The only question left after the Queen Diva's Saturday show at Jazz Fest is when she'll get a higher profile time slot.
Big Freedia received a rock star’s reception when she played Jazz Fest’s Congo Square Stage last year, and the crowd was just as enthusiastic on Saturday. She has done what bounce artists before her couldn’t do—and few contemporaries can—as she figured out how to make a bounce show last for an hour. They usually ran 15 to 20 minutes and involved a song to introduce the sound, a song to introduce the booty shaking, a song for competitive booty shaking by the dancers, a song to get audience members to shake their booties onstage, and that was it.
When Freedia began touring nationally, she ran into audiences that didn’t know what to do with all that ass as well as her sonic intensity, but they were also confused by sets that didn’t last 30 minutes—about as short as set lengths get for opening acts. Freedia remade her act to make it more market-friendly, which meant giving it the time to build. She got better dancers and made her show into a genuine show—one that’s a lot of fun.
Saturday she started with the brilliantly low-tech move of having women wearing T-shirts that spell out “B-I-G F-R-E-E-D-I-A” shirt by shirt stand onstage when she came out, her hair in a full Free-yoncé. When the beat dropped for the first time, the crowd was with her all the way to the back, where Common fans were biding their time. "Best Beleevah," the Calypso bounce that sampled Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” was inspired, and it made her set seem right at home at Jazz Fest.
The question I walked away with is whether or not Jazz Fest will start zeroing in on Big Freedia and other artists who are clicking right now and treat them like headliners or artists who can work the penultimate time slot. The second slot on Congo Square seems to be Freedia’s home right now, but the festival isn’t getting closer to local headliners by locking her there. She has become a national figure and made some hard artistic choices along the way. Saturday, it was hard to see how she could have been more over with the crowd, more artistically on point, and more deserving of a bigger platform at Jazz Fest.
Jonah Weiner described Khalid’s American Teen in Rolling Stone as “euphoric dance beats, Eighties synths and tales of marijuana-and booze-fueled high school raging…. The album is full of fragile relationships—friends having a blast only to grow apart; lovers yearning for one another only to get caught up in passive-aggressive mind games. Technology references—cellphone photo albums, ride-share apps, GPS pins—pop up constantly, sometimes enabling connections, sometimes crippling them.” That was what I heard when I listened to the album and approached Saturday’s set on the Congo Square Stage expecting Frank Ocean lite. In person, Khalid didn’t look like he’s 20 years old—he is—and dressed in cargo shorts while flanked by two dancers in red, white and blue “American Teen” cheerleader outfits, he looked young enough to be a Disney Channel star. His occasional elaborate dance moves didn’t help with their charming ungainliness.
What accounts for the difference? In part, context. He’s older than Lil’ Yachty and only a year and a half younger than Lorde, who he toured with last summer. He’s also half the age of Common, who preceded him at Congo Square. More than that though, Jazz Fest never sounds chill to me, and American Teen has a chill quality. The excitement in the title track that accompanies being on the verge of big things still has a note of reserve as he’s worried about that future and what it might cost him. Jazz Fest sound doesn’t do reserve. The big, boomy drum kits installed on each stage’s backline force the rest of the sound to leap off the stage like a frisky puppy excited by a chewy. It may also be that in concert, Khalid shows his youth.
Fact check: Rod Stewart announced that he was going to play a song he doesn’t play much, a version of The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” According to Setlist.fm, it has been part of every set but one this year and more consistently part of the show than even “Maggie May.” He’s twice as likely to play it as “You Wear it Well,” and in 2018 the only song you’re more likely to hear is “Forever Young.” The song is as baked into the set as “Rhythm of My Heart,” “The First Cut is the Deepest,” You’re in My Heart,” “Downtown Train,” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.”
Still, to be fair, he didn’t play the song at all in 2017 or 2016, and while he has performed seven songs more than a thousand times since 1976—the start of Setlist.fm’s reporting—he has only played “People Get Ready” 259 times. I guess if you’re Rod Stewart, you take the long view on things. If you get hung up on the details-- like the fact that you still sing "Tonight's the Night" with the exact same inflections that you did in 1976, or that you're trying to fuck "a virgin child" in the song!-- you'd walk into traffic.
When Butler Bernstein and the Hot 9 last played Jazz Fest, the arrangements frequently set up Henry Butler’s piano on one side and the Hot 9 on the other. Butler, often a powerhouse of a player, could have taken on a Hot 14 that afternoon in 2014 and easily held his own in the musical rough and tumble. Cancer has lightened Butler’s touch a little and evened the odds Saturday, but the band remains my favorite context for Butler’s whose fluency in New Orleans piano idioms finds its fullest and most conversational expressions with them thanks to Steven Bernstein's arrangements.
There were almost enough members of Trumpet Mafia onstage to get a really good touch football game going, with at least 14 trumpets that I could see. I’m not sure why such a distinctive lineup needed to play “Fly Me to the Moon,” but the churchy number made perfect sense. Not only do trumpets tap into ecstatic modes with ease, but one bunch of trumpet players were massed around a microphone to simulate a choir. The interplay between the soloists and that choir mirrored a similar musical exchange that was taking place at the same time in the Gospel Tent.