By Dwight Brown, NNPA Newswire Film Critic
The 2019 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kicked off its 50th year anniversary with a bang. The annual two-weekend fest featured world-renown musicians, tempting food concession stands, a friendly crowd of music fans and a positive vibe that was even warmer than the sun.
Jazz Fest dates back to 1970, when Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington graced the stages for famed producer/impresario George Wein. Over the years that spirit has developed into a festival that embraces indigenous music, jazz, blues, soul, funk, Dixieland and Zydeco, rock, pop, country, Latin music, folk and other genres.
As you walk around the Fair Grounds where the fest takes place, on lush lawns or soft sand, you encounter various stages and gigantic white musical tents (jazz, blues, gospel). There’s a wide variety of food booths (ever hear of Alligator Pie?), arts and crafts tents and cultural centers too.
This year, the list of vibrant acts included artists like these:
Ziggy Marley: Legendary singer Bob Marley had 12 children. The most famous is Ziggy Marley, who heads the band Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. His career has spanned 15 years and his latest album “Rebellion Rises,” which continues his father’s legacy of social awareness, formed the basis of his energetic performance on The Congo Square Stage, which is usually reserved for African Heritage music. Dancing to a reggae beat and swaying in unison with his backup singers, Ziggy’s optimistic vibe lit the crowd up. One of the biggest treats for his sundrenched fans was his classic, “True to Myself.” Bob had a once-in-a-lifetime voice. Ziggy has a verve all his own and he passes on his father’s spirit of peace and love.
Tom Jones: He’s been around since the ‘60s, currently appears on The Voice UK and Tom Jones’ set was on Gentilly Stage, second largest at NOJHF. Stripped down to just a guitar, a bass and drums, Jones’ band captured a strong beat as his baritone voice bellowed through the air. He performed like he was a young rocker in his prime, and not like a 79-year-old man. Screaming “Maybe there ain’t no heaven. Maybe there ain’t no hell,” the lyrics from his hit song “Burning Hell,” Jones held the audience in the palm of his hand. He was in fine voice, oblivious to the ravages of time and displaying enough British swagger to start a street fight. As his concert continued, with something old and something new, the crowd was amazed that this is the man who rose to fame in 1965 with “What’s New Pussycat.” That’s 55 years ago and counting!
Mavis Staples: As Mavis Staples approaches 80 years of age, she’s turned back the clock by working with younger producers (Ben Harper), exploring music that takes her out of her comfort zone of R&B, Blues, Soul and Gospel, and incorporating those sounds into whatever music she tackles. Innovation came to mind when she launched into The Talking Heads “Slippery People.” Backed by a top-notch band, she infused a funky gospel spirit into her arrangement: “What’s the matter with him? He’s alright. How do you know? The lord won’t mind. Don’t play no games, he’s alright
Love from the bottom to the top.” Emphasizing the syncopation, swirling around on stage, throwing her hands in the air, shuffling her shoulders and occasionally letting out her famous earthy growl, she slayed the crowd. It was a song that the Staple Singers had covered in the mid ‘80s, and Mavis, like she always does, made it her own. The crowd inside the Jazz Tent was so large it spilled outside. They all knew they were watching an icon create a moment that was going to be memorable for years to come. Staples was equally strong with the socially conscious Buffalo Springfield hit “For What It’s Worth.”
Chris Stapleton: Stapleton used to be known for writing hit songs for country music stars like Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney and Blake Shelton. That changed one night in 2015 on a broadcast of the Country Music Awards when he dueted with Justin Timberlake. They sang harmony together on “Tennessee Whiskey,” and Stapleton flaunted a supple, elastic voice that was far more flexible and soulful than that of most country western singers. As he took his place on Acura, the biggest stage at NOJHF, the audience had grown deep into the thousands and the Grammy-winner didn’t disappoint. Catchy songs like “Traveler” and “Broken Halos” played to country music fans. His performance of “Millionaire” was more reminiscent of a southern/soul/rock style, the kind that rock legends like Delaney & Bonnie or Leon Russell coined back in the 70s when they blended genres. With his gravelly voice, Stapleton led the listeners through his stable of songs, ending the night with the aforementioned “Tennessee Whiskey,” a sweet song even Patti LaBelle covers in her concerts.
Gary Clark Jr.: Out on a tour that will last at least until September, Clark did his usual opening song, “Bright Lights.” It’s the perfect song to use to begin a set, as he sings to the audience, “You gonna know my name by the end of the night.” This gifted lead guitarist is often mentioned in the same breath with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Prince. He’s not as enigmatic as the Jimi, as melodious as Eric nor as dynamic on stage as Prince, but he lets his strumming do the talking. A modern, wide-brimmed hat along with his signature red Fender Stratocaster solidifies his brand. Classic songs like “When My Train Pulls In” and “Gotta Get Into Something” pushed the crowd into a fervor.
Rita Coolidge: Known as the first person to sing the song “Superstar,” and later credited for co-writing it, Rita Coolidge stepped on to the stage dressed in a white blouse and pants with white sneakers. Her set list started with the feminist song “Basic Lady:” “Basic lady doesn’t need a diamond ring…” She sashayed around the stage with great confidence as her country-sounding band played on. Her voice was not as rich and smooth as it has been (the 2005 jazz album “And So Is Love” features her smoothest vocals), but her star power was making up for it. Fans liked her most popular hits the best: “Higher and Higher” and “We’re All Alone.”
Gladys Knight: She’s got more hits than most, a stronger voice than many and her fans know the words to her songs as well as she. So, when Gladys Knight asked the crowd to sing along with her, she got a backup chorus that was in tune and well-rehearsed. Strutting around in a black jumpsuit with a white blouse, Knight commanded her band and crooned. After several residencies in Vegas, this show woman knows exactly how to make an audience happy. With a great sense of urgency, she sang: “I’ve got to use my imagination. To think of good reasons. To keep on keepin’ on (keep on keepin’ on)…” The Pips were missed but ably replaced by a gigantic crowd of well-wishers. “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” was just one in a string of tunes to come that had the audience remembering how Gladys Knight has been such a unique talent for five decades.
Los Lobos: This rock band from East Los Angeles defies categories. Hints of Tex-Mex, zydeco, R&B, blues and other genres are the sounds that make their music distinctive. Their brand of brown-eyed soul has made them a vibrant presence on the music scene since the 1970s. Different members have come and gone over the years, but their affable vibe has remained the same. The band’s name means “The Wolves,” so when they broke into one of their most famous songs, “Will the Wolf Survive?” the audience was particularly happy. Also, of great interest was their rendition of “La Bamba:” the group’s leader, David Hidalgo, sang it, just like he did for the movie of the same name. Actor Lou Diamond Phillips played the lead character Richie Valens in that film, but when it was time to sing, he was miming to Hidalgo’s savory vocals.
These were but a few of the magical roster that had attracted artists from everywhere, who were performing all kinds of music: Diana Ross, Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band, The Doobie Brothers, Santana, Gregory Porter, Katy Perry, Al Green and Bonnie Raitt were all a part of the festivities along with many others.
The 2019 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was a big gumbo of music that gave NOLA audiences lots to savor.