A last look at this year's festival, with thoughts about headliners with AARP cards, Grand Marshall pits, the sound, the shows I was happy to see.

al green photo
Al Green

Diana Ross announced that she was 75 during her performance Saturday at Jazz Fest, and she was hardly the only artist in the 70s at the festival. In fact, the debut of the AARP-sponsored Rhythmpourium at Jazz Fest was well timed because the festival hires more septuagenarians than Walmart, including stage closers Taj Mahal, Carlos Santana, Boz Scaggs, Van Morrison, Al Green, Johnny Rivers, Tom Jones, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Jimmy Buffett, Aaron and Cyril Neville, John Fogerty, Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock, and Frankie Beverly. The festival would have had more if Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, and John Prine’s health had held up, and Bonnie Raitt will join the club later this year.  

What does that mean? That we were not likely to be surprised at Jazz Fest, for one thing. Ross added some songs we didn't expect, Santana was more linear and less preachy than he was the last time he played Jazz Fest, and Jimmy Buffett came onstage in costume as the blind referee who blew the call in the Saints-Rams game, but the sets were destined to more or less give audiences shows they’re familiar with, and that's what the fans came for. Mavis was Mavis, Fogerty was Fogerty, and Van was Van. Al Green showed signs of aging, as did Staples, who sat down more and more as the fifty-five minute set went on, but they still did the things fans expected of them.  

Is that a problem? Depends on who you ask. As someone who really wants the excitement of somethng I haven't heard before at a concert, yes, it's a problem, but not everyone's like me. It’s clear that a lot of fans attend shows to hear songs they loved. That certainly was the case for Diana Ross, who had fans in ecstasy over The Supremes portion of her set, even though it was the most mechanical 20 minutes of the show. I didn’t see Fogerty, but unless the Jimmy Buffett fans went home, they likely migrated to Fogerty. Trombone Shorty and The Nevilles drew well, but Shorty doesn’t have a catalogue of songs you can sing along to the way Fogerty does, and Buffett fans are sing along people. 

But this year’s reliance on older artists prompted a lot of people to wonder where Jazz Fest goes from here. Three performers had to bow out of this year’s festival (and Prine was replaced by the 76-year-old Elvin Bishop), and there were a few who looked like they may not make it back. This Jazz Fest was its 50th anniversary, and that in part explains the reliance on Jazz Fest’s greatest hits, but the festival has relied on those artists in years that didn’t have a retrospective slant. I hope each year for younger artists that embody the Jazz Fest aesthetic, but to be fair, the festival struggles to reach their audiences. Those in the know and Bleachers true believers were there for the band on the first Saturday, but there weren’t nearly enough pop fans to fill the Gentilly Stage grounds, and the same was true for reggaeton artist J Balvin. I’d like to think that younger—not necessarily young—artists could help chart the future of the festival, but when booked, many play to wide open spaces. 

In that sense, Jazz Fest is a victim of its own success. It has a fiercely loyal baby boomer audience that grew up with the festival and takes its identity from it, and these artists in their 60s and 70s are right in their musical sweet spot. There are certainly younger people out at the Fair Grounds too, but are they there in the numbers that the festival needs? Only the second Sunday looked like a big day for attendance, and a lot of days looked soft. Four weekday festival days likely hurt attendance, but if my back of the napkin math is right—a big If, I recognize—the payroll wasn’t that expensive this year. The festival likely had so much money committed to The Rolling Stones that it economized when it could, with Katy Perry as the only other big ticket item. When the Stones cancelled, it was too late to spend that money tied up in their booking to add more star power to the lineup. 

Fortunately, Jazz Fest has its food, and I’m convinced that if the food was conventional festival fare, the audience would be cut in half. The bet that George Wein made early on New Orleans food and culture remains the one that pays off each year and the one that keeps people coming back. My Facebook feed is full of people who do Jazz Fest wall-to-wall, but I suspect that there are far more people who come for a day or two each year, and the lineup doesn’t determine if they’re going to go as much as it helps them decide which days they’re going to go. They’re going to spend a day at the festival for the whole experience; they just need help to decide which one. 

What does that say about Jazz Fest’s future? That it’s probably more stable than it looks like it should be. Its efforts to identify new audiences that could become festival regulars haven’t worked particularly well. They’ve booked jam bands, but the jam wave crested, seemingly leaving only Widespread Panic in its wake. They’ve flirted with Americana, but it was largely confined to the Fans Do Do Stage and the Gentilly Stage, so it didn’t get a chance to become something bigger. But maybe Jazz Fest will keep playing to its older audience—soon, aging Generation X’ers—and maybe that strategy will work. People have been talking about the age of Jazz Fest headliners for a while now and worrying about what happens when the knees and backs of baby boomers give out, and the sky hasn’t fallen. Festival Productions has to have thought about the next generations of attendees, and maybe their calculus says that this share of the market is theirs. Since there are no shortage of festivals for younger festival-goers, it’s hard to feel bad that Jazz Fest speaks first to the fans who have been with it from early on. 

Final notes from this year’s festival:

- I’d complain about the sound, but that seems pointless. The sins are numerous starting with Gladys Knight’s broken mic, the Little Feat set as a whole, and drum mics that were touching the skins. The Blues Tent is such a boomy mess that Moonlight Benjamin and Mdou Moctar were very different musical experiences in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, where there was far less bass and more upper midrange. Kamasi Washington introduced a piano solo, and the video camera operator found the performer far before the sound man did. Boyfriend’s set was a half-hour later because something wasn’t set up properly. But yearly outrage over sound goes nowhere, and fans come back to complain again for another year. I’d love for sound to be better next year, but the past gives no reason for optimism on that front.

- After I commented on Facebook about the size of the Grand Marshall VIP pens in front of Acura and Gentilly stages, people came up to me to tell me about shows they saw where the pens were largely empty, and that they couldn’t believe how big the Acura pen is. Musicians told me how hard it is to perform for a crowd 10 to 20 yards away, which is where the general admission audience starts at Acura. The distance was an issue for Bleachers and J Balvin, who inspired rabid fans that couldn’t get anywhere close to them while the Grand Marshall pen was largely empty. I’ll never like the dynamic of someone who loves an artist hurrying to get stake out the closest spot he or she can get, then have a casual but wealthier fan walk up minutes before the show and get closer because of a Grand Marshall pass. That space needs to be smaller or limited to one side of the stage so that diehard fans can get still get to the front of the stage. 

- New Orleans Swamp Donkeys are too young to be so corny.

- I heard way too many brass bands playing covers of songs from the ‘80s with a vocalist singing. That takes so much of the life out of the band and the version. They’re on much stronger footing when the band plays with the melody and uses it as a launching point for the kind of improvisation that makes parade bands so much fun. I won’t name names, but you know who you are.

- Would it kill Jazz Fest to more clearly mark bins for recycling? I saw more recycling cans marked in the second week, but aside from the Shell recycling stations, most cans looked like garbage cans and were treated as such.

- I was thinking how great it was to hear Luke Winslow King steer clear standard blues tropes and the personas associated with the blues, and instead made the blues speak for his life. Then he played, “I Was Born to Roam” and I realized the pull exerted by blues cliché gravity is more powerful than we can imagine.

- I keep wanting Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective to be more E with electronic beats as the jumping off point for his compositions, but Blanchard is very effective at using his laptop to shape his horn’s sound. At one point, he gave his trumpet a distressed, yellowed tone that added layers of melancholy to his performance.

- The following weekend, Nicholas Payton and the Light Beings as a whole engaged contemporary electronic sounds more effectively. The Light Beings included bassist MonoNeon and Snarky Puppy drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, and they helped give some songs a P-Funk vibe, particularly when matched with burbling synths.

- Are Tank and the Bangas ushering in The Daisy Age 2.0?

- I loved the gender/power games that Judith Owen played at the Lagniappe Stage. She opened with solo jazz piano versions of “Smoke on the Water” and “Black Hole Sun,” taking the macho out of hard rock as she did on last year’s Rediscovered, then later she turned the piano over to David Torkanowsky so that he and bassist James Singleton could accompany her on Nellie Lutcher’s “Fine Brown Frame” and a narcoticly tempoed “Cry Me a River.” In those cases, she embraced the power in female desire. 

- Big Freedia’s last few Jazz Fest sets were more song-oriented than this year’s, which spent a lot of time with twerking competitions between fans and her dancers. Still, that was one of the shows where younger audiences kept excitedly drifting in, and it was one where people were dancing all the way back to the folk art graveyard.

- I’m glad I saw Lulu and the Broadsides, Doctor Nativo, Boyfriend (and her great cover of Bill Withers’ “Who is He and What is He to You?” which segued into he own “Man Cheating”), Moonlight Benjamin (who I liked so much I wanted to buy her music), PJ Morton, Luke Winslow-King, 79rs Gang, Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective, The Revivalists, Sweet Crude (who previewed material from their upcoming Verve Forecast album), Midnite Disturbers, Dobet Gnahoré, Curren$y, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Katy Perry, Gregory Porter, Flow Tribe, Mdou Moctar, GIVERS (who covered Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo”), Bleachers, J Balvin, Lena Prima, Nicholas Payton and the Light Beings, Widespread Panic (to confirm that I still find the band really inefficient entertainment), Tom Jones, Mavis Staples, Leyla McCalla, Cedric Watson et Bijou Creole, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Susan Cowsill (who sang The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” with enough conviction to make me think that maybe we really do just need to smile on our brothers, get together, and love one another right now), Kamasi Washington, Chris Stapleton (who really tested his audience’s patience late in the set before pulling them back in with “Tennessee Whiskey”), Tank and the Bangas, Jupiter and Okwess (who had the crowd about to explode by closing with a song that involved at least four false finishes, with the band charging back ferociously after each one), Tribu Baharú, Diana Ross, the tribute to GG Shinn (though it often sounded simply like an R&B cover band), Yvette Landry and the Jukes, Carsie Blanton (who still surprises me with her ability to sing dirty-minded pop and Duke Ellington’s “Azalea” and make them make sense together), and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue with the Nevilles.

Our Jazz Fest coverage:

- An interview with Mdou Moctar

- Reviews of Lulu and the Broadsides and Boyfriend

- An interview with Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra

- Reviews of Moonlight Benjamin, PJ Morton, and Spencer Bohren

- Reviews of Hurray for the Riff Raff and Curren$y

- Reviews of J Balvin and Bleachers

- A preview of new music by Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band

- An interview with Leyla McCalla

- Reviews of Tom Jones and Mavis Staples

- Reviews of Lost Bayou Ramblers and Kamasi Washington

- Reviews of Diana Ross and Tank and the Bangas

- Photos of Bob Weir from earlier this Spring

- A review of Trombone Shorty with The Nevilles