Our review at Thursday and Friday at Jazz Fest looks at No Doubt, Estelle, Sturgill Simpson, Amanda Shires, and the sound in the Blues Tent.

gwen stefani photo by erika goldring
Gwen Stefani, by Erika Goldring

Thursday was a true locals day, with short, friendly lines, and shows you could get close to if you wanted. I said much of what I had to say about Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole and Amanda Shires in the on-the-spot reviews I wrote for The New Orleans Advocate, so I folded Thursday’s notes into Friday’s review.

The distance between the Gwen Stefani of No Doubt even in its heyday and who she is today was hard to get around Friday when the band performed on the Acura Stage. Her ragged demin vest was carefully frayed, and she discarded it for a stylish green top that only hinted at secondhand-ness with its bold multi-colored design. The yellow shirt tied around her waist over her shorts was obviously designed to be worn that way, so the thrift store chic she once rocked is now designer thrift, but that has been her look since 2001’s Rock Steady. It seemed notable though when combined with her imperial bearing, even as she swaggered along the front of the stage like a punk getting ready to jump in the pit. Her stage patter had no punk or upstart in it, so when she spoke, she frequently sounded Californian. “This place feels like spirit,” Stefani said earnestly. “Thank you for sharing your beautiful place with us.”

California ska never caught me, but it was a welcome jolt of energy when No Doubt finally remembered it late in the set. When the encore began with the instrumental “The Guns of Navarone” by The Skatalites, the crowd at Acura jumped like they hadn’t for more than an hour, and the onstage energy had the simple, goofy charm the band was once known for. It carried over to “Just a Girl,” which included the spectacle of men and women of all ages raising their hands when Stefani asked 16 year-old girls to do so, and through the end of the set.

For me, the best moments came early. The spare, electronic groove of “Hey Baby” reflected who No Doubt was when they cut Rock Steady and who they are now with its glossy, expensively textured simplicity. It followed the band’s cover of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life,” and when Stefani got to the chorus, the title phrase sounded less like a cry of independence than a defense of her right to be her wealthy, glamorous self. I doubt that’s what she was thinking, but it’s what I heard.

no doubt photo by Erika Goldring No Doubt onstage at Jazz Fest, by Erika Goldring

- Shooter Jennings’ Electric Rodeo got my attention when it came out in 2008, and his show at Tipitina’s on that tour hit a country/southern rock sweet spot that I’ve been waiting for him to find again. Friday on the Fais-Do-Do Stage, he seemed to be chasing it too, with mixed results. The emotion that seems to move him most is anger at Nashville, and he started “Nashville From Afar” (as in, “I prefer my view of …”) with a barked “Goddamn I hate East Nashville.” Later, he paid tribute to classic country by giving a George Jones song a hard rock treatment that was more successful than his effort to outlaw-countrify The Ramones’ “She Talks to Rainbows.” It was an interesting idea that never came together, much like his set. Moments got jammy, others were dark, heavy and moody, while others moved well with crisp clarity. Unfortunately, he sounded most natural playing music that sounded like his father Waylon’s outlaw country—music that he seems to try to escape even though have of his band played with Waylon as well. The way he begrudgingly traces an elliptical orbit around his father’s memory is compelling in the big picture but erratic as a listening experience.

- Had anybody thought about Estelle since 2008’s “American Boy”? I liked her when I saw her at Essence Music Festival a few years ago, but her presence on Congo Square came out of nowhere. The 10 minutes I saw en route to another show suggested that she hasn’t spent the intervening years writing (though I’m sure that’s not true). Still, covering “You Can’t Hurry Love” and Bob Marley’s “Is it Love” with only one of her own songs between them makes it seem like she didn’t have her own agenda to advance.

- I looked forward to seeing Paloma Faith, but events conspired against me. The advance hype likened her to a happy Amy Winehouse—is that a thing?—but a friend got the showiness but didn’t hear Winehouse’s gravity. Here’s what Twitter thought

- I also wanted to hear the Aboriginal singer Gurrumul, but missed that too. Twitter says I screwed up:

Thursday, I finished my day in the Blues Tent for Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, and if you tell me you liked that show, you like the idea of the blues more than what was performed on the stage. I don’t say this as a slam on Lil’ Ed but the sound in the Blues Tent, where massive, booming drums were the biggest sound on the stage, while his lead guitar, the second guitar and bass mushed together for a sonic slurry of grrrrrwrrrrrarrrrrwrrrrrrrr. They may well have been playing music, but music wasn’t coming out of the PA. 

I liked the funky blues of Jarekus Singleton on Friday, or what I could make out of them. His sparer, screaming leads gave him greater clarity, but only in the upper register. All midrange sounds were engulfed by the airy, booming snare and kick drums that consumed far more sonic space than necessary. I’m sure that getting amplified sound to work on a parking lot is hard, but the two acts I saw treated the drummer like the lead instrument. 

amanda shires photo by zack smith Amanda Shires, by Zack Smith

- Much of what I have to say about Amanda Shires’ set I wrote in my review for The New Orleans Advocate. Early in the show, I wondered how she and husband Jason Isbell worked together because she often seemed sweetly, lightly down home, where as he can come off as overly serious. Obviously, I’m mapping their artistic lives on to their personal ones, which is not a safe assumption. Still …). But as her set went on, I heard artistic affinities between them, one of which they need to get over. When Isbell played Jazz Fest last year, his set was emotionally powerful but his songs got to third gear but not much faster, and even before Shires lost her focus, she had that issue too. You can go a long way of good words, good songs and a good heart, but baseball’s minor leagues are full of guys with good stuff but no fastball.

- Sturgill Simpson rolled back the clock to the days of classic country, and he evoked it not only in songs about honky tonks, the road, and a Cash-like country strum. When he sang, Simpson reminded me how Johnny, George, and the country greats could bite off lines and subtly animate ideas with vocal performances that were dynamic is small, not showy ways.

Still, the set’s best moment came after he observed that he had more time left than he thought and let the band wind out a bit. Guitarist Laur Joamets was a dazzling picker crucial to Simpson’s sound, but when he stepped out of genre correctness to break off a 21st Century solo, Simpson’s country really landed for me. 

sturgill simpson photo by zack smith Sturgill Simpson, by Zack Smith