The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival dropped the curtain on its 49th annual edition on Sunday (May 6) after a packed and triumphant final day.
Early sets included local favorites (funk band extraordinaire Galactic, the velvet-voiced John Boutté) with a midday battle of Detroit all-stars (Motown legend Smokey Robinson; garage-rock guitar whiz Jack White) and packed sets for headliners Steve Miller Band and New Orleans’ latest superstar and annual Jazz Fest closer Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.
Here are a few highlights from the final day of Jazz Fest 2018.
1:50 p.m.: When Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis introduces your band at the Acura Stage as “a very special combination of New Orleans musicians that have been killing the world,” it’s quite an endorsement. But that’s worthy of a band like Galactic, who have been a de facto house band for the Crescent City since the ’90s. The band launches their set with an Erica Falls-featuring version of “Higher and Higher,” plus several squeaky funky instrumental passages that get the early crowd going.
2:45 p.m.: John Boutté has one of the smoothest and most-recognized voice in New Orleans. Ask anyone who has binge-watched the HBO series Treme and they’ll recite Boutté’s “Treme Song,” the show’s opening title music, by heart. At the WWOZ Jazz Tent, he starts in on “Basin Street Blues” and a stirring cover of the Civil Rights Era soul classic “A Change Is Gonna Come,” following with “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” a classic co-written by Nat King Cole. Later in the set comes “Grits Ain’t Groceries” and the “Treme Song” finale, which gets the crowd on its feet.
Before his set, Boutté signed for a Jazz Fest royalties check from a live album recorded last year and talked to Billboard about being his own manager for nearly two decades, with an ambivalent desire to be famous outside of New Orleans. “I organize, I do everything,” said Boutté, who once served as a commander in the U.S. Army. “It’s my Scorpio nature! You wanna see s— done the way you want it done.” And when Treme aired, he and the whole New Orleans scene got a lot busier. “For me and a lot of musicians, it gave us a national and international profile. We were touched by TV. And one great thing [Treme co-creator David Simon] did is that he archived musicians who may never get archived like that again.”
Enjoying my last @jazzfest as mayor with my friend @smokey_robinson. Awesome show! pic.twitter.com/i7OKr3ryEI
— Mitch Landrieu (@MayorLandrieu) May 6, 2018
3:30 p.m.: Smokey Robinson saunters onto the Congo Square Stage singing “Being With You,” his first few bars sung before he makes his entrance to immense cheers. There’s spill-over onto the fest grounds outside track to catch a glimpse of the living Motown legend. Robinson follows with “I Second That Emotion” and “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” with “Tracks of My Tears” following later as well as staples “Ooo Baby Baby” and “The Tears Of A Clown.” He keeps his covers in the Motown family, too, with the timeless “My Girl.” Outgoing mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu showed up to the fest that day, snapping a photo with Robinson.
Earlier in the day, Robinson sat with Billboard for a short interview, talking new branding ventures, his life’s story and how he’s maintained his career longevity. “I attribute it to being blessed, man,” he said. “Especially if you could see where I grew up. Living this life was my wildest, most impossible dream. I know I’m not the best singer in the world or the best entertainer in the world, just part of a long long line. So it’s a blessing.” At this point in his career, Robinson does say he misses one thing in particular about the brave new music industry.
“You used to have these record stores like Tower Records and the mom-and-pop record stores,” he said. “Where you could browse for hours for records and you might not even be going for that record but you discover something.” Robinson said he loves new pop music, mostly radio acts. “My number-one guy right now is Bruno Mars. My number-one girl is Beyoncé. Running a close second to her is J-Lo. I went to see her a couple of weeks ago in Vegas and she turned it out!” As far as his new projects, Robinson started selling wines from his Pennsylvania vineyard last year, expanding to Italy. He’s also in the early stages of writing and developing a screenplay about his life’s story.
3:50 p.m.: Jack White is humbled. White’s not typically modest or self-effacing on stage — he’s been known to call people out on the mic — but he can’t believe his set is up against a Motown legend.
“What a crime it is that a kid from Detroit is playing at the same time as Smokey Robinson!” he exclaims, adding that he’s also incredibly “honored.” If there’s any nerves, it doesn’t show in his band’s fierce, borderline metal attack on the setlist (not that White ever prints one, he just calls audibles to his band). He starts off with a trio of tracks from his new LP Boarding House Reach: “Over and Over and Over,” “Corporation” and “Why Walk a Dog?” Then there’s the more-familiar White Stripes singles with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” “My Doorbell” and “Hotel Yorba,” during which New Orleans superstar Trombone Shorty — set to play the same stage after White — asks backstage, “Is that Jack White singing this country song?” White plays Lazaretto cuts “High Ball Stepper” and “Just One Drink” and occasionally borrows from his side projects The Dead Weather (“I Cut Like a Buffalo”) and The Raconteurs (“Carolina Drama”). He starts to round out the set with “We’re Going to Be Friends” and a Boarding House Reach cut “What’s Done Is Done” with New Orleans country singer-songwriter Esther Rose joining him. There’s solo single “Lazaretto” and the Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” to finish. “You’ve been incredible,” he told the crowd, “and I’ve been Jack White.”
4:30 p.m.: New Orleans trumpet don Terence Blanchard starts to wind down his set at the WWOZ Jazz Tent with his band the E-Collective. After gliding through smooth funky jazz like “Dear Jimi,” a guitar-focused jam paying tribute to Hendrix, they finish up with a cover of The Meters’ “Fire on the Bayou” with featured singer Quiana Lynell. Blanchard spoke with Billboard before his set, talking about his score for the upcoming Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman.
“This is the first time we had an R&B band that we put in the middle of the orchestra,” said Blanchard, who has scored virtually every Spike Lee project since 1991’s Jungle Fever. “It’s there enough times where it gives you a flavor for the ’70s. That’s the idea.”
5:20 p.m.: Steve Miller Band didn’t come to play, with classic-rock killers like “Swingtown” and “Abracadabra” making for a strong start. What becomes apparent in Steve Miller’s set is that he’s so passionate about music education, taking moments between songs to give treatises on early 20th century American roots music. Miller held court on what he called the “triangle around New Orleans,” a geographic region including the Mississippi Delta, Texas (partly where Miller grew up, learning his earliest bluesy chops as a boy) and Chicago (where he sat in with blues legends like Buddy Guy as a young guitarist). This was all by way of paying tribute to the recently departed Fats Domino, so Miller played his cover of “Mercury Blues,” with “T-Bone Shuffle” as a nod to the great Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker. He brought back the hits too, with “Dance Dance Dance,” “The Joker,” “Space Cowboy” and “Fly Like an Eagle.” Miller polished off the set with a prog-rocky instrumental (“Threshold”) and the funky “Jet Airliner.”
After his set, Miller sat down with Billboard to discuss origins of American roots music, music education and why the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is utterly failing — or at least should be doing way more — to provide it. “I was so ready to work for the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and help them do a lot of things,” said Miller, who is also on the board at Jazz at Lincoln Center and watched the recent induction of the 2018 class on HBO. “Every artist that’s inducted into the Hall of Fame is that way. And they go, ‘F— you, we don’t need any help, we don’t want anybody paying attention to any of this, it’s none of your f—ing business, get outta here!’ And they held it like that for a long time and they turned off a lot of people.” Miller added, “They’re not really serious about what they’re doing, they’re the beacon for music education. New Orleans is the cultural heart of American art and music. The Rock Hall is that for music education and they don’t even have their antenna turned on yet; they don’t have their beam out. They’re just screwing around in Cleveland, not doing anything at all.” Upon his 2016 induction, Miller compared the Rock Hall legal team he dealt with to “dealing with Donald Trump and his lawyers, like a bunch of New York gangsters.”
Miller wasn’t all sour grapes, however. Rock Hall aside, he seems to take it upon himself, genuinely, to do his part to fill a gap in American roots music education. “When you go to the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, It’s such a beautiful museum and it was made with two-dollar donations, man. It took Jay [Sieleman] eight years to pull that all together and it’s such a pleasant great place.” And he had nothing but kind things to say about Trombone Shorty, who was playing opposite him. “Trombone Shorty? I call him Mr. Trombone Biggie,” Miller said. “That’s what I call him. Just think about it: who else do you know can pick up a trombone and become bigtime in 2018?”
6:10 p.m.: Trombone Shorty’s set gets well into its funky groove when Shorty has to really break it down for a minute, pause for a cause. Shorty introduced Ivan, Ian and Cyril Neville to play a special tribute to their Uncle Charlie, saxophonist Charles Neville, who died at 79 the day before Jazz Fest kicked off this year. For a long time, the Neville Brothers closed out Jazz Fest on its second Sunday, often with Shorty aka Troy Andrews sitting in. Four years ago, that mantle was passed to Andrews. “They helped put me in this position and I just wanna pay it back to them,” he said in an interview with Billboard before his set. “Hopefully, Charlie will be smiling down on us.” If the fierce funk of the two Meters songs (“No More Okey Doke” and “Fire on the Bayou”) Shorty and the three Nevilles brought were any indication, Uncle Charlie was definitely looking out.
Backstage and later side-stage, Mayor Mitch Landrieu stopped by to see Shorty play as well, showing him support. Shorty has been on a bit of a roll on TV as of late, his likeness and voice appearing on The Simpsons in its recent New Orleans episode. Shorty mentioned he’s also set to appear on NCIS: New Orleans this season.