With three days of memorable performances by artists as varied as Simon and Garfunkel, Drake, My Morning Jacket, the Allman Brothers, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 23-25) demonstrated just why the yearly Louisiana jam celebrates the breadth and depth of American music more exuberantly than any other fest in the land.
The musical fare ranged from rapper Drake to the vintage traditional jazz of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band -- with special guests including trumpeter Terence Blanchard on "St. James Infirmary," and Jim James crooning Rudy Vallee-style with a megaphone on "Louisiana Fairytale" -- to the artful roots rock of James' regular band My Morning Jacket, who triumphed with a sprawling version of the title track from 2008's "Evil Urges" album.
On Sunday afternoon, the Allman Brothers turned in a long, inspired set built on still-vital improvisational mettle, with Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks constituting one of rock's most creative two-guitar lineups, and Gregg Allman's blue-eyed soul singing still capable of producing chills. "Whipping Post," "One Way Out," "Statesboro Blues" and "Blind Willie McTell" were highlights.
Levon Helm, now experiencing a career renaissance, preceded the Allmans with a performance characterized by the ex-Band drummer's blend of country, rock and Americana. Backed by a five-man horn section, Helm sang "Got Me a Woman" and the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed," both from his recent CDs. Helm also had his share of special guests; Dr. John sat in on on "Such a Night," Allen Toussaint showed up for "Certain Girl" and keyboardist Ivan Neville and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore made appearances as well.
Saturday night's big set found Simon and Garfunkel armed with all their old favorites. After a brass-band blast, they opened with "A Hazy Shade of Winter" which lead into "I Am a Rock" and "America." The duo stimulated singalongs with "Mrs. Robinson," a cello-embellished "Scarborough Fair," "Homeward Bound" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Sadly, those once-golden harmonies sounded ragged, due to Garfunkel's throat issues. Simon, on his own, fared better, with buoyant versions of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "The Boy in the Bubble," both from 1987's "Graceland" album.
Spread out on nearly a dozen stages, Jazz Fest offered far more music than any one set of ears could hear. A sampling: On Sunday, one-woman dynamo Theresa Andersson used fiddle, guitar, dulcimer, tambourine, drums and pedal-triggered loops and samples to create brilliant multipart arrangements of "Birds Fly Away" and other originals. Saturday, Trumpeter Blanchard, with his own band, used slurs, smears, half-valves and gorgeous long tones to bolster his "Choices" and other engaging modern-jazz compositions. Guitarist Steve Masakowski, Todd Duke and Jake Eckert joined together for a bluesy, burning workout on Wes Mongomery's "4 On 6." Drummer Fred LeBlanc led his Cowboy Mouth on Fats Domino's "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" and other raucous roots-rock slams.
On Saturday, also making beautiful noise were the likes of funk-rockers Bonerama, with Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks"; Uncle Lionel and the Treme Brass Band, seen on HBO's "Treme," with "Cabaret"; up-from-the-street performer Grandpa Elliott with "I'll Fly Away." Friday's highlights also included veteran New Orleans blues man Little Freddie King, and the talented young players of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Ensemble. Rain hit the festival only once, on Friday afternoon, and guitarist Anders Osborne, with John Fohl and Johnny Sansone, toasted the heavy downfall with a rousing version of his "Louisiana Rain."
Jazz Fest continues this weekend (April 29 - May2) with another round of performances by stellar talent, including headliners Pearl Jam, Jeff Beck, Elvis Costello, Widespread Panic, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, and the traditional Sunday closing set by hometown heroes the Neville Brothers.