Saturday, movement was a luxury on the Fair Grounds.
[Updated] The attendance Saturday at Jazz Fest wasn’t a record despite the speculation of some outlets, which gives those who missed the 2001 Dave Matthews Band/Mystikal debacle a sense of how unpleasant the day was. Until the last sets started, Saturday was frustrating at best and at times a little frightening. By the end of Davell Crawford’s tribute to Fats Domino at 2:40 p.m., the track at the back of the Acura Stage allowed single-file movement as crowds waiting for Elton John jammed it up. After Jerry Lee Lewis’ set (which ended 10-15 minutes early), all movement was challenging around the Acura Stage.
Once the last sets started and people got to where they were going, the challenge diminished, and it’s a tribute to Elton John, Ed Sheeran, TI and the other stage closers that people left the festival happy that day and not raging at the conditions. Hard to get food. Hard to get beer. Hard to get a semi-comfortable place to watch from. Safety concerns aside, Jazz Fest contributes to the sense that the day was about Elton John and Sheeran and not the wide variety of New Orleans and Louisiana music when it became prohibitively difficult to get to it.
I can’t take Elton John 2015 seriously, but really, I haven’t been able to take Elton John seriously since 1975, roughly the point at which he tipped across the line from glam to camp. Friends I respect at the show were impressed with his commitment to the music, his performance, and particularly his piano playing, as if following Jerry Lee Lewis, Crawford’s Fats tribute, and Marcia Ball prompted him to show that he too belonged on that stage. I believe them and accept that my threshold for hammy antics didn’t work in his favor, but watching the first half-hour of his set from the press tent—as close as I could get—I found it hard to watch him stand up from behind the piano bench mock-outraged that the crowd’s love wasn’t loud enough. Again, a writer friend says it played better in person than it looked on screen.
Instead, I watched Ed Sheeran and enjoyed the intensity of his fans’ love. When he let them do the singing, they stepped up, not only in volume but precise phrasing. During the audience sing during “Thinking Out Loud,” I understood the lyrics better when it sang them than when he did—not a common situation.
More than that though, I loved seeing what he meant to the audience. Jazz Fest crowds show their passion for artists by what they’ll endure to see a show—heat, rain, mud, crowds—but at Sheeran, I watched 15 or so fans on the rail by the stage’s guest enclosure roll under the barricade, hop over it, and in a couple of cases, move it and go around, all to get 10 to 15 feet closer. In addition to my general appreciation for low-grade civil disobedience, I loved that Sheeran meant so much to these people that they were willing to risk punishment to get a few steps closer to him. That’s a level of enthusiasm rarely seen at the festival, though it’s also hard to imagine many festival regulars who could roll under a barricade or get back up without help from friends.
I know I’m not the only person who went to Jerry Lee Lewis’ set thinking this could be the last chance to see him, but people have had that thought running through their heads for at least the last 20 years. Saturday, he appeared to take everybody aback with his intensity and engagement. He’s waaaaaay past the days of pounding his heel on the keyboard and his face and voice aren’t as animated as they once were, but his set never lacked attitude. He hammered out “Move on Down the Line,” “C.C. Rider,” and a half-hour’s worth of powerful music with a rascal’s smirk and concluded “Headstone on My Grave” by imagining a marker more fitting for the Killer—“a solid gold monument,” he said with what passed for a grin.
Davell Crawford’s tribute to Fats Domino before Lewis’ set took a minute to adjust to. On YouTube, there are videos of Crawford doing two very different versions of “I’m Walkin’” including a very cool slow take with Delfeayo Marsalis. Saturday, he did a reasonably faithful version to Domino’s, as he did with most of the songs. With a band that included George Porter Jr., Joe Dyson, Detroit Brooks, and Roger Lewis, the songs all worked up the sort of powerful momentum that Domino’s songs can conjure, but the show had so little Crawford’s wild musicality and inventiveness that I left wondering if the set was Festival Productions’ idea, and that the show was built rather than an organic extension of Crawford’s imagination.
For more on the Domino tribute, see my review for The New Orleans Advocate.
Finally, my theory is that live bounce will remain a local novelty until bounce artists can figure out how to fit it into the way people see music. Typically, a bounce rapper has done what he/she has to do in 15 to 20 minutes--blast out with something crazy intense, another song that introduces twerking dancers, another song when the rapper twerks as well, an audience participation number, and maybe one more song in their somewhere. Since most opening band slots are 45 minutes, playing 20 just amplifies the WTF response that bounce initially provokes.
Saturday, Big Freedia played 45 minutes and did so without any obvious hamburger helper. It helps that she now has enough songs to be onstage that long, but Freedia also gave the show some breathing room. After a high-intensity "Azz Everywhere" that included twerkers from the audience, his own dancers did a more relaxed dance that allowed them to face the audience and keep their heads above their waists during "Dangerous." The better-paced set made the show feel more like music and less like another folk expression, albeit one that typically takes place at 120 or so bpms.
Updated May 5, 10:11 a.m.
The art has been reconfigured to include photos by Erika Goldring.