A day that started with a Rolling Stones controversy ended with a Panic.

mavis staples photo
Mavis Staples

The most compelling music during Jazz Fest’s first weekend came in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, where Moonlight Benjamin created all the rock ’n’ roll excitement you could ask for from a Haitian singer, a psychedelic European art rock take on the blues, and some rhythms that split the difference between cultures of origin. In the center of it was Moonlight Benjamin, who was a rock star. Toureg guitarist Mdou Moctar went to a more transcendental place, spiraling inward as he explored the infinite world of possibilities he found on his guitar’s fretboard. Both artists also played sets in the Blues Tent, but that space’s tendency toward boomy low ends and absent high frequencies meant the sound was far more satisfying in the smaller room.

Other highlights? J Balvin, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Jourdan Thibodeaux et Les Rodialleurs (who were the most exciting Cajun band I saw last weekend), Sweet Crude (who debuted songs from their upcoming album for Verve Forecast), Boyfriend, Lulu and the Broadsides featuring Dayna Kurtz, and Curren$y. 

The story going into the second weekend is one of diminished expectations. The controversy and excitement generated by the announcement of The Rolling Stones took a hit when Mick Jagger’s surgery meant that the band was going to be replaced at the festival by Fleetwood Mac. The level of excitement that announcement generated was potted down further when Stevie Nicks fell ill and had to cancel. Widespread Panic is a fine replacement, but it doesn’t occupy the same place in the culture as Fleetwood Mac—much less the Stones—so the choice diminishes the buzz further, as would have happened with almost any selection. Jazz Fest did the best it could in a hard situation, and their ability to get Widespread Panic on such short notice counts as a success, just not a success with the same impact. 

Then on Tuesday, the festival announced that John Prine had withdrawn as well, to be replaced on Saturday in the Blues Tent by Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio. I suppose cancellations like these are an occupational hazard when a festival relies on artists over 70, but that doesn’t make the cancellations less frustrating. Also, Stevie Nicks is 70? That still doesn’t compute.

For those looking forward to celebrating the history of Jazz Fest, this is their weekend. On the first Sunday, there was a lot of love for the run of Jazz Fest favorites on the Acura Stage with Irma Thomas followed by Bonnie Raitt and Van Morrison, and the second weekend has a couple of runs like that with artists who have been important in its history: Galactic and Dave Matthews Band close Acura on Saturday, and Cyril Neville, a tribute to Allen Toussaint, Jimmy Buffett, and Trombone Shorty with the Nevilles on Sunday. As I said last week, these gatherings of festival favorites would carry more power if they gathered less often, but there’s no denying the talent or crowd-pleasing nature of these artists. 

Our highlights for Thursday start with Tom Jones and Mavis Staples. Thursday would have been Rolling Stones day and Fleetwood Mac day had Mick and Stevie’s bodies cooperated, but the day had a couple of strong closers already booked with Jones—who sat in with Jon Cleary Wednesday night at Chickie Wah Wah—and Staples. Both have aged well and stayed true to themselves. Staples’ voice remains miraculous within new confines that she’s learned to work in, and Jones has ained gravity with age.

Here are our highlights for Thursday at Jazz Fest.

Samantha Fish
1:45 p.m., Acura Stage

Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk
2:55 p.m., Acura Stage

Nicholas Payton and the Light Beings
3:45 p.m., WWOZ Jazz Tent
Alex Rawls interviewed Nicholas Payton about the centrality of the DJ to his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape and BAM when the album came out in 2017

Creole String Bean
4 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage

Tom Jones
5:40 p.m., Gentilly Stage

Mavis Staples
5:50 p.m., Blues Tent