The best things we saw on Jazz Fest's opening day, and the acts we're looking forward to on Friday.
Think of Thursday at a test drive for this year’s Jazz Fest. The lineup was a Locals Thursday lineup and lacked the firepower to get a lot of people out to the Fair Grounds, and the morning rains further discouraged attendance. For that reason, the first day of this year’s festival didn’t feel like much of an event, but there were still some impressive shows.
Lulu and the Broadsides was a conceptual and musical triumph on the Lagniappe Stage as Dayna Kurtz wrote songs for the band that could be mistaken for the results of some fortunate digging through crates of old blues and R&B 45s. “Ice Cream Man,” “You're Trouble” and “How Do I Stop” not only held their own as songs, but they sounded right next to covers of Big Maybelle’s “That’s a Pretty Good Love” and Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’.” The latter was impressive because The Blasters’ version seemed like a pretty definitive remake, as did Jack White’s. Kurtz’s decision to occupy the ideas and not just the energy of Little Willie John’s original gave Lulu and the Broadsides’ version a reason to live.
In the originals and covers, Kurtz sang about relationships as tangible realities. Love in her performance Thursday wasn’t something you run off to the Mediterranean to find on an island, free from care and worry, and it’s certainly not the stuff of fairy tales in castles built on clouds. Throughout the set, it was something you worked on, just like your job, and something you believe in like spiritual faith. In ways, love really was that real at the show as Kurtz gestured more than once to her husband in the crowd, but her vocals conveyed the same message without the pointing.
My other highlight Thursday was Boyfriend, who used her time well after a late start that looked to be due to technical difficulties. She had three curtained doorways onstage that Dillard students had built for her, and she and a small dance troupe used them for dramatic effect, making entrances in new costumes and with new props. She began with “Love Means” dressed as a bride with the dancers paired up as bridal couples as well. The moment was striking for its inclusiveness as Boyfriend’s dancers came in a number of body shapes and colors, and you couldn’t miss the presentation of women paired up for marriage. The imagery wasn’t necessarily new, but it was certainly new to Jazz Fest, as was much of Boyfriend’s show.
In another festival first, Boyfriend ended “Beauty is Pain” by singing a coda to the song a cappella without flinching while two of her dancers shaved her armpits. Lulu and the Broadsides’ version of The Stooges’ “I Need Somebody” may be the first cover of The Stooges at Jazz Fest, and Boyfriend has to be the first woman to shave her pits onstage. I’m sure there were festival faithful who weren’t sure that they needed to see that or how Boyfriend fit into the Jazz Fest they’ve known for all these years, but her fearlessness is a quality she shares with many who have graced the Jazz Fest stages before her.
And after a gesture as conceptual as shaving in front of an audience, she finished on a nakedly sentimental note. Boyfriend concluded her set by inviting the crowd to sing along as her band played Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” which segued into Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” with her father playing guitar on both. The songs didn’t do more than give her a chance to perform with him and dance with her dance troupe to songs everybody knew. She didn’t have an angle, nor did the songs become something specific to Boyfriend the way she did earlier in the set with “Wash That,” which takes inspiration from the song from the musical South Pacific. Still, after her deliberately poker-faced performance, hearing her talk about her dad bringing home a copy of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill when it came out and the way it made her feel vulnerable and strong carried more emotional weight than you might expect.
My Thursday started in the rain with Grayson Brockamp and the New Orleans Wildlife Band, and it was something I wasn’t prepared for. Brockamp had two vocalists, but songs weren’t showcases for Gabrielle Cavassa and Bailey Hinton's vocalese flair. Instead, the song was the thing with three- and four-part vocal harmonies. The vocal melodies and harmonies gave the songs their backbones, and Brockamp's bass, Ricardo Pascal's saxophone and Jamison Ross' drums all danced around them. The set was smart and subtle, and I want to see it again to get a better handle on what he’s doing.
All things considered, the Fair Grounds held up to Thursday’s rain pretty well, so Friday should be a good day at Jazz Fest. Here are our Friday highlights:
11:30 a.m., Gentilly Stage
The Motel Radio story circa 2016
12:25 p.m., Jazz & Heritage Stage
Moonlight Benjamin of Haiti
12:30 p.m., Blues Tent
1:25 p.m., Congo Square Stage
My Spilt Milk last talked to Morton in 2017
Alvin Youngblood Hart’s Muscle Theory
4:15 p.m., Lagniappe Stage
4:25 p.m., Jazz and Heritage Stage
We talked to them last year
5:25 p.m., Gentilly Stage
Alex Rawls’ review of the band’s recent Take Good Care