Our highlights from Friday at Jazz Fest include the Haitian blues rock band, Spencer Bohren, and PJ Morton.

moonlight benjamin photo
Moonlight Benjamin

Bands have been trying for years to do what Moonlight Benjamin made seem effortless. Starting with The Gun Club, countless American bands have tried to find the place where the blues and Voodoo-inflected spirituality meet. In fact, Moonlight Benjamin do more than that, but the Haitian singer and the rock band accompanying her started there with “Papa Legba” in the Blues Tent Friday at Jazz Fest.

At first, the cultural politics of the band’s presentation were disconcerting as she wore what looked like a stylish, upscale, black variation of a traditional Haitian dress, while her white band looked like four grad students in close-but-not-matching sport coats, black shirts and black pants. Their apparent difference made me worry about the dynamics of their relationship, and if the band were four Belgians who fetishized American attempts to strike a voodoo blues balance, then found a singer who could be the real deal in a way that The Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce couldn’t. The opening song, “Papa Legba,” fed that concern.

But that narrative is wrong. Benjamin has had a singing career for more than 12 years, and one of her bandmates on this tour is the French jazz/rock guitarist Matthis Pascaud, who joined her for her most recent album, Siltane. I learned that information later, but in the moment my concerns about the politics of cultural interaction disappeared because Benjamin is a rock star, and the magnetism of her presence and the power of her voice tabled all doubts, quibbles and potential contradictions. The band laid into riffs, usually to a big rock thump, and she sang with them, around them and against them, singing in a way that made line breaks clear at times, but on occasions she performed as if it a world of her own. She added drama and warmth to the musical architecture and occasional Haitian rhythm that the band provided.

That was in the Blues Tent. Two hours later, Moonlight Benjamin played in the Cultural Heritage Pavilion, and as much as I enjoyed the first show, I was really going to the secondbecause I saw a merch guy selling copies of the album in the Blues Tent and hoped to catch up to him. I didn’t, but I got an even better show than the first. The intimacy of that space clearly suited the band better than the cavernous Blues Tent, and it suited the band’s sound better as well. The Blues Tent foregrounded the kick drum’s thump and riffs that framed the songs. In the smaller space, the lower tones were less prominent, so Pascuad’s droning guitar patterns moved to the foreground. Benjamin’s performance made more sense as the psychedelic, hypnotic elements we only faintly heard earlier joined with her incantatory performance.  

The ensemble became more physical and compelling and rocked in a way that bands rarely do at Jazz Fest. They raved up a song I referred to in my notes as “the Haitian Gloria” because of its three-chord garage band energy and stop/start build to an ecstatic chorus. And as it was happening, Benjamin remained the focal point. Her intensity made the arrival at the chorus/“Gloria” moment pay off each time, even when you knew it was coming. She was on her knees at one point, and when the guitarists met at the front of the stage for a dudes-with-guitars moment, you wanted them to get out of the way because you couldn’t see her. Near the end of the set as the band raged on, Benjamin danced over to each one, playfully challenged their space, and leaned over to kiss each one on the cheek. 

By the end, Moonlight Benjamin—the singer and act—had set an early high bar for this year’s Jazz Fest, and it’s hard to imagine many bands will be more exciting than they were for that set.  

What does PJ Morton have to do to get over? Mayor LaToya Cantrell was at his show singing along to his cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love”  from the audience, but the excitement he generated was right up front at Congo Square. Farther back, people stayed, hung out and seemed to enjoy themselves, but they weren’t matching Morton’s enthusiasm. 

On paper, this shouldn’t be a question. He writes songs that bridge audiences with their nods to old school, speaking to young soul cratediggers as semi-retro  as well as older audiences who have firsthand memories of the songs and styles Morton invokes. If you didn’t know he was Bishop Paul Morton’s son, you’d still know he has church in background from his gospel-inflected performance. He’s not preaching, but he can shift gears into that mode without the message. He finished with his “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” and it was good news without the Good News.

Maybe there’s something to the story he recounts in “Claustrophic about his interactions with record companies who wanted him to tailor his music to one market segment or another. Perhaps the in-between space is a great one for making music but a tough one for selling it.

You know he’d kill if he played in front of the Frankie Beverly and Maze audience at Jazz Fest, but would that audience come to see him the next year? A percentage, sure, but I get the impression that much of the Maze crowd is only at Jazz Fest for Maze. I wonder if he’d get a better response at the Acura Stage, where his old school-inflected pop soul would be new and refreshing for many in the crowd. 

Spencer Bohren is battling cancer, and the fight is going as that fight goes. He now needs a cane to get around, and Bohren announced on Facebook that his Jazz Fest shows are his last “for the foreseeable future.” But he played the AARP Rhythmpourium (worst word I have ever typed. Seriously), but he clearly relished his time in front of an attentive audience. Bohren sang Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos)” in a voice more ragged than we’re used to, but not so much so that we were listening charitably. The rawness added gravity to a song that doesn’t need much more, and immediacy to one that remains right on time. 

He finished with a version of The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” that he has been playing for years. Although the whole “train to Jordan” part sounded sadly apropos, he introduced the song by focusing on the “train a-comin’,” which he contends was the Civil Rights train when Curtis Mayfield wrote the song. He then played the song on his lap steel guitar, slowly coaxing out the melody as if it came from a train’s whistle. Bohren patiently let the melody speak for itself as he has for years, and the moment remains beautiful. He was clearly moved by the audience response at what has to be a difficult time, and he’ll close out his Jazz Fest this morning at 11:15 a.m. at the Gentilly Stage.

Here are our picks for Saturday at Jazz Fest: 

Sweet Crude
12:40 p.m., Acura Stage
Our review of the band’s 2017 album, Créatures

Dobet Gnahoré of Ivory Coast
1:35 p.m., Congo Square Stage

Curren$y with guest Nesby Phips
3 p.m., Congo Square Stage

Hurray for the Riff Raff
3:45 p.m., Acura Stage
We reconsidered 2017’s The Navigator a year later in a new context and have a new interview with Alynda Segarra