While there aren’t official numbers available yet from Saturday (May 2) attendance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it was one of the event’s largest and most crowded days in recent years.
It was mostly for one headliner: Sir Elton John, whose two-hour-plus set riveted the Acura Stage, surpassing in draw and anticipation even that of The Who, which played its first U.S. festival set in 40 years at Jazz Fest last weekend. Everyone else — due respect — was an opening act. It’s a label some of Saturday’s undercard performers seized with gusto.
The final 20 minutes of New Orleans bounce phenom Big Freedia‘s Congo Square Stage set ran concurrent with John’s first few songs, a bit of scheduling Freedia called “an honor” in an interview with Billboard. Perhaps not content to let Sir John be the most exuberant and stylish of the day, Freedia stepped the live energy and presentation of her booty-shaking party.
In his youth, Jerry Lee Lewis could’ve given both of them a run for their money. Lewis — a Louisiana native, turning 80 in September — played immediately before John on the Acura Stage, receiving heartfelt praise from his fellow pianist. “It’s an honor to follow one of my heroes” John said. “He made me want to start playing.”
12:50 p.m.: Chris Stapleton is winding down his set full of maudlin country, which kicks off the day for a nearly full field of Gentilly Stage attendees, as Stapleton’s only the second act of the day. He reimagines Tom Petty‘s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” as a country shuffle ditty, an upbeat moment. But then there’s Tim McGraw‘s “Whiskey and Me” and the acclaimed Nashville songwriter’s own “Sometimes I Cry,” full of his pained country wail. It’s all a performance and a kind of sound, of course. “I might need a hug!” Stapleton jokes later in an interview with Billboard.
2:45 p.m.: Kermit Ruffins has become one of New Orleans new staple performers. It’s hard to imagine a post-Katrina New Orleans jazz scene without Ruffins, who opened his own venue in the city last year. At the Congo Square Stage, the new-school Satchmo serves as the likable mascot of his own brand and his native city, inviting attendees to come to his place for “the after-party, y’all all come down” he says. Ruffins is giving his youngest daughter — Kaylin Orleans — a little shine, letting her sing a few bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before his own Louis Armstrong-like vocals. He played New Orleans standards as well (Mardi Gras Indian anthem “Iko Iko”), plus new tracks from his latest, #imsoneworleans.
3:10 p.m.: Jerry Lee Lewis is in the midst of a barnburner greatest-hits set at the Acura Stage, including “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He’s recalling a conversation with Elvis Presley during their Million Dollar Quartet days. Lewis is saying Presley asked him, “What are you gonna follow up ‘Whole Lotta Shakin” with?” And Lewis recalls saying, “I’ll think of something.” Then Lewis launches “Great Balls of Fire.” The stamina and speed required for extended, vamped live performances of these songs would be taxing for any performer, but perhaps even more so for the last surviving member of the Million Dollar Quartet. Lewis cut his set time slightly short, letting his thoroughly able backing band do some heavy lifting. It wouldn’t seem right from any other performer, but it’s Jerry Lee Lewis. He can do whatever he wants.
4:10 p.m.: Girl down! Big Freedia storms the Congo Square Stage with a battalion of athletic shakers and dancers, unleashing them for her first song, “Explode.” Musically, Freedia’s live sets feel almost like spasms, stopping and starting for call and response, punctuated by loud sputters of bass-filled bounce beats. “Gin in My System” was another clever call and response and club-ready hook. And per Freedia’s usual ritual, she brings up select members from audience to shake for “Ass Everywhere” (which was flipped in both regular and trap versions). “I don’t wanna see no faces,” Freedia instructed the crowd. Just booties. All booties.
4:50 p.m.: Elton John begins his set at the Acura Stage with the grand introduction of “Love Lies Bleeding” and dozens of other songs/hits you didn’t know you know. That’s the accomplished kind of songwriter Sir John is. Like former tourmate and Jazz Fest 2013 headliner Billy Joel, his catalog sprawls into decades, intertwined with American, U.K. and world pop culture history. John teases the crowd with the single opening piano stab of “Bennie and the Jets” and the audience just knows. The lyrics of “Candle in the Wind” show just how pivotal Bernie Taupin’s contributions have been to John’s career. The same goes for “Tiny Dancer,” the opening piano line of which inspires a singalong from everyone within earshot. The hits kept on coming: “Daniel”, “Philadelphia Freedom” and — near the end of his set, as the sun set, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. It was a triumph.
5:45 p.m.: Concurrently, T.I. brings a markedly different vibe at the Congo Square Stage, with hard-charging trap and Southern rap. Tip opens with the chanting “Top Back,” following with the la-la-la’s of “Rubberband Man” and a snippet of “Ride Wit Me,” produced by New Orleans’ own Mannie Fresh. The Atlanta rapper reached back to “24s,” one of his first Billboard chart hits and then forward again to his verse on B.o.B.’s “We Still in This B—h”. Halfway through, technical difficulties derailed T.I.’s set momentarily but the Atlanta rapper bounced back with hard-charging bangers like “Bring ‘Em Out.”