Strong Debuts From Leslie Odom Jr., GIVERS and More Kick Off Jazz Fest 2018

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage.
Leslie Odom Jr. performs during the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on April 27, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The 2018 edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrates the Crescent City’s musical DNA on its tricentennial. From where it all started with West African blues (Sidi Touré) to heartland country (Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real) and gilt Broadway standards (Leslie Odom Jr.) to the young frisky indie bands of southern Louisiana today (GIVERS), It’s all part of a tapestry of tradition at Jazz Fest.

Here are the highlights from day one (April 27) of Jazz Fest 2018.

12:50 p.m.: There’s something especially energizing and promising about a band -- especially one as young as GIVERS -- kicking off a tour on the huge Acura Stage. This goes doubly true for the New Orleans band, debuting a new live lineup in front of a hometown crowd. Friday marked the release of "Collide," the band’s new single and video, a prelude to a forthcoming EP release this summer. They kick off their set with "Ceiling of Plankton," with lead vocals switching between Taylor Guarisco and Tif Lamson throughout. The band polishes off the set with its infectious breakout hit "Up Up Up."

1:40 p.m.: Malian singer, songwriter and guitarist Sidi Touré plays a bit of an abridged set at the Blues Tent, a packed crowd bopping in time to sparkling finger-picked guitar, funky bass lines and the mandolin/lute-like sound of a n’goni pitched high above the low grooves of Touré’s West African blues. This set is an electric affair for Touré, who normally plays acoustically and with more-traditional West African instruments like the forefather of the banjo, the kora.

2:45 p.m.: Taylor Guarisco and Tif Lamson of GIVERS sit down for an interview with Billboard, in which Guarisco admits the band’s complicity in what he calls "the indie floor tom epidemic," tongue firmly in cheek about percussion in young bands influenced by the likes of Arcade Fire.

"There’s a cure for it. And I think the first step in curing it, is just recognizing it, you know?" he says. "There’s life after floor toms." GIVERS' forthcoming music was recorded partly at the legendary RCA Studios in Nashville with the sought-after producer Dave Cobb, and Guarisco noted he recognizes when bands have musical gimmicks versus organic musical elements, and that musicians are the most "Intentional and inspired" when they're clearly dialed in to the performance and as present as possible.

3:45 p.m.: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real start to get their set into high gear with "Something Real," a rocker recalling Lynyrd Skynyrd’s swagger. Nelson pulls the throttle back a bit to a ballad, a breakup song about a girl named Georgia that doubled as a response of sorts to "Georgia On My Mind," a song Nelson sang nightly with his father and country legend Willie. Nelson evokes his father lyrically and in his vocal take, with his dad’s vibrato and phrasing. He continues with a cover of Paul Simon’s "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," which the band countries up with a tight-harmony a cappella intro, kicking into the song’s South African grooves. "Find Yourself" -- a song Lukas recorded with Lady Gaga in studio -- follows. A rollicking audience clap-driven "Start to Go" rounds out the set.

4:45 p.m.: In an interview with Sidi Touré, he says he plays the States so infrequently, he talks to the crowd in French. It’s his first time ever playing electric blues in the U.S. and his first U.S. tour of any kind since 2013, the year of his last proper studio full length, Alafia. Translated through his tour manager, Touré tells Billboard he has a new acoustic album basically ready to release but "like a chef with a dish," he wants to make sure every element is properly seasoned.

“Every time I finish a new album, I’m thinking about the next one," he said. "I always want the reservoir to be full." Touré says "musicians need to create, need to draw on what’s out there." It’s something that applies to his creativity but also to the creativity of Western artists coming into contact with and influence by African music. He considers it a "compliment" that people would borrow elements of his culture’s music. But the Songhai of West Africa, "we are the owners," he said. He added that, in touring the world, he sees a dark time for world politics, with the rise of strongmen and still-brewing refugee crises. "It’s troubling times," he said. "But God’s name is love. The strongmen that try to exploit people, they think that they’ve become God.”

6:45 p.m.: Cults of personality and celebrity aren’t really Jazz Fest’s thing. The energy springs up from traditions, rituals of cultures and genres, and worship follows those ideas more so than any living performer -- until Leslie Odom Jr.'s arrival. An army of rabid Hamilton stans came to see him play and flooded the Jazz Tent with screaming singalongs. His set was career-spanning and eclectic, slipping in re-arranged Hamilton cuts (a Latin-tinged "Dear Theodosia," a showstopping "The Room Where It Happens," a jazzy "Wait For It") amid standards from his self-titled record (“Autumn Leaves”) and other Broadway hits from productions he was in (“Without You” from Rent), and by the end, his biggest diehards were waiting for him side stage. It was a Jazz Fest version of Broadway’s informal stage door ritual for celebrity meets, greets and selfies. Odom Jr. couldn’t walk a foot out of his green room trailer back toward the eager fans without several long hellos and a picture. He was remarkably gracious, glad-handing everyone that stayed to talk to him before sitting down with Billboard for a quick chat.

"Nothing about this was routine," Odom Jr. said of the overwhelming crowd. It was his first time performing in New Orleans. "This is the most special thing we’ve ever done. There’s real music lovers in New Orleans, particularly at this festival." 

Odom’s suitability to the Jazz Tent, where he was booked alongside smooth-crooning vocal jazz acts like himself, made sense given his fairly conventional career path post-Hamilton, the highlights of which include an insurance commercial, a standards and a Christmas record and a motivational book about failure, among other ventures. "I just keep trying to do the next right thing," Odom said. "There’s so many doors that are open to [the original cast of Hamilton] with the success of the show, and I just keep trying to walk through the next right door, the next cool project, what feels good. And I’ll look back on it later." 

Odom also mentioned a few motion picture roles in the works he couldn’t talk about. He starred in last year’s prestige remake of Murder on the Orient Express as Dr. Arbuthnot.