Steely Dan returns to this year's Jazz Fest, as does Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and a who's who from the '60s and '70s.

stevie wonder photo
Stevie Wonder

This year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell is playing to its base. The festival generally caters first to baby boomers, though in recent years it stretched the “jazz and heritage” concept over Phoenix, The Strokes, Maroon 5, Foo Fighters, and Ed Sheeran as well.This year, Jazz Fest only veers into the pop mainstream for Nick Jonas (really?) and a few Congo Square acts (J. Cole, Jazmine Sullivan, and Flo Rida), and spends a lot of time not just reliving but re-reliving the ’60s and ‘70s. Here’s a quick rundown: Steely Dan (again), Michael McDonald, Van Morrison (again for the how-manyeth time?), Boz Scaggs (ditto), Buffy Sainte-Marie, Paul Simon (again), Elvin Bishop (again), Elvis Costello (again), Stevie Wonder (again), Neil Young (again), Bonnie Raitt (again), Arlo Guthrie (again, this time for the 50th anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant—a milestone that almost slipped by me), The Isley Brothers, and Mavis Staples (who played Jazz Fest with the Staples Singers). 

“Branching out” this year means reaching into the 1980s for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Los Lobos (again) and the 1990s for Beck, Pearl Jam (again), and Snoop Dogg. Jazz Fest is rolling the dice again with another ‘90s artist, Ms. Lauryn Hill, who is as amazing as she is unpredictable. When she last played Jazz Fest, she was 10 to 15 minutes late for her set, and in 2014 she started her set at Voodoo 45 minutes late. That turned into a fiasco when Hill wouldn’t end her set when signaled to and had the PA cut on her. When she’s on, she’s compelling, so it’s understandable that Jazz Fest would try again. 

All those agains don’t mean this year’s Jazz Fest won’t be good. They picked a lot of the right agains. But it will be familiar. I look forward to seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie, Costello, Stevie Wonder (who was excellent at the Smoothie King Center last year on the Songs in the Key of Life tour), Neil Young (with Promise of the Real standing in for Crazy Horse), the Isleys, Mavis, Beck (who killed last year at the House of Blues), Pearl Jam, and Hill. The agains likely also tell us about the market for touring bands with an appeal to baby boomers: there’s a limited supply. Last year Jazz Fest checked off The Who and Elton John, and this year Buffy Sainte-Marie and Michael McDonald (not quite The Who or Elton John), but it’s getting to a point where the only artists from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s still playing are either on the oldies circuit, wrong for Jazz Fest, or The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney—too big for Jazz Fest. (Has Ray Davies ever played Jazz Fest? If not, why not?)

I’m more excited by artists whose Sell By dates don’t appear to have been stamped yet: Janelle Monáe (again), Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (again), Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (a first-timer who hit last year!), Elle King, Rhiannon Giddens (again), Brandi Carlile, The Suffers, and a lot of local music including Hurray for the Riff Raff, who should have a good time slot considering they’re on the second line of the lineup for Saturday, April 30. Since they kept a low profile in New Orleans for a lot of last year, it will be interesting to hear what they have been up to.

My preference for more contemporary artists isn’t some sort of “youth first” dogma.I simply want to see an artist or band when it’s in the process of shaping its legacy. When he, she or it is playing the shows that will make people want to see them 20 years later. I’ve seen Elvis Costello many times, and each show has been rewarding in its own way, but none has been as breathtaking as watching him rip through a 50-minute set after the release of This Year’s Model that was such an intense statement that anything more would have been fat. Van Morrison will be great, but he won’t be the Van Morrison of the early ’70s, whose music and and performances were powerful enough that they continue to create a demand for him today. 

By now, complaining about jazz at Jazz Fest feels like complaining about the weather. Festival Productions has heard the complaints and books similar stuff each year anyway. Chris Botti checks the smooth jazz box (which is only checked once this year—progress!), and I can’t complain about Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter or Joe Lovano Us Five or Jack DeJohnette with Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison. Still, we’re 15 years into the 21st Century and jazz from that decade and a half remains unrepresented.

Organizers contend—rightly—that there’s a ton of jazz at Jazz Fest, with second line music, traditional jazz, as well as contemporary jazz. It’s the latter that people complain about, but I do cut organizers some slack. What other city with a festival and a jazz tent also has to find time slots for so much hometown talent? Donald Harrison, Christian Scott, Jason Marsalis, Terence Blanchard featuring the E-Collective, Irvin Mayfield and the NOJO, Nicholas Payton and Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, Ellis Marsalis, and Davell Crawford? There are another dozen local names that play the Jazz Fest frequently if not yearly, so there simply aren’t that many slots for out of town jazz artists. That doesn’t mean the choices couldn’t be better or more contemporary (all the asides about baby boomers, the ’60s and ‘70s, and “again” apply to this conversation as well); it does mean that there simply aren’t enough slots for touring jazz artists to make the lineup seem meaningfully different.

All of the agains in this year’s lineup makes this year’s Jazz Fest seem safe in more ways than one. We know what we’re getting this year, but so does Jazz Fest. Nobody with the possible exception of Stevie Wonder or Frankie Beverly and Maze will deliver a crowd big enough to choke the track the way that Elton John did last year, or gum up the entire festival the way the combination of Elton John, Ed Sheeran and T.I. did. 

In a festival that prides itself on repetition, a surprising string is broken this year. In 2016, no judge on The Voice will perform. Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine (with Maroon 5), Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani (with No Doubt) have all performed, but this year there’s no Usher, Shakira, Pharrell or Blake Shelton. Since Shelton played last year’s Bayou Country Superfest, which is also produced by Festival Productions, I figured this year was his turn. I guess Jazz Fest still has a surprise or two.