Alt-Country Abounds at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
After wrapping up a midday set of bluesy sun-drenched tunes beneath bright blue skies at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Eric Lindell thanked the crowd and shouted, “Soft shell crab po-boy, here I come!”
Food and music are the tentpoles of the annual two-weekend festival, now in its 49th year, and the beautiful weather on opening weekend was a nice bit of “lagniappe,” NOLA slang for an unexpected treat that makes a good thing even better. The lineup of food vendors featured the usual regional delicacies — crawfish pie, alligator sausage, and po-boys aplenty — and the lineup of musical acts once again brought together a wide array of jazz, blues, gospel, hip-hop, R&B, folk, and Cajun spread across 7 days on 12 stages. Fans of alt-country had plenty to cheer for at this year’s fest, as the schedule featured some of the genre’s big names and some flying just below the mainstream radar.
Lindell’s set included laidback love songs from across his catalog, feel-good numbers like “This Love is Gonna Last” and “The Sun and the Sea,” while his three-piece backing band added a punch of soul and funk, even letting loose on a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.”
Sturgill Simpson headlined opening day, providing one of the weekend’s most surprising special guests when he hit the stage with the 610 Stompers, an all-male dance troupe decked out in red satin jackets, coach’s shorts, and tube socks (often appearing in Mardi Gras parades and halftime shows, the Stompers’ motto is “Ordinary men, extraordinary moves”). Simpson earned his headlining spot with an energetic show that started with a slow-burning “Breaker’s Roar,” then caught fire with “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).” While the band lacked the New Orleans-based horn section featured on the tour for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, one of those players, saxophonist Brad Walker, joined the band for a run of songs mid-set, starting with “Promise,” and then came back out for the raucous closer “Call to Arms.”
Over in the Jazz Tent, the legendary Charles Lloyd and his new band The Marvels paid tribute to another legend, Charles Neville, who had passed away just days before. The set opened with a sweet, mournful “prayer” for Neville before launching into the free jazz and fusion that has defined Lloyd’s half-century career. His newest chapter features Lucinda Williams, who came out for the second half of the set. Williams fronted the jazz band for an impressively magnetic collaboration that combined her emotionally wrought songs (“Dust,” Ventura,” “Joy”) with Lloyd’s signature squalling sax, and the results were heart-pounding. The finale was an uplifting cover of “A Change is Gonna Come” that would have been right at home in the Gospel Tent next door. Williams announced that an album recorded with the band would be released on Blue Note later this summer.
On the first day of the second weekend, technical difficulties delayed the start of Lyle Lovett’s headlining show by nearly 20 minutes (uncharacteristically, since the fest usually keeps a schedule you can set your watch by). If the wait left his Large Band hot under their starched collars, they never showed it, keeping it loose on stage in dapper suits and ties while the sound crew hustled to get the band mic’d up. While commanding the Gentilly Stage, Lovett acknowledged their position on the Fair Grounds — which serves as a horse racing track from November to March — remarking, “I appreciate being on the back stretch because that’s usually how long it takes me to get going.” He was kidding, of course, since his 12-piece band hit the ground running with their signature blend of big band and Texas swing, reeling through Lovett’s catalog of crowd favorites, including “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas),” and “If I Had a Boat.”
Other notable acts included Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, who blew through a set that careened from Southern rock to classic country to the easy breezy vibe of “Carolina.”
Hiss Golden Messenger rocked the small Fais Do Do stage, stretching out on a number of tunes and closing with a blistering “Domino.” (Earlier in the day, MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger sat down for an interview at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage where he talked about his early days on the road, fatherhood, and his work as a folklorist for the state of North Carolina, treating the crowd to solo renditions of “Lucia” and “Jenny of the Roses.”)
Among the hometown artists, New Orleans singer-songwriter Lynn Drury attracted a crowd of loyal locals and in-the-know out-of-towners to the Lagniappe Stage for a rollicking set of grit and groove. The songs mostly drew from last year’s album “Rise of the Fall,” but also included some fan favorites, like “City Life,” her ode to ups and downs in the Big Easy, where streets “glitter like diamonds from somebody’s broken window.”
Jason Isbell looked the part for his Jazz Fest appearance, sporting a blue floral print tropical shirt, a patchy beard, a diamond stud in his left ear, and a pair of fresh sneakers. Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, got upgraded to the Acura Stage this year (the fest’s main stage), and they proved worthy of the spot, cranking out a set of songs that showcased not only Isbell’s songwriting chops, but also the band’s rock roots. The set pulled heavily from their last two records, starting off with “Hope the High Road.” Later, Isbell strapped on his Flying V for a few tunes from Southeastern, including “Stockholm” and “Flying Over Water,” the latter of which featured an incendiary solo from Isbell. 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden was incendiary too, particularly on “Never Gonna Change,” the lone offering from Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers days.
After burning through “Molotov,” as the indelible aroma of grilled meat and fried seafood floated on the breeze across the sun- and beer-soaked crowd, Isbell entreated folks to either “kiss somebody or eat something, because that’s how we’re trying to live today.”
Aren’t we all, Jason. Aren’t we all.