Thursday (May 3) is known as locals day for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Jazz Fest leaned into that with a price break for Louisiana residents this year, with tickets priced at $50. It’s cheaper than most of the tickets available for Lionel Richie’s upcoming Vegas residency. The R&B legend and American Idol judge headlined Jazz Fest on locals day with bluegrass (Old Crow Medicine Show), Cuban grooves (Telmary y Habana Sana), funky New Orleans blues (Walter “Wolfman” Washington) and more in the mix as well. Here are the highlights from day four of Jazz Fest 2018.
12:45 p.m.: Seguenon Kone featuring Ivoire Spectacle— a percussion ensemble of West African rhythms, namely of the Ivory Coast— starts up a short set at the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, an annual feature of Jazz Fest that features cultural exchange and exhibits. This year’s pavilion celebrates the tricentennial of the founding of New Orleans. The pairing works. The group’s rhythms evoke the foundations that shape New Orleans music today: call and response, polyrhythms, bell patterns and more.
2:15 p.m.: Before Telmary and Habana Sana start up on Acura Stage, Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis— this stage’s de facto master of ceremonies— offers a quick note: certain acts part of last year’s Cuban Cultural Exchange Pavillion were rained out. Davis swore to book rapper/singer Telmary and her band again and he did, to a midday spot on one of the fest’s main stages. It took only a few songs to see why. “A Diario” (“Daily”) and “El Poder de los Ancestros” (“Power of the Ancestors”) fuse bits of both traditional Cuban music (salsa, merengue) and American (rap, R&B, neo-soul, funk) in a way that recalls Lauryn Hill.
Telmary dedicates “Music” to her band in Havana, most of whom couldn’t make it to Jazz Fest due to various visa/immigration issues. It’s “because of everything you already know about relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” she says. It’s a grievance that’s politically timely (Pres. Donald Trump’s immigration and border policies don’t exclude musicians, for the first time in almost 60 years, Cuba’s head of state is not a Castro) and long-standing given the U.S.’s sweeping Cuban embargo since 1962. But music unites, she says in the song’s lyrics, dedicating “Music” to Cubans around the world as well.
Later in the day, Telmary sat down with Billboard to talk about how culture is bigger than politics. How politicians come and go, but culture stays. “Culture is the truth about a country,” she says. “I don’t believe in politicians. Because, as you can see, even we thought we’d never see Cuba without a Castro, now Castro is not around. What’s important, what’s always around, is our culture.” Telmary— who has lived in Toronto and tours much of the world— sees her role as something of a go between between Cuba and the outside world and among its diaspora. “My calling is not just to bring Cuban music outside, I also like to bring the outside feeling back to Cuba. So Cubans can appreciate what we Cubans have there, the freedom to be a full-time musician.”
4 p.m.: Old Crow Medicine Show has drawn a sizable crowd at Gentilly Stage for an otherwise sparsely attended Jazz Fest day, rolling through their set with “Take ‘Em Away”, “Shout Mountain Music” and “Dixie Avenue”. “Flicker and Shine”, the lead-off track from the band’s new LP Volunteer, released last month. Later comes the infectious “CC Rider” and the New Orleans crowd-pleasing “Back to New Orleans” (the band mentions its role in the concert documentary Big Easy Express). There’s also “I Hear Them All” with a little Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”) thrown in the mix for a vamp. The song’s video portrayed the lives of recovering New Orleanians (versions were also recorded as a charity single to “put some instruments back in some schools,” one band member said). Later comes the band’s platinum single “Wagon Wheel” (with a chorus written by Bob Dylan) with a finale of “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” and a quick encore of “Spirit in the Sky”
Old Crow has long been an charitable band, beyond its busking origins and recent rise to major-label notoriety when the septet signed to Columbia Records last year, specifically trying to bring back the old John Hammond days. But they’re keeping it real. They played a senior center last month, to promote Volunteer, right in line with its new home in Nashville, Tenn. the Volunteer State. And, sure, they were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2013. But they’re not exactly genuflecting at that altar. Again, they’re keeping it real.
“There’s definitely an altruism to the band,” fiddle/harmonica player and vocalist Ketch Secor says. “As the achievements come — the GRAMMY award, the Grand Ole Opry and Columbia Records — it’s still important to be engaged in the kind of work that brought us here in the first place.” Secor smiled slightly to himself and joked, “Like, the Opry is sort of a nursing home.” And Jazz Fest is the “ultimate busker stage,” he said. “It’s Jackson Square, to me. And our tip jar is brimming. We’re killing it on this tour.”
5 p.m.: Walter “Wolfman” Washington is playing what is technically blues guitar at the Blues Tent. But his fret work is more nuanced and subtly shaded than just about anything in the tent’s heard in some time. Washington’s joining up in a stellar quartet: Ivan Neville on keys, James Singleton on bass and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore on drums. It’s a supple and slightly funky blues affair, only two songs long (“She’s Everything to Me”, “Steal Away”). It’s a sampling of Washington’s newest on Anti- Records, My Future Is My Past, a new take on the veteran New Orleans guitarist’s sound.
Earlier, Washington sat down with Billboard and talked about what he brought to his first Anti- Records release. “It was a treat for me to do this,” he says, recording in duos and trios, stripping down an otherwise full-band R&B blues sound. “And it turned out really well. After a while, I got used to it.”
5:30 p.m.: You gotta hand it to Lionel Richie, he’s a pro. He comes out strong with the Commodores signature “Easy” and solo jams “Running With the Night” and “Penny Lover” with technical difficulties throughout. Richie handles them with aplomb, riffing on the remarkably warm sunny weather (“This cannot be New Orleans Jazz Fest! It cannot be. Every time I play the Jazz Fest, it rains! What is going on?!”), American Idol (“I would never in my life go through what they go through,” he says. “They come on stage with nothing and give us everything”) and awkward moments that just happened to him (“Some big guy walks up to me backstage puts his hands on my shoulders and says, ‘I’ve made love to you many times’”. Richie’s response? “That’s a lie! I would know!” with a Richard Pryor-esque delivery).
He’s genuinely funny. But he knows people came there for the hits, so he carries on with the tunes: “You Are,” “Stuck On You” and “Dancing On the Ceiling” among them. There’s “Three Times a Lady” and the Commodores hit “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” there’s “Hello” followed by “Say You, Say Me.” He’s not kidding around. Especially when he reflects on his contemporaries (“competitors,” he says, in American Idol terms, at least) naming off music legends who have died over the last few years. He goes into “We Are the World” as a tribute to Michael Jackson. Of all songs to pull from his catalog, Richie picks an odd time capsule-type choice for 2018 but, heck, the songwriting holds up. His closer, “All Night Long (All Night)” is the singalong to end all singalongs. “You think you came to hear me sing,” Richie says earlier in the set during technical difficulties — prompting everyone to turn to their left and right and shake hands with people around them like a church service — “but that’s who you’re going to hear.”