Jazz Fest Day 6 Highlights: Stevie Wonder Gives Message to Trump, Brings Out Corinne Bailey Rae & More
“When are you going to Stevie?” was the question that defined day six of the New Orleans Jazz Fest (May 6) -- because there is only one Stevie Wonder, and we all like to think we’re on a first name basis with him.
The crowd was massive but mellow thanks to the endless beer wagons and picture-perfect weather, plus a glut of great music at every turn. “Thank you for coming out as we try to represent something good in this world,” said Panorama Jazz Band frontman Ben Schenck, reiterating a common theme of the festival’s performances -- that it was not just a sunny day of music, but needed catharsis.
Here’s just some of what we heard at Jazz Fest, from Stevie to Irma Thomas to all the brass bands.
11:11 a.m.: “Welcome to Jazz Fest -- I'm happy to say I've done all but two of them, says J. Monque'D, who kicked things off at the Blues Tent Saturday morning. His band, playing classic blues, was accompanied by a trio of girls from 7 to 9 years old doing background vocals (they called themselves the Cream of the Crop), as well as a little boy who couldn't have been more than six playing guitar. The audience watched as New Orleans’ beloved culture got passed down yet another generation.
11:58 a.m.: Pictures of late harmonica legend Buckwheat Zydeco were hoisted in the air as local pleasure clubs, as well as the Smitty Dee’s Brass Band, paid tribute with a Jazz Fest jazz funeral -- the most traditional of second lines. Even with none of the usual eulogies or black or somberness, when the band closed with “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” it was hard not to get a little teary-eyed. At the end of the procession, a mural of Buckwheat was unveiled alongside those of many other lost New Orleans legends in a part of the festival called “Ancestors.”
12:36 p.m.: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band played their seminal “Livery Stable Blues,” the century-old recording often lauded as jazz’s first. Apparently historical fidelity is very important to the group, as even 100 years later (and obviously with none of its original members) the band is still composed entirely of white men.
2:27 p.m.: Chances are even when Big Sean wrote “Dance (Ass)” he couldn't have envisioned the caliber and variety of booty available at Big Freedia’s afternoon set -- the quick camera work amplified the abundance, which was bouncing as easily as the name of her genre (bounce music) would imply. There was no way not to move to the thundering bass, especially when Beyonce’s “Formation” (which features Freedia herself) came over the speakers. A group of frat boys seemed present only to take video of all the moving flesh, but it was still Freedia’s posterior that got the most cheers.
3:41 p.m.: it was 1967 all over again when Irma Thomas took the stage, her voice burnished and rich with age but just as effortless as ever on classics like "It's Raining” and “Wish Someone Would Care.” Things got festive when she sang local favorite “Iko Iko”: “We celebrate for anything and everything in New Orleans,” said Thomas. “Separation, divorce, when your pregnancy test comes back negative ... that's when we do the second line dance.”
5:09 p.m.: “We have a lot to do,” said Stevie Wonder as he stepped on stage in front of at least 20,000 people. “How many of you in here are about unity?” Before playing any music, he gave what could only be described as a speech about the state of the nation. “I'm not gonna go talking about people, but a lot has changed since the last time I saw you,” he began. “You can tell him, Mr. Number 45, that God gave him that position for the purpose of uniting people, not dividing them. Negativity and divisiveness is not the solution. Don't let the love that I've given you be gone because of him -- to those who don't agree with me, two peas in a bucket!” After wild applause, he began playing (naturally) “Higher Ground.”
6:15 p.m.: In the middle of his two hour set, Wonder returned to politics, with some ad-libbed riffing about people’s rights: “Whether you're black, white, brown, or Native American,” he sang, “Don't fall for the bullshit because God created us all equally.” Then he started singing Songs in the Key of Life classic “Love’s In Need of Love Today” -- but stopped halfway through, because it was “getting too deep.” Instead, he started the always jubilant “Sir Duke,” for which Corinne Bailey Rae joined him on stage, before proceeding through more of his biggest hits (which definitely do not fit, in their entirety, into a two hour set). Though his political statements were met with great applause, it was the music itself that had everyone’s voices together as one. For a couple hours, Stevie had the unity he sought.