Was everybody too busy thinking about immigration bans to talk about Jazz Fest this weekend? 

Maroon 5 photo
Maroon 5

What are the reasons to be excited by the lineup for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell? Not the top two lines of the talent release, which are filled with artists we’ve seen in the last decade. That’s certainly the case with Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Maroon 5. Will every Acura and Gentilly headliner this year be someone who has headlined the stage before? My lack of excitement doesn’t reflect on Wonder, Petty or Maroon 5 specifically, but just as Thanksgiving dinner needs a new dish or two amidst all the familiar ones, this year’s Jazz Fest will be fine, but it needs an act we haven’t seen before. Acura’s headliners will likely be Harry Connick Jr., Maroon 5, Petty, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews (with guitarist Tim Reynolds, not the band), Stevie, and Trombone Shorty. 

I’m looking forward to Usher and The Roots because something will be at stake. It’s not obvious how a smooth, nuanced performer such as Usher will fit with The Roots, and what changes will come from the pairing. I’m interested in Nas with The Soul Rebels for the same reasons, though my excitement is muted by a little hip-hop purism. I like a DJ behind my emcees. Bands may project better in concert, but the referentiality built into hip-hop with samples and scratching matters to me, and live hip-hop always loses a little something for me when the rapper’s backed by the band. The Soul Rebels take hip-hop seriously though, and if anyone can figure out how to do what Nas and maintain rap’s intertextuality, it’s them. 

Beyond those, Alabama Shakes because the band is still in the process of mapping its musical world. Lorde because we want to know what’s next. Margo Price, whose Midwest Farmer’s Daughter got a lot of love in The Nashville Scene’s annual Country Music Critics Poll

Where’s the Jazz?
One knock Jazz Fest gets every year is that there’s no jazz at Jazz Fest—a take based largely on a name that has been a millstone around the festival’s neck for decades. The question is really “Where’s the contemporary jazz at Jazz Fest?” because the Peoples Health/Economy Hall Tent is dedicated entirely to traditional jazz, and brass band music is a staple of the festival. In the first years, those sounds were the jazz at Jazz Fest as they are now, and modern jazz was a small part of the lineup. It’s actually better represented now than it used to be, though if you’re a contemporary jazz fan, it’s hard to look at the Jazz Tent with much excitement. Still, that lineup is not likely to be as same ol’ same ol’ as usual because the Cuban jazz bands are more likely to play there than Congo Square, and they’ll at least add something fresh. 

Does timing matter?
In Keith Spera’s story today in The New Orleans Advocate, festival producer Quint Davis recalls how much energy there was for Maroon 5 when the band played in 2013. “That was one of the most electric crowds I’ve ever seen or been in,” he said. “That place was on fire.” I’m sure the band and response will be good, but it will be interesting to see if the crowd will remain that revved up when the band tours without new product. Same for Elle King, who was right on time last time she played Jazz Fest. What changes when Love Stuff and “Ex’s and Oh’s” are two years old?

Who’s exciting?
For me, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, Big Freedia (who has figured out how to make her version of bounce get to a larger audience through work and determination), Leon Bridges (whose songs I like, but who could use a little more grit than he showed when he last played Tipitina’s), Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (because who knew they were together?), Boyfriend (because I want to see how an act as conceptual as hers translates to an audience that doesn’t know her), Gente de Zona (because its Cuban-inflected reggaton and catchy as hell), PJ Morton, Tank and the Bangas, Royal Teeth, Judith Owen and Krewe de Jude (because I’ve only ever seen Judith playing solo piano and singing), Sweet Crude, Motel Radio, Dale Watson (because Jazz Fest needs more honky tonk), and DJ Shub (because I can’t get enough electronic music made from First Nations samples).

How can I miss you if you never leave?
I love The Mavericks, but they’ve gone from an act that I built my schedule around to one I’ll fit in if I can. I’d rather go back to the previous relationship to the group. This year I feel the same about Wilco, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Rhiannon Giddens.

Why?
Was there really a demand for Corinne Bailey Rae? Johnnyswim (even though we share a love of “The Christmas Waltz”)? Herb Alpert (particularly when playing standards with singer Lani Hall)?