Reviews of Batiste, Usher and The Roots, and Nigel Hall at the Fair Grounds on Saturday.

jon batiste photo by erika goldring for my spilt milk
Jon Batiste at Jazz Fest, by Erika Goldring

After a soft Friday at Jazz Fest that included Trey Anastasio jamming (not me), Nas not giving The Soul Rebels their due (a show that has sat worse with me as time passes) and Harry Connick Jr. reminding people that he’s an entertainer (who outside of a casino values that? Who wants their musicians to be jacks of all trades?), Saturday made me happy and confirmed that I wasn’t simply grumpy. Jon Batiste and Stay Human’s set provided almost everything you could realistically want including memorable songs. For the rest of the weekend, his “I Feel Good Today” ran through my mind. 

The set was undoubtedly less spontaneous than it seemed, but the whole show felt like a series of ideas Batiste sketched out on the back of an envelope. The band interacted as if it was working out not only the setlist but who’d do what and even some of the songs themselves on the fly, and that made the set feel loose in all the best ways. The songs themselves grooved easily, driven largely by Joe Saylor, whose rhythms were based on New Orleans’ street beats, and the members’ personal rhythms were equally organic. Batiste paced that vibe, more than once dropping into a James Booker mode as he played with time, melody and song integrity to fold in classical music as well as seemingly endless digressions on a musical thought. 

In New York, Batiste and his band have made a name for taking their music into the streets and even on to the subway. At Jazz Fest, they couldn’t escape the Acura Stage, but they spent 15 or so minutes hanging out on the short runway that went out toward the audience. It was as close as they could get to the communal vibe that is central to the band’s aesthetic, and one thing that made that section of the show and the set in general so rich was the gospel musical vocabulary that gave the content added depth. 

On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, we get a feeling for what the band can do, but only live do you we see who they really are, and they’re a more vibrant, complex band than the show makes clear.

- Also on Saturday, the audience for Usher with The Roots overwhelmed Congo Square, even with the bleachers. The crowd standing on the track slowed human traffic to a trickle and shut down the Congo Square Marketplace as people found any place they could to see or half-see the show. The highlight of the show and the weekend was a rocking version of “OMG” that set the lyrics to a slight rewrite of “Dance to the Music.” Usher’s silky delivery next to the insistently pounding four-four beat presented the band at its most ecstatic. After five minutes, it felt like the song could go on for 15 more without wearing out its welcome, and it became obvious that this was the end of the set because nothing could follow it. For more on Usher, check out my review at Nola.com.

- Nigel Hall played Congo Square, and his set was workmanlike in the best sense—effortlessly funky, unfussy, and not showy. Nothing about his exploration of ‘70s R&B and funk seemed complicated, but the fact that not everybody’s doing it says it’s harder than it sounds.