Notes from Friday at the Fair Grounds on PE, Jason Isbell, Laura Mvula, and Rotary Downs.

Laura Mvula photo
Laura Mvula

Backseat drivers have many ideas about what Jazz Fest should do differently, some of which are more possible than others. I hope to see more bookings like Jason Isbell and Laura Mvula, even though neither set was entirely successful. Those bookings likely didn’t sell many tickets, but other artists in those slots weren’t counted on to sell tickets either. Those are slots that add value, and by presenting interesting artists with very personal visions on Friday, Jazz Fest did that. 

Isbell has had his band, the 400 Unit, since shortly after splitting with The Drive-By Truckers, but his music and band haven’t sounded as clear and focused as they did on the Samsung Galaxy Stage, formerly the Gentilly Stage. His songs are dotted with smart, well-crafted lines and images - particularly those from last year’s emotionally naked Southeastern - and he sings them with measured investment. They worked, and “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change” sounded more agile and muscular than they did in his days with the Truckers.

Still, a series of meaningful, mid-tempo songs tested the audience’s patience, no matter how good, and Isbell puffed himself up to sing a few songs that would have benefitted from his more common understatement.

Mvula’s a British singer whose songs would sound great at the end of dance mix that included Soul II Soul, Des’Ree’s “You Gotta Be” and Lisa Stansfield’s “Been Around the World.” She performed with a harp, a violin, a cello and a rhythm section, which gave her voice a lot of room in the spotlight. She used that space well, particularly late in the set with her hit, “Green Garden” and “Center of the Universe,” though I thought I heard some horns that weren’t onstage in the latter’s swells, . Her set’s level of polish and self-conscious sophistication appeared to only find love in the standing section at the Acura Stage, but it deserved better that. Jazz Fest took a chance on her in that slot just as they did with Isbell, but the festival needs new voices at times. 

Also yesterday:

- Public Enemy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, rightly, based on Friday’s performance on the Congo Square Stage. Fans were able to rock out to the big beat that defined Hall of Famers from Fats Domino to Nirvana, even when Public Enemy’s lyrics and politics pointed at them and their families. Frat boys made rap hands ferociously as they sang/spoke along with “Fight the Power,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Welcome to the Terrordome” and more. They were hardly alone, but they were the most conspicuously bulletproof to the irony.

Time hasn’t been kind to Chuck D, whose voice remains an attack weapon but who at times sounded like an angry high school principal as many of his targets could be heard as Kids these days …. Flavor Flav, on the other hand, remains compelling in a similar way. His physical presence is more athletic than it was, but he dedicated a song to his lawyer, brought Chuck D’s mom onstage to wish her a happy birthday, and stayed onstage at the end of the show to say that he hoped they’d find the missing airliner and to express concern about Vladimir Putin. “Hitler’s back, y’all,” he warned.

- After the long winter, you’d think people would have been ready for a first hot day at the Fair Grounds, but you’d be wrong. In the mid-afternoon, bands in tents played to packed, adoring crowds glad to be out of the sun.

- Rotary Downs were so happy to have a new album, “Traces,” that they spent most of their Jazz Fest time playing songs from it on the Samsung Galaxy Stage. That left the audience with a lot of new music to digest, which it did though not with great energy. Some of that can be attributed to heat of the day, but much of it was the newness. When the band covered the much more familiar “Cars” by Gary Numan, the crowd came to life.

For more on PE, Isbell and Rotary !Downs, see my reviews for The New Orleans Advocate