful "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." The set also featured "Overjoyed," "Sir Duke," "I Wish" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" before Wonder invited PJ Morton and Corinne Bailey Rae to the stage to sing verses on his "Living for the City," among several songs Wonder asked for plenty of audience participation. Here, he started a chant of "racism is unacceptable."

Standing at what looked like a beat pad, Wonder proclaimed himself "DJ Chick Chick Boom" and mixed a medley of songs — including Parliament's "Flashlight," Prince's "Kiss," David Bowie's "Fame," and The Eagles' "Hotel California,"— and invited the crowd to sing along. They were hanging on his every move, but it felt like a distraction from a set that had reached an emotional climax.

Back at the keyboard, Wonder launched into "Superstition" with the band back on board and riding out its riffs. He made his goodbyes and walked offstage as the band continued to play.


The Doctor Is In

On the fest's first Sunday, Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, settled in at the Acura Stage with his star-studded band of local musicians. Rebennack, 76, recently rebuilt his ensemble after discharging former musical director, trombonist Sarah Morrow, and the overly clipped Nite Trippers outfit. With Herlin Riley on drums and Roland Guerin on bass, the grooves on classics including "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Such a Night" were loose and funky, giving Rebennack plenty of room to stretch out on piano and keyboards beneath his husky growls and incantations. Back-up singers Regina and Ann McCrary's soaring R&B vocals, which also appeared on Locked Down, provided a nice contrast. The new band also features saxophonist Charles Neville, guitarist Eric Struthers and Leon "Kid Chocolate" Brown on trumpet.


Accordionly

In the Blues Tent, Sir Reginald Dural hosted a tribute to his father, Buckwheat Zydeco, aka Stanley Dural, who died in September 2016. Dural now leads his father's band, Il Sont Partis, which features guitarist Lil Buck Sinegal, formerly a member of Clifton Chenier's band. Accordion-playing bandleaders Dural, C.J. Chenier, Nathan Williams and Corey Ledet led the group on Buckwheat Zydeco songs (Dural on "What You Gonna Do," Chenier on "Hard to Stop") and a few of their own tunes (Williams on "Josephine Ce Pas Ma Femme"). The tribute reached its pinnacle when all four accordionists joined in on a jubilant version of Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya."


Latin Tinge

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band's two most recent albums feature all original material, and April release So It Is was inspired by a trip to Cuba. At the Gentilly Stage, saxophonist Charlie Gabriel led the band through the album's songs. Trombonist Ronell Johnson couldn't stop dancing at the front of the stage as the band plunged into the album's Latin rhythms, particularly on the tracks "Santiago" and "La Malanga."


A Little Melodrama

Dark skies above the Fair Grounds seemed like a perfect setting for Lorde's alternately passionate and angst-fueled electropop, backed by a full string section. As trip-hop beats surged behind her, the black velvet-clad 20-year-old darted and bounced around the stage, her rich voice imbuing tracks such as "400 Lux" from her 2013 breakout album Pure Heroine with waves of emotion and darkness. She also performed her biggest hit, "Royals."

The singer shared some backstory to introduce "Liability," a lilting, confessional single from her new album Melodrama. "It's a trip to be able to sit here and sing a song I wrote about being a loser," she said, earning cheers from the teenage girl- and millennial-heavy crowd. The tune begins as an homage to frustrated isolation but Lorde's voice grows stronger as she goes. "They're gonna watch me disappear into the sun," she sang. "You're all gonna watch me disappear into the sun."


Roots Revival

The Roots — an endlessly versatile hip-hop outfit — distilled pure funk and a thrilling, raw performance from Usher, one of the best-selling R&B singers of all time, at the Congo Square Stage. The set showcased Usher's dynamic performance — a charming stage presence, dance moves, a great voice and endless energy, all brought out with the aid of the Roots' seemingly effortless versatility, gently transforming Usher's hits into classic funk and soul arrangements, helping contextualize Usher's place in pop.

Usher comfortably merged with the band, armed with horns, keyboards, percussion (including bandleader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and hyperactive beat machine Jeremy Ellis), and two guitars, mingling Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)" and Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" with ease into Usher's two decades of hits, from "You Make Me Wanna" to "U Got It Bad" to "Confessions Part II" and beyond. The set also was spiked with heightened drama, from "Captain" Kirk Douglas' cosmic waterfall of riffs in a wild guitar solo to the final encore of "Climax," which the band slowed down, stewed in the beat and stripped of studio gloss to reveal a gorgeous ballad.

The band's thoughtful renditions of Usher's songs helped illustrate just how good they are, despite their veneer of compressed, overly polished pop, and the arrangements underlined how well the songs stand on their own. "Love in This Club" became a heavy reggae jam. "Caught Up" was anxious James Brown funk. "OMG" exploded like a lost Sly and the Family Stone hit. "Yeah" was largely left alone, keeping the familiar drum pop intact while The Roots' MC Black Thought relished in the Ludacris verses.

Black Thought also acted as both a hype man and a thrilling MC in his own right. He lead the band with light-speed raps through The Roots' "Can You Dig It?" as band members hopped alongside him in choreographed harmony.


Checking the Meters

Propelled by the guest roles of Ivan Neville on keyboards and a stellar horn section including Khris Royal and Clarence Johnson III, The Meters enjoyed a freewheeling celebration at Gentilly Stage. The band grooved seamlessly through its classics, starting with "Hand Clapping Song." An improvised jam segued into "Hey Pocky Way" and bounced to the powerhouse psychedelic swirls of Leo Nocentelli's guitar. "You've Got to Change (You've Got to Reform)" kept up the power and lead to "Chug Chug Chug-A-Lug (Push and Shove) Part I," "Just Kissed My Baby" and an otherworldly marathon in "Ain't No Use" (sung by George Porter Jr. as he played the keys, while Royal played bass). The band concluded with its anthems "Fire on the Bayou" and "Cissy Strut."


Yankee Hordes

Chicago-based Wilco, featuring Northshore native, bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Stirratt, played many songs from its brilliant 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Guitar master Nels Cline, about 12 hours removed from a stellar showcase of all-improvised music with Medeski, Martin and Wood at the Civic Theater, strapped on his vintage Fender Jazzmaster guitar for the opening number, "Ashes of American Flags." Frontman Jeff Tweedy's vocals mixed angst and hope on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." "Random Name Generator" and a stellar version of "Impossible Germany" followed. Cline sat down at his National lap steel guitar to lead into the tender "Jesus, Etc." before going back to his electric guitar as the band put the pedal to the medal for a closing run of "Heavy Metal Drummer," "Hummingbird," "Late Greats" and, as an encore, "I Got You" and "Outtasite."


Damn the Torpedos

On a day marred by bad weather (gates opened at 3 p.m. on April 30), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers gave the audience a little extra, turning up the volume as they rocked past the normal festival closing time of 7 p.m. with "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream." After much cheering from the audience, they came back onstage to perform "American Girl."

Petty looked as groovy as ever, with a patterned head scarf and vest. Playing Jazz Fest on its 40th anniversary tour, the band kicked off with the first song on its first album, "Rocking Around with You," which Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell wrote in 1976. Back-up singers Charley and Hattie Webb (recruited after recent tours with the late Leonard Cohen) carried vocal harmonies to another level on "Mary Jane's Last Dance," and Campbell shredded the slow-blues burn of "Good Enough." Petty is known for his kiss-off love song theme, highlighted in the set by "You Got Lucky" and "Yer So Bad," though the overarching statement with this band's stellar showcase seemed to be one of a dreamer's life as mission accomplished. For four decades, the band has sustained all of rock stardom's success, excess and ego to stay in tact while releasing a chain of hits.


Viva

At the Fais Do-Do Stage, The Mavericks delivered a very danceable set. Singer/guitarist Raul Malo led off with Fats Domino's "Be My Guest" and followed with originals including "Back in Your Arms Again," "Dance in the Moonlight" and, from its new album Brand New Day, "Easy as it Seems" and "Damned (If You Do)." The band came out of Miami in the 1990s and broke through in Nashville, Tennessee though it has almost no country sound. An accordion, trumpet and sax lend some border grooves, but guitarist Eddie Perez and keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden build off more of a rock and rockabilly foundation, and on the newer tunes, Melo sounds more like a Las Vegas big band crooner.


Didn't He Ramble

Clarinetists Tim Laughlin and Evan Christopher were obvious choices to lead a tribute to Pete Fountain, who died in August 2016. At the Economy Hall Tent, they led the band on Fountain tunes, including "Clarinet Marmalade" (which the clarinetist often used to open shows at his jazz club) and the lesser-known "Blue Fountain." Trumpeter Wendell Brunious shared a story of when he was 14 years old and his father took him to Fountain's club. Fountain gave Brunious a new trumpet and invited him on stage to play "When the Saints Go Marching in." Laughlin, Christopher and Brunious all joined in on a rendition of "Muskrat Ramble" as the crowd pulled out umbrellas and started a second- line parade.

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