The reggaeton superstar and pop band Bleachers had a very un-Jazz Fest like afternoon at Jazz Fest.
I was thinking a lot this weekend about things you never see at Jazz Fest, and I got two more on Sunday. A fan somehow snuck a portable speaker in—portable speakers are not on the Kermit Ruffins-voiced list of prohibited items we hear when entering Jazz Fest!—and played reggaeton in the audience before J Balvin’s set began at the Gentilly Stage. It was great to see people start their own party with their own entertainment, just as it was great to see four girls rush the stage to hug Jack Antonoff during Bleachers’ set before Balvin. Three bolted from the VIP pen in front of the stage and hugged him before they were ushered offstage, and when they made it that far, a fourth followed. Security personnel near me said quietly, “Someone’s in trouble” because no one seemed to be watching that barricade, but I was happy because that Antonoff meant enough to these girls that they were willing to risk the consequences to have just a moment of a moment with him. Artists at Jazz Fest almost never mean that much to the usual attendees.
Bleachers started as Antonoff’s side project while he was in fun. (2013 Grammy winners for “We Are Young”), but he has become harder to separate from his work as a producer for Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent and Carly Rae Jepsen. In each case, he has demonstrated a clear understanding of pop and particularly the importance of tailoring the music to the artist’s persona. The music he has made with others keys on who they are, and at Jazz Fest the New Jersey boy sideswiped Springsteen, letting his songs drift into that lane, aided saxophone player Evan Smith’s Clarence Clemons-like moments.
While Antonoff was born to echo, he steered his own path enough. As a pop artist, he wrote songs that come on like frisky puppies, refusing to be ignored or denied. “I Miss Those Days” and “Don’t Take the Money” were earworms that blew up the crowd, and when he halted the intro to “Rollercoaster” to breathlessly ask members of the audience to sit on each others’ shoulders, they complied eagerly, then danced and sang along in double decker formation.
A few songs aside, Bleachers’ music wasn’t memorable because pop is about the moment, and the moment when I heard these songs has passed. But the show itself stays with me because it was pop. It was fun and smart with touches in the songs that were smarter than was obvious, and it was great to see music mean so much to an audience. Jazz Fest audiences on the whole are passionate about music, but not teenage passionate, and that difference was moving and beautiful.
Reggaeton artist J Balvin got a similar hero’s welcome when he followed Bleachers on the Gentilly Stage, but—judging by the flags flying—from a crowd with roots in Mexico, Central America, and Balvin’s native Columbia. He didn’t have to coax people to wave their hands. If he waved his hand from side to side, the audience was with him instantly with commitment. He spoke little from the stage because his English is limited, but when he asked, “How’s the energy right here?” while pointing to sections of the audience, the answer was powerfully, deafeningly clear.
Balvin’s set was another thing Jazz Fest rarely is: sexy. The crowd danced with hip-shaking abandon throughout the show while he grooved with deliberate reserve, letting small gestures be big. He’d step to the side, coolly plant a toe, twist it a little, then move along and it was all the audience needed. He had four men and four women dancers who joined him onstage at times to act as cheer squad, dance team, and stand-ins for the battle of the sexes. They compensated for Balvin’s low key energy with a gym instructor’s let’s-get-hyped vibe.
The show was in many ways the opposite of those of Van Morrison and Al Green, who were playing elsewhere at the same time. Balvin’s reggaeton shows the clear influence of hip-hop and EDM, and electronic air horns punctuated moments in the songs. He had a live band, but if he played a song with a feature by another artist, he laid out while that singer’s part was flown in. When he sang “Contra La Pared,” he left Sean Paul’s vocals in place. The crowd went off for “I Like It” even though he was a feature along with Bad Bunny on Cardi B's track. For three to four minutes, he paced the stage an added punctuating notes until the time came for his feature. Then, after 16 or so bars, he let Cardi take over again and no one cared. I suspect everything we heard at Green and Morrison actually happened onstage.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that their audiences were any happier than Balvin’s, or that parts not generated live onstage before their eyes were any problem. When his voice crackled robotically with Auto-Tune, there was no flinch or worry that deficiencies in his skills were being solved electronically. That’s just part of the song, and when he closed with the EDM-flavored “Mi Gente”—with more than two billion with a B YouTube views—the moment turned ecstatic. It got even crazier when a semi-inflatable Cookie Monster-like figure joined Balvin and the dancers onstage for the song. It’s just one of the characters made for him for his debut at Coachella a few weeks ago. It came out of nowhere even for fans, and it was so dizzying that fans continued to call for an encore even after the stage crew had struck part of the keyboard rig and pulled the black fabric off the drum riser.
The set introduced reggaeton to Jazz Fest the way it did at Coachella, and while Sunday at Jazz Fest was very much a retrospective day with Irma Thomas, Bonnie Raitt and Van Morrison on the Acura Stage, The O’Jays and Al Green at Congo Square, and Indigo Girls at the Fais Do Do Stage, but Balvin’s show felt special because unlike many at the festival, it felt like it mattered right now.
As good as the shows were, they served as reminders that Jazz Fest knows how to reach its baby boomer target audience far more effectively than it reaches younger audiences. Admittedly, neither Bleachers nor Balvin were household name enough to pack the Gentilly Stage to the back, but both likely underperformed as business propositions. They had passionate fans upfront with the curious behind them, then a gap that never closed between the standing and sitting audiences, and the sitters didn’t reach anywhere near the rail at the back of the stage. They brought in a younger audience, but not a large enough one to deliver the size of audience we’re used to for closing acts on the Gentilly Stage.
Our coverage of the First Weekend of Jazz Fest
- Interview with Mdou Moctar
- Preview of Thursday
- Review of Thursday with Lulu and the Broadsides and Boyfriend
- Review of Friday with Moonlight Benjamin, PJ Morton and Spencer Bohren
- Interview with Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff
- Review of Saturday with Hurray for the Riff Raff and Curren$y