Neil Young, Trombone Shorty And Mavis Staples Shine During Soggy Jazz Fest Sets

Trombone Shorty, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2016
Josh Brasted/WireImage

Trombone Shorty performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 1, 2016 in New Orleans.

Persistent but mostly moderate rain bogged down much of day seven at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday, with music on outdoor stages starting as scheduled at first in the late morning, then dealing with scattered delays into the early and late afternoon.

Sets from local acts like Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk along with New Orleans luminaries paying tribute to the late R&B legend Allen Toussaint were some the stronger sets earlier in the day, while Mavis Staples put on a poignant and musically tight set in the Blues Tent. Neil Young and Promise of the Real were the 500 pound gorilla of the afternoon, scheduled for two hours-- a de facto headliner, though not scheduled last-- though they played over time.

And Trombone Shorty -- Jazz Fest’s annual closing act-- ended the evening with his most diehard of fans, sticking it out in the unending rain and mud on the grounds. Here are a few highlights from the final day of Jazz Fest 2016 (all times local).

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2:05 p.m. Due to weather delays, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk started 40 minutes late but played a ferociously funky shortened set on Acura Stage. The Nevilles cast a long shadow at Jazz Fest, of course, as an extended family of talented musicians who have played the fest for at least two generations. They’re including an even younger generation now in the form of Brandon Niederhauer, one of the stars of the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical School of Rock. For them, the funk is a family affair.

2:30 p.m. In one of the strongest tributes to anyone at Jazz Fest this year, Allen Toussaint’s music was sung by an all-star cast of locals and out of towners at Gentilly Stage, from Aaron Neville ("Hercules") to Jon Batiste ("Working in the Coal Mine") to Bonnie Raitt ("What Is Success?"). Toussaint’s trio of background singers stepped up for "Happiness" and "Lady Marmalade," one of Toussaint’s best known songs. Dr. John lurched out on stage for his take on Toussaint’s "Life," originally written for classic-rock trio Blood Sweat and Tears.

3:15 p.m. Neil Young doesn’t get enough credit for how strange his music in studio and on stage can be. Before his band stepped foot on the Acura Stage, Young’s performance space was literally seeded by people in farmer's dress. Not shocking from a band -- Young and the Promise of the Real, led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas -- whose latest record is titled The Monsanto Years. There's also a wooden cigar store Indian that Young talks to, playing to camera for some David Letterman-type awkward laughs. The theatrics go on fairly long, but the music is arguably stranger. It twists and turns into seething guitar sounds packed with psychedelia and distortion. After ten minutes of jamming out, Young started with kind of a deep cut, Crazy Horse rocker, "F--kin’ Up" from the 1990 record Ragged Glory.

Later, Young drifted and vamped on "Monsanto Years" repeating "gifts from God" over spacey guitar, with signs of life in live favorites like "Love and Only Love." Near the end of his time, Young appeared to check with a band member to make sure one of the amps hadn’t blown out. It was fine. Then, Nelson and the band put the set into overdrive for "Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World," with the guitars blasting off like rockets.

The rock legend was in a recent tiff with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump over Trump’s use of the song at his rallies. "The world’s so funny, you don’t know who to believe," Young said apropos of seemingly nothing, but with a small smirk on his face. Finally, "Powderfinger" finished the set off as Young ended up about 15 minutes over his time.

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3:35 p.m. Mavis Staples started her set with "Take Us Back," completely packing out the Blues Tent with adoring fans. "We’re so happy to be here with you today!" Staples said, as full of life and soul as ever. "We’ve come to bring you some joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibration! I don’t know how long," she added to knowing laughs, given the afternoon-long rain delays, "but we’ll make you feel good while we’re here."

So she lead the band in Funkadelic classic "Can You Get to That?," a timeless funky groove that she’s made her own as of late, recalling the Staples Singers’ days recording with Stax Records. "Downward Road" and "Respect Yourself," an Aaron Neville song featuring Staples, followed. Jon Batiste showed up for a quick hello before "Love and Trust." Staples evoked her father’s noblest civil rights marching songs with "Freedom Highway," which she said was written on the road from Selma to Montgomery.

"I was there!" she said, fiery and passionate, working herself up to tent-revival levels of energy. "And I’m still here! I’m a soldier. I’m a living witness! Fighting for hope, fighting for love, for peace!" She closed with another classic songs she’s made her own, The Band’s "The Weight," giving each member of her band a verse to sing.

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6 p.m. In an exclusive backstage interview with Billboard, Trombone Shorty talks about his Friday visit to the White House for an all-star concert (watch it in its entirety here). "It’s probably about my fifth time [playing there] now," Shorty, aka Troy Andrews, said modestly. The president isn’t the only big shot politician he rubs elbows with, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu comes says hello and to wish him a good performance.

Andrews is one of the best-known young performers from New Orleans, having toured worldwide since he was 18 as a sideman for Lenny Kravitz. Since then, Andrews has come to embody a much-needing refreshing force thrown into unchanging brass-band and jazz traditions. He’s talking about how young musicians steeped in New Orleans tradition -- and some post-Katrina transplants -- are navigating their way between rigid rules and changing times.

"Everybody that moves here as a musician, [there’s] naturally an unspoken thing is that they have to learn to play the tradition, whether that means The Meters or Preservation Hall," Shorty told Billboard. "So they can understand the language. Being from other places, they still keep their musical perspective and then you hear this new sound that’s coming from somewhere else. I think it’s great, as long as we can move the music forward, have things that’s gonna shift it, bring it to a whole other level, that’s always a beautiful thing to me."

Shorty only had an hour to show how he moves the New Orleans tradition forward, mostly sticking to a posted setlist in his artist trailer behind the Acura Stage. When he took the stage, his band wore royal purple in tribute to Prince, who Shorty worked with in the past.

"I had the chance to work with him in the last five years [of his life] on some things," he said, referring to "People Pleaser," a song from NPG Records artist Andy Allo and a guest spot at Prince’s headlining ESSENCE Fest set in 2014. "I’ve got the purple shirt that I wore two years ago. It was the shirt that I was in [when I played] with him, so I’m wearing it tonight."

Shorty tore through songs like "Do to Me," his usual opener, until his finale "Hurricane Season," appropriate given Jazz Fest’s largely wet-and-muddy second weekend. For his most devoted fans, Shorty rolled out the vintage "When the Saints Go Marching In" for a refreshing end note to Jazz Fest 2016.

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