New Orleans Jazz Fest 2016 Day 1 Becomes Prince Tribute, Thanks to Janelle Monae, Sharon Jones & More
"I called him my little brother," Jones says of the late icon.
The 2016 edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course kicked off Friday (April 22) with tributes to the late music legend Prince by local acts The Deslondes and Kermit Ruffins plus guitarist Warren Haynes' Gov't Mule, an emotional tribute from Prince collaborators Janelle Monae and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and many others. Here are the highlights from day one of Jazz Fest 2016 (all times local).
12:25 p.m.: New Orleans roots revival band The Deslondes are one of the first acts to play the fest's first day at the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage, a mix of younger acts like them and Louisiana's native Cajun fiddle music. The band pays tribute to the late Prince with a cover of the gospel blues standard "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?" (previously covered by the diverse likes of Mavis Staples, Vince Gill and Mogwai).
2:35 p.m.: New Orleans' Louis Armstrong for the 21st century Kermit Ruffins takes his yearly bow at the Congo Square Stage. He, too, pays tribute to The Purple One with a disarming cover of "Purple Rain," which Ruffins himself admits "I don't really know the lyrics," but it's the instruments (a killer keyboard solo there, his trusty trumpet everywhere) that really did the talking.
3:45 p.m.: Sharon Jones is talking to Billboard about her health (hanging in there, still healthy enough to tour as hard as she does, but might need to let up soon). "I think people should be more afraid when I stop talking about it," Jones quipped. "Because then it's bad… But right now I just feel good." Then she commiserated about Prince, recalling the band opening for him at one of Prince's Madison Square Garden shows in 2011.
At the MSG show, Jones recalled Prince in a rare off-guard moment, wearing Ugg boots sitting in the front row of the audience, critiquing the band's performance, room's sound and stage's presentation. "He jumped up, ran down the stairs in his little white fluffy shoes," Jones recalled. "He just grabbed me and gave me the biggest hug and said, 'I'm so glad you're here.'
"It hurts. I'm two years older than him. At that age, I was wondering if I was gonna see my 60th birthday," which is on May 4, Jones said. "I called him my little brother. Not only did we do the show in Madison Square Garden, we did the show in Paris and in Belgium that same year. That's how much he loved working with us." Jones also noted that Prince and his team paid her and the Dap-Kings $5,000 more than what they'd agreed upon that night.
In their performance later that evening in the Blues Tent, Jones and the Dap-Kings sent out a special tribute to Prince with "When I Come Home," the song he sang with them in Paris. Jones recalled him saying, "That's one of the funkiest songs I've ever heard!"
5:25 p.m.: Gov't Mule's 90-minute headlining set at Gentilly Stage is too short by half for a band known to play clubs or theaters for three hours, minimum. Their nod to Prince came with a midtempo rock 'n' roll cover of "When Doves Cry," which the band had already had in its repertoire. Joined with the band's similarly slinky love song "Beautifully Broken," the two shared a snaking bassline amid the band's skillful set.
"Sometimes that's the sign of a great song," singer/guitarist Warren Haynes said in a later interview. "You interpret it different ways and it still works."
5:25 p.m. Another Prince collaborator, Janelle Monae, took the stage in not just a tribute, but a tent revival of a set. Monae came right out of the gate with her Prince-featuring song from Electric Lady, "Givin' Em What They Love." "He was free," she said. "He was fearless. He was music. He was rock 'n' roll."
She parlayed into the sharp "Dance Apocalyptic" and introduced "Q.U.E.E.N." with an anecdote about Prince going to bat for her to perform at his lifetime achievement award tribute concert at the 2010 BET Awards. "He gave this song the exposure he knew it deserves," Monae said.
"I remember the first time I talked to Prince," she said. She was opening for Raphael Saadiq in Oakland and, at the moment, her tour with Saadiq wasn't going well. She had developed a sinus infection. When one of Prince's assistants gave the call to her, she didn't think it was real. "Hello, Janelle? I like your jazz voice," he told her. "You know about me?" she replied. "You know about people??"
He invited her and her band to his Los Angeles home, where they jammed for seven hours, according to Monae. And there, in the Jazz Fest sunset, she sang her rarely performed jazzy deep cut "Smile." "So," she concluded, "here's my jazz voice, Prince."
And, as if that weren't enough, next came "Cold War," recalling Prince's political streak, with Monae calling on her fans to stand up for causes of equality (equal pay for women, LGBT rights, etc.) they believe in. "Tightrope", the song that introduced her to the world, preceded her faithful Prince cover, "Take Me With U" off Purple Rain.