Both closing shows Sunday at the Fair Grounds were part of longer stories. Also, who won this year's Unlikely Cover Derby?

trombone shorty photo
Trombone Shorty

The annual nature of Jazz Fest makes it a perfect time to reflect on how things have changed--not just how the festival or the grounds have changed, or which musicians are no longer with us, but how the acts themselves are different. The Meters’ set Sunday exists in relation to all the other Meters and permutations of Meters members’ shows that I’ve seen—jammy ones, pop ones, metal ones, blues ones, and always funky ones. The set wasn’t the feat of musical derring-do that I used to get from the funky Meters, who’d start shifting the groove into the next song minutes before what it was became clear. It wasn’t the jam/funk tour de force of 2005 where George Porter Jr. kept goosing the band to rave up a little bit more. If it weren’t for the shadow cast by Art Neville obviously challenged by being onstage, it would have been the set many Meters fans have dreamed of. The band kept most of the songs in the four-minute neighborhood, letting classic songs stand as the jewels they are instead of filling them with superfluous solos. 

Still, the show was bittersweet because it looked easier to assemble Ikea furniture than get Neville behind his keyboards, and when the camera gave us a look at his hands, it was clear that Ivan Neville—who sat in with the band as he has in recent years—carried a lot of the keyboard duties. Watching musicians thicken or gray is one thing; watching infirmity catch up to their ability to perform adds an entirely different drama that made the show poignant.

At the other end of the Fair Grounds, it was great to see what Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue have become. I remember seeing Shorty shows at Jazz Fests when people in the crowd wondered why he played with musicians who weren’t in his class. Why wasn’t he bringing in a Porter, a Raymond Weber, a Bonerama trombone? Why wasn’t Shorty surrounding himself with guys up to his talent level? Now, the long game he played is clear, and the years of commitment to Orleans Avenue means he has a band perfectly suited to the music he wants to make—one that can convincingly articulate one intersection of funk and rock in 2017. Now he and his band are so solid that they can add backing vocalists, another percussionist, and Glenn Hall of New Breed Brass Band on trumpet as they did for Sunday's show. 

One of the fascinating things about Shorty sets over the years is that you have been able to see him work. When it became clear he was the band leader, you could see the effort he put into stagecraft, at times employing a trick he learned from Lenny Kravitz and literally walking the audience’s attention to the soloist by physically going to him. After a set on the main stage at Essence Festival made clear that Shorty didn’t have the songs and voice that inspired people to sing along, he worked on his songs and his singing with Raphael Saadiq and Chris Siefried, his last two producers. Sunday, he didn’t only sing “One Night Only;” he leaned into it and asserted himself as a presence. 

The byproduct of all of that is that Shorty had the largest audience he has had since he started closing the Acura Stage on the second Sunday. It’s hard to imagine that his shows will become the traditions that Neville Brothers’ closing sets do because he doesn’t carry as much mythic weight as the brothers did, but his sets should be on people’s Sunday schedules because he continues to get better, and that's saying something.

Also on Sunday

- I love seeing The Creole String Beans because the band will almost always cover a song I want to look up after the set. This time: “Down Boy,” a Paul Gayten B-side.

- I thought Miss Sophie Lee won the Unlikely Cover Derby for 2017 on Saturday when she finished her set with a trad version of The Cure’s “In Between Days,” but Jamison Ross may have snatched the title by stretching out the Cheers theme in the Jazz Tent Sunday.

- I’ll chew on this more later when I review Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s So It Is, which was influenced by the band’s trip to Cuba. Live on Sunday, the material sounded great, but it’s pretty clear that the Hall band is thinking about "tradition" in different ways because what they were playing bore little obvious relationship to traditional jazz. Really, the band has drifted away from it for a while, though “drift” is the wrong word because it implies that something happened aimlessly. Preservation Hall Jazz Band has moved in ways that I fully believe are intentional, and I similarly suspect that Ben Jaffe, Charlie Gabriel and Clint Maedgen can all draw clear lines between the music that made the hall’s name and the music they’re making now. But aside from the brass band street beat behind the new “Santiago,” it wasn’t obvious.