LL Cool J, Beck, Preservation Hall Jazz Band & More Prove Jazz Fest is 'Where It's At'

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.
LL Cool J performs onstage during Day 5 of the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 4, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The fifth day of the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival commenced at the Fair Grounds Race Course Friday (May 4) with sets from funky New Orleans up-and-comers Tank and the Bangas, the timeless Preservation Hall Jazz Band, country stalwarts Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, indie folk rocker Hiss Golden Messenger and headliners Beck, Sheryl Crow and LL Cool J and Z-Trip.

Here are some highlights from the packed day five of Jazz Fest 2018.

1:55 p.m.: After a triumphant Coachella debut amid unceasing tour dates, Tank and the Bangas couldn’t have been more stoked to be back home in New Orleans. "There is nothing like sleeping in your own bed," singer Tarriona "Tank" Ball tells the audience. "Now I know what it means to miss New Orleans." The band starts with “Crazy” followed by "Levitate" -- which is all they've done since they won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest last year -- and "Quick." On "Big Bad Wolf," Tank’s vocal takes shine like a less-deadpan/more-silly Noname, with eccentric squeaks on the level of Nicki Minaj. Their covers are big standouts too, with a slow-burn soulful take on Outkast’s "Roses" and Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" rounding out the set.

In a chat with Billboard earlier in the day, Tank pointed out she played Jazz Fest for the first time as a teenager growing up in New Orleans, with the Mahalia Jackson Gospel Choir in the Gospel Tent. Now her band’s gone from Congo Square Stage to the Gentilly Stage (one of two main stages) and now to Acura this year. It’s indicative of the band’s growing nationwide notoriety at home. "We just feel like we’ve been doing more shows, honestly," she said. "Now, NPR’s provided the platform where everybody gets to see what we’ve been doing in New Orleans for years."

2:50 p.m.: If there’s a de facto house band New Orleans’ music scene deploys to welcome visiting acts, it’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The touring group of the legendary French Quarter music venue has collaborated with the diverse likes of Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Ani DiFranco, Gaslamp Killer and more. It draws crowds of its own accord to the Gentilly Stage, too, with signature tunes like "That’s It!" and "Sugar Plum." The syncopated and Spanish-tinged "Santiago" and finale "La Malanga" off their latest LP So It Is is a nod to the band’s recent foray into Cuban music and culture.

Preservation Hall creative director and band bassist/tuba player Ben Jaffe sat down with Billboard before their set to discuss the band’s forthcoming documentary A Tuba to Cuba, which has been touring the film-festival circuit this year. "It’s not your typical concert film; it’s not Preservation Hall performing live at the Havana Jazz Festival," Jaffe said. "It’s a story about a band going through this musical experience that is life-affirming and life-changing. It starts in New Orleans and follows us to Cuba." Then there’s the Hall’s Midnight Preserves concert series for patrons, which offers a lively variety hour (for a steeper-than-usual price) during Jazz Fest. “There’s nothing like it, there’s nothing comparable to it,” Jaffe said of the Midnight Preserves, comparing it to the Apollo Theater or the Grand Ole Opry. "Sometimes we’ve had five different bands show up and everybody gets eight minutes."

3:25 p.m.: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit waste no time rocking it out with "24 Frames" as their opening salvo on the Acura Stage. "White Man’s World," a social justice country rocker, follows, as do three tracks from their 2017 album, The Nashville Sound -- "Cumberland Gap," "Tupelo" and "Molotov."

"The only thing that bonds this country together, from Louisiana to Wisconsin, is everybody loves the damn accordion," Isbell says, introducing "Codeine." One of Isbell’s bandmates struts the stage ramp out into the crowd and Isbell’s got a joke, there, too. "In Nashville, you see one of those, it’s usually Keith Urban on the other end of it. That wouldn’t work for me." A heartfelt "Something More Than Free" crescendos before its end and Isbell smells a vendor cooking. "You know, Morrissey from The Smiths has a rider -- every rider’s a little different -- that says he won’t perform if smells meat from the stage," he says. "My rider is the opposite." Isbell rounds out the set with Southeastern cuts "Flying Over Water" and "Cover Me Up," plus "Never Gonna Change," a southern rock anthem he wrote during his Drive By Truckers tenure. Isbell ends on a bit of a downer finale, "If We Were Vampires," dedicated to his wife, Amanda Shires, and their little girl, Mercy.

4:45 p.m.: The Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage hosts largely Cajun fiddle and zydeco music, peppy stuff from Louisiana’s bayous -- but the intimate platform always throws in a handful of acts to mix it up. Merge Records’ Hiss Golden Messenger is today’s mixer-upper, packing out the stage for its blissed-out folky rock. The crowd’s been eased nicely into the band’s groove by the time it plays "Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind" and "Mirror Loves A Hammer." 

"Are we doing okay for our first Jazz Fest?" singer MC Taylor asks. "Because it feels pretty good up here." "Tell Her I’m Just Dancing" follows, then the beating-swords-into-ploughshares spiritual of "When the Wall Comes Down." Hiss Golden Messenger winds things down with “I’m A Raven (Shake Children)”, “Southern Grammar” and the rambling “Domino (Time Will Tell)”.

Earlier in the day, bandleader MC Taylor sat down with Billboard to discuss Hiss Golden Messenger’s future releases with Merge and what living in the label's home of Durham, N.C. has done for him creatively. "Merge has been incredible to me," Taylor said. "It’s serendipitous that I live in the same small Southern town that my record label is based. That has created a special relationship, because I can stop by there even when I don’t need something. It’s just a welcoming place." Merge is re-releasing Taylor’s lo-fi, early discography in a box set this fall. "There’s one in there that sounds like shit and it will never sound hi-fi," he laughed. "But we’re remastering and repacking three albums and there’s a fourth album in there with unreleased material." Taylor also mentioned he’s working on yet another full-length this year, for release next year: "We’ve kinda dispensed with, like, the album/tour cycle thing. We’re always on and off the road, forever."

5:35 p.m.: Beck comes to the stage about 10 minutes late but he didn’t come to play, starting into "Devil’s Haircut" with no delay, followed by the funky bassline of "Black Tambourine" and "Up All Night." Later in the set, Beck describes "Go It Alone" as a song that "reminds me of the feeling of the streets" in New Orleans. His frequent live pairing of "Debra" with Prince’s "Raspberry Beret" is just the beginning of his planned covers: Citing Walmart "Yodel Boy" Mason Ramsey as an inspiration, Beck goes into Hank Williams’ "Lovesick Blues," "a song I spent so long playing -- every once in a while, you gotta dig back to the roots." 

It prompts Beck to fling right back to his present, with "Blue Moon" off the Grammy-winning Morning Phase and "Dreams" off his latest, Colors. Then comes "Girl," from Beck’s electropop Guero era. He rounds out the show with the '90s classic "Where It’s At," which he stops abruptly: "We’re getting too carried away with ourselves," he says, dryly. "I have to be the voice of reason right now." He introduces his band members one by one, crediting them for a job well done before diving back into the show.

 

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6 p.m.: LL Cool J opens a full-on hip-hop throwback set with "Mama Said Knock You Out," which DJ Z-Trip drops with stings of LL’s vocals. "Jack the Ripper" and "I'm Bad" follow, as does the seductive ’90s hit "Doin’ It." Then comes "I Can't Live Without My Radio," an ode to the boombox. If the MC sounds like he’s rushing through these songs, it’s because he kinda is: he dispenses with "Around the Way Girl" and goes into a medley of Golden Age rap landmarks. EPMD's "Rampage," Public Enemy's "Louder Than a Bomb" and "La Di Da Di" by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick blast over Z-Trip’s James Brown breaks. LL takes a moment to plug his SiriusXM channel, Rock the Bells which, he insists, is "not just New York rap, we f--- with the South too. We love everybody!"

DJ Z-Trip sat down with Billboard earlier to discuss he and LL’s new song, his and hip-hop’s legacies and the programming on Rock the Bells. "There’s a whole generation of people who maybe didn’t grow up on his music, they grew up on his acting or his celebrity," Z-Trip told Billboard. "So it’s kinda interesting sometimes when I tweet out, 'Hey, me and LL are gonna do this show!' and someone’s like 'Wait, LL raps?' It happens from time to time." (LL said almost the same exact thing to a preteen fan during his set Friday: "You seen me on shows but you probably didn't know I could rap!")

"It’s fun to go back to that and lock into what I grew up with, listening to his music and that’s how I know him first," Z-Trip continued. "To collaborate with him on the Sirius/XM station is great." Z-Trip emphasized that he works largely "on the backside" for Rock the Bells while LL curates the music. One of the songs spinning constantly? "Brass Knuckles," a SiriusXM exclusive from which LL posted a clip via Twitter last month. It’s the only original song LL and Z-Trip have released together.