The 50th edition of one of America’s largest festivals started late and with a bang: a massive storm drenched the Fair Grounds on Thursday, the first day of the 2019 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, delaying the opening and causing a run on umbrellas and ponchos at every nearby store.
But a little mud has never stopped festival-goers before, and this weekend was no different. Fans sought to take advantage of this year’s celebratory, extra stacked lineup, which featured a number of artists who had been on that very first bill back in 1970 — including members of The Meters, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Ellis Marsalis alongside his children (Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason), who have since often frequented festival stages in their own right.
In a way, the first day’s downpour seemed a little like rain on a wedding day, in that it proved to be good luck — the weather cleared late Thursday afternoon, and there was nothing but blue sky for the rest of the weekend. Artists of all stripes showed off for the happy hordes, who feasted on crawfish bread and cochon au lait po’ boys and strawberry lemonade, as they basked in the sounds of everyone from Katy Perry to Taj Mahal. Below are a few of the many great moments from the first weekend of the festival.
The Doobie Brothers’ relentless optimism
The friendly, rollicking blues-rock that the band is best known for was the perfect boost for the damp crowds on Thursday afternoon. As they cycled through some of their most beloved songs, the Doobies appeared to be having the time of their lives: the sweet, rich harmonies that open “Clear as the Driven Snow” sounded as transcendent as ever, and “Jesus Is Just Alright” remained the perfect audience-participation song (and their most on-brand, given its many “doo doos”). They covered Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” and obviously performed Billboard Hot 100-topper “Black Water,” changing the song’s lyrics to cite a “Louisiana moon.” “I wrote this song right here in New Orleans,” Patrick Simmons told the crowd, smiling.
“Shining Star” turning Earth, Wind & Fire’s set into the cheeriest dance party
There are some bands whose music seems to be specifically designed to transform extremely large groups of people into a coherent, single-minded mass — a power one hopes they use for good. In the case of EWF, there’s never been a cause for concern on that front — but it’s still reassuring to see that their uplifting anthems haven’t lost their potency. “Shining Star,” with its instantly recognizable groove and sneakily deep funk, found Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson (clad in blue sequined suits, naturally) as bright and strong as ever.
Ciara’s pitch-perfect “Body Party” thrilling her diehard fans
Not only did she have a slot on the worst weather day of the weekend, but the glossy R&B singer was one of the more anomalous acts on the bill of the retro, roots-oriented festival. But the undersized crowd only meant a more intimate performance for the devotees who did show up to see Ciara at the Congo Square stage, which she deftly made her own with full-scale choreography (what appeared to be a gussied up folding table served as set decorations). Dancing was secondary during “Body Party,” though, which the crowd recognized with its first note; she stood and sang, simply and beautifully, letting the strength of the song speak for itself.
Santana setting the mood
“The best medicine for this planet is romance,” Santana told the massive crowd at the Acura stage, who had already attempted to salsa through “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman.” But he slowed things down to perform his slow and sensual new single “Do You Remember Me,” casting knowing glances at his wife Cindy Blackmon, who was laying down the hip-swivel-inducing groove behind him. He insisted his fans spell “S-E-X,” which they did happily.
The Big 6 Brass Band bringing the second line spirit
It’s the rare New Orleans Sunday that doesn’t have a second line parade, and so it was only fitting that one of the city’s best bands recreated that experience for festival goers alongside the Furious Five, Untouchables, and Big Steppers social aid and pleasure clubs — the people who appreciated it the most weren’t the gawking out-of-towners, but the New Orleanians, some in cleaning crew and security detail uniforms, joining in and dancing along to the music that you truly cannot find anywhere else.
Al Green proving he still has it
Sunday had plenty of opportunities for reverence, whether in the Gospel Tent or at the brassier worship of the second lines, but one of the most popular places concerned a less family-friendly kind of devotional with the Reverend, as he’s now commonly known. Though there were a few moments of gospel in Green’s impeccably groovy set, the spotlight was on his hits; the ones everyone, even Obama, knows note for note and word for word. It’s harder for Green, especially playing as he was in direct late afternoon sun and a three piece suit (with a red satin bow tie and vest, naturally), to hit every corner of those indelible riffs now — but the crowd filled in where he couldn’t, and when he did, it was the purest kind of time travel.
Bonnie Raitt silencing the crowd
There were no bad parts of Bonnie Raitt’s set, and no mediocre parts; at 69 years old, the singular blueswoman remains capable only of varying degrees of transcendence, plucking which of her vast catalog of unforgettable songs she’ll breathe new life into with each respective set. At the Jazz Fest, she was joined by Jon Cleary, Ivan Neville and briefly, Boz Scaggs — Cleary and Scaggs helped her to pay tribute to Allen Toussaint with a stripped down, beautifully harmonized version of “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?,” which Raitt originally recorded a gender-flipped cover of in 1975.
But towards the end of her set, when she said she was about to play another sad song, the audience grumbled a little. Then the band hit the opening riff of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and any other noise seemed to disappear completely. There was only Bonnie, singing the song like it was the first time — except that she was joined, as quietly as 50,000 people can sing, on the chorus. When she finished the last refrain, for a moment she looked down with her eyes closed, seemingly feeling the heft once again of her best-known song.