Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Kermit Ruffins, The Deslondes and the bleachers were all part of the story at the first day of Jazz Fest 2016. 

janelle monae photo by patrick ainsworth for my spilt milk
Janelle Monae at Jazz Fest, by Patrick Ainsworth

Jazz Fest 2016  began with Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys, Thibodeaux dressed for Saturday night on Friday morning. In long-sleeved black pearl-snap shirt, black slacks and a black fedora, he played Cajun music the way it has been played for at least 50 years. It’s the sort of sound that Jazz Fest has long maintained as its musical heart, but ironically, there are few of the old guys who can or still do play their Louisiana music the old way. Some have tried to change with the times, some have passed away. 

Thibodeaux started a day at Jazz Fest that for the most part felt like an opening act with light crowds for much of the day and a lineup to match. For me, there was usually something to see, but until the closing slots, rarely more than one thing that called my name. 

The day’s highlight was unquestionably Janelle Monae, who last played New Orleans at Prince’s invitation when he curated a night at the Essence Music Festival in 2014. He joined her onstage that night as he had many times over the years, and because of their relationship she not only dedicated her show to Prince but made it about him. She remembered that he told her that he loved her jazz voice, then used it to sing the standard “Smile.” She imitated his voice when she remembered their first meeting, and told the crowd at one point, “I am because he was.”

Musically, the set relied heavily on Monae’s The Electric Lady album including the opener, “Givin Em What They Love,” a song she co-wrote with Prince. After the James Brown-ly “Tightrope”—complete with Brown’s cape gag that Prince helped with on more than one occasion—Monae’s keyboard player held the synth chord that opens “Take Me with U” from Purple Rain, and some in the audience knew immediately what was coming. The rest picked it up as the song kicked in, and Monae’s performance of that and “Let’s Go Crazy” immediately after recalled The Kid’s performances in the movie. She wasn’t as out of control, but by her standards the complicated emotions of the moment read in her performance just as clearly as the tears on her face. 

“Tears of celebration,” she said, though it sounded like she hoped saying it would make it so. “Shout for Prince!” she asked, buying herself time to get it together. Between the moment, the occasion, her tears, and the versions of the songs—which killed, a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked—it was a teary moment for a lot in the crowd. 

Monae had been silent about Prince’s passing on social until a few hours after the show, when she wrote on Facebook, “Truthfully, I am in a state of shock & disbelief that my close friend, my confidante, & hero has passed. N&out of emotions. Unsurewhat 2do.” After that, she would add, “This is a different kind of pain,” “I pray the world knows how much of a selfless giver and kind human being you were. Just a giver to so many,” and “You were so funny.”

Part of the drama of Monae’s show came from seeing someone who is generally so deliberately theatrical and self-possessed struggle with mixed results to stay in control. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings played the Blues Tent at the same time, and while musically their show is very different on the surface—classic R&B and soul vs. futuristic rock/funk/pop—Monae and her band are what Jones and hers would evolve into in some alternative reality. Jones’ show is certainly as theatrical with the wardrobes, the specific sounds, and the structure of the show. The Dap-Kings’ slight of hand is to pull together musical traditions that didn’t necessarily co-exist and make them sound as if they did, and presenting them in a soul revue format helps the magic happen. 

Bassist and bandleader Gabe Roth can be defensive about the idea that The Dap-Kings are a retro band, and he’s right. When they played Friday, their R&B was every bit as immediate as anything else made in 2016, and the warmth and ferocious energy Jones brings to the show may outdo any contemporaries. But seen through the prism of stagecraft, the show was fascinating in its deliberateness. Song to rev up the crowd. Song to drop the tempo to set up the next one. Song to pay off the audience’s excitement. The form barely shows because of the band’s commitment to what it’s doing, to the music, and because of Jones’ energy. Her intensity didn’t change, whether the band was grinding out the blues or taking it to the discotheque.

Elsewhere at Jazz Fest:

- Part of the story Friday at Jazz Fest was the new bleachers. Three bleachers now sit at the back of the Acura Stage and one smaller one sits on the track next to Congo Square. Commenters on Facebook seemed to instinctively hate them or at least be suspicious of them, and while I can’t see them as the place I’d go, particularly if they were half to three-quarters full, I couldn’t hate them. The view from the top is impressive, and the breeze I barely felt on the ground forced me to take my hat off at the top. Since I frequently check out Acura acts by walking the track to hear them, I was pleased that they didn’t affect the sound on the track, but that might change when they’re fuller. They also create a little additional shade on the track, which is never a bad thing at Jazz Fest. One friend on Facebook wondered if the stairs were a drunken wipeout waiting to happen and they are, but only in the way that all stairs are a drunken wipeout waiting to happen. There’s nothing particularly treacherous about them.

I was less fond of the bleachers at Congo Square, but that may be more because they are in exactly the spot from which I often watched shows. I also wonder how often they are necessary. While an impassable Acura track had become a once or twice a Jazz Fest phenomenon, I’ve only seen Congo Square’s track clog up once. That was for Frankie Beverly and Maze, but since they don’t appear to be going anywhere ….

- Other Prince tributes: Kermit Ruffins didn’t let not knowing the words stop him from playing “Purple Rain,” and The Deslondes performed the gospel standard “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today” and dedicated it to him.  

- Grace Potter played the Gentilly Stage, and she had the unfortunate luck of being on the same bill as two female performers as dynamic as Sharon Jones and Janelle Monae. Next to them, her ’70s rock chick stance felt insubstantial. She sang, “I’ve got the medicine that everybody wants” with the same swagger and bravado that she used to sing, “I am the loneliest soul,” which makes me wonder if either are true.

- Alvin Youngblood Scott’s Muscle Theory is very aptly named.

- Good Idea Gone Pear-Shaped Dept.: I’m sure Sweet Pain has successfully invited women to join them onstage to “dance the punta”—a Belizean cousin to rump-shaking bounce—in many cities. Asking for dancers at Jazz Fest’s Congo Square Stage required the band to kill time as the volunteer dancers had to a) decide if they were really going to do this, and b) figure out how to get to the stage, which involves finding their way around to the back of the stage. Once onstage, the results were predictable. A few tried with varying degrees of success, and one woman just jumped around. I’m onstage! I’m onstage!

- With a drummer playing a handheld snare drum with the actual snare removed, The Deslondes looked like they were journeying back in time, giddy at the prospect of National Sheet Music Day. At the other side of the stage was guitarist and pedal steel player Matt Davidson, whose fiery guitar parts pulled the band’s songs in the direction of an era shaped by electricity. The songs frequently made me wish drummer Cameron Snyder would sit down and swing a little harder, but the band’s love of hootenanny harmonies feels closer in spirit to Snyder than Davidson’s gnarled leads. For now, it’s an intriguing tension.

- This year’s Jazz Fest has already given me two firsts: first time I wept at Jazz Fest, and first time I saw a tap dancer onstage. Thank you, Sarah Quintana for the latter.