When the rock 'n' roll legends play Jazz Fest, they're the realization of the festival's dreams and not an aberration.
Before Tuesday’s announcement of the lineup for the 50th anniversary edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, photographers crowded close to get shots of festival producer Quint Davis welcoming Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The greeting was official and cordial, but it also served as a reminder that Jazz Fest isn’t simply a musical or cultural event. It’s an economic driver that together with Carnival anchors New Orleans’ tourist economy, and the city has a financial interest in its booking just as fans have a musical one.
Once the press conference began, Davis coyly rattled off a list of performers this year who constitute a Jazz Fest’s greatest hits (and artists in their mode)—Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Seger, Santana, Pitbull, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire, John Fogerty, Trombone Shorty with the Nevilles, Gladys Knight and more—before announcing two big acts: Katy Perry and The Rolling Stones. As he talked about the lineup, he carefully lumped Perry and The Stones together—the result of decades of experience keeping musicians and their managers happy I’m sure, but it felt forced. The implication that they were close to on par with each other felt like a stretch each time they appeared in the same sentence together.
Perry is an interesting booking, but not because of how she fits into Jazz Fest. Jazz Fest got over its allergy for hitmakers years ago. No, the more interesting question is how Jazz Fest fits into her narrative, particularly after last year’s Witness stiffed commercially. As Jon Caramanica wrote in The New York Times recently, pop music isn’t pop in the streaming era, and her fans clearly didn’t come along for the more political, enlightened journey that the album embarked on. Is this the start of Perry transitioning into a new phase of her career, one less reliant on the shifting tastes of a market that she grows apart from yearly? Or, just a one-off before she returns to business as usual?
As for the Stones, they disprove Don Paul’s suggestion in his Medium.com story that AEG Live is driving the booking at Jazz Fest. The Rolling Stones are the ultimate Quint Davis booking, and AEG’s deep pockets and connections helped make it possible. Rock ’n ‘roll from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s with one foot in the R&B and blues and one in the counterculture has long been Jazz Fest’s North Star, and The Beatles and Stones are the northern-most points of that star. Jazz Fest has likely tried to book the Stones every time that they’ve gone on an American tour, or at least thought about how the festival could swing it. It is Quint-essential Jazz Fest.
The specifics also make it central to Jazz Fest’s place in the city’s economy. The Rolling Stones will play Thursday, May 2, and it will be a separate ticket from the rest of Jazz Fest—a $185 ticket, as rumored. The day will be much like a regular Jazz Fest day, but with two differences. The other stages will all go dark around 5 p.m. when The Stones are scheduled to start on the Acura Stage, and the number of tickets sold that day will be limited to the number that would fit comfortably in front of Acura for the band. Because the rest of the Stones’ American tour is sold out, the day at Jazz Fest will certainly be good business for the city as it will sell out with Stones fans from around the country buying tickets and coming to New Orleans, stay in New Orleans hotels, eat New Orleans food and drink New Orleans booze.
Jazz Fest has tried to make sure that New Orleanians aren’t boxed out of that day by Rolling Stones diehards. Tickets for that day go on sale through Ticketmaster on Friday, but on Thursday, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome box office will sell May 2 tickets starting at 9 a.m., where local fans can buy a maximum of two tickets per person. There’s no price break for being Louisiana residents, but Louisianans will have a first shot at tickets for the day. Brass pass holders will also have the opportunity to buy one ticket for that day. Only 10,000 tickets will be available at the dome, so locals in line could be shut out, and tickets are guaranteed to be available nationally starting on Friday. That might seem like a slight to locals, but it is almost certainly a condition of the band’s contract as it tries to reach fans in as many markets as possible when they’re only performing in 14 cities.
Davis’ announcement and the performers he focused on underlined the degree to which the festival accepts and embraces its role in New Orleans’ tourist economy. City leaders envisioned Jazz Fest as a tourism driver when they approached George Wein to produce the festival, and Davis identified artists with a proven history of drawing at Jazz Fest, as well as artists such as Chris Stapleton who come with a healthy dose of Grammy and commercial cred, particularly with the baby boomer demographic that Jazz Fest speaks to first. Davis mentioned Pitbull who has high name recognition but peaked commercially five or more years ago. He didn’t mention another Latin artist, J Balvin, who had one of the biggest hits of 2018 with the hip-hop/boogaloo “I Like It” with Cardi B and Bad Bunny. He didn’t draw attention to acclaimed saxophone player Kamasi Washington, who performed multi-night residencies at One Eyed Jacks during Jazz Fest to jazz/jam/hip-hop audiences in recent years instead of a festival set for the faithful, or Christian singer Lauren Daigle, who has more than a million YouTube subscribers, whose six month-old “You Say” video has been streamed more than 76 million times, and who played the Saenger last fall.
Really, Davis and Festival Productions danced the complicated dance they do with the city and their fans as well as could be expected. Personally, I’m not excited by The Rolling Stones because I have a very hard time getting enthusiastic about a band of 75-year-old men who have played together for more than 50 years. Part of what I want from music is to hear something that reacts to the moment we live in, and while the Stones will be many things, responsive to life in Trump’s America in the year that streaming took over is not likely to be one of them. They also feel like a distortion of the festival as they change the nature of the day they perform and the marketing of the lineup. Instead of being the first among peers on the poster, The Rolling Stones appear on a line by themselves as the headliner, with everybody else a line below. At the press conference, Davis announced that “The biggest band in the world has accepted playing Jazz Fest on Jazz Fest’s terms, on a stage under a tent (canopy), in the daytime, with no lights,” but the ways that they don’t conform to the festival’s ways reinforce the market-driven hierarchy that dominates Jazz Fest in the AEG Live Era.
Still, The Rolling Stones have made Jazz Fest a topic of conversation like other headliners haven’t. While getting coffee this morning, I overheard people talking about the Stones at Jazz Fest. My father-in-law’s dog trainer asked me about the Stones at Jazz Fest. My Facebook timeline is dotted with pro/con Stones conversations, so at a fundamental level, people are talking about the festival in a way they haven’t in years. And while $185 is heavy by Jazz Fest standards, it’s a bargain by Stones’ standards. On the resale market, tickets are averaging $683 on the “No Filter” tour.
If you dig down beyond the Stones, Perry and the top artists Davis announced, there’s a lot of interesting choices this year. In addition to Balvin and Washington, there’s New Orleans rapper Curren$y, who will make his festival debut with Nesby Phips. I’m also looking forward to Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, Mavis Staples, jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, the return of Jupiter & Okwess, and the First Nations EDM of A Tribe Called Red. Once I have time to go through the international acts, I suspect I’ll find another handful that I’ll build my festival days around.
In these announcements, locals inevitably seem overlooked or taken for granted, in part because they’re not the news. Jazz Fest markets them collectively with some exceptions like Trombone Shorty, who this year will close the festival with Nevilles as special guests. Davis said that there will be 688 acts at Jazz Fest this year, and 600 of them will be based in Louisiana. (I haven’t checked that math yet, but it sounds right.) They attract tourists collectively more than individually, but personally I’m glad to see Dayna Kurtz’s Lulu and the Broadsides play for the first time this year. I don’t see a lot new in locals lineup, but I’m particularly looking forward to Boyfriend, Grayson Brockamp and the New Orleans Wildlife Band, PJ Morton, Kumasi, Hurray for the Riff Raff (who I think will close the Fais Do-Do Stage on Saturday, April 27), Sweet Crude, Jerry Lee Lewis (who was far more compelling when he played in 2015 than I expected), Nicholas Payton and the Light Beings, Tin Men, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Leyla McCalla, Trumpet Mafia, Cedric Watson et Bijou Creole, Judith Owen, Panorama Jazz Band, The Rayo Brothers, Carsie Blanton, and 79ers Gang Mardi Gras Indians.
At the press conference, Davis did focus attention on local talent as well. Critics of Jazz Fest may feel like the festival skews too much toward the national stars, but I still consider Davis a true believer in New Orleans music and culture. You can argue with how his belief in New Orleans plays out—I’ve argued that a simple headcount doesn’t tell the whole story—but when he introduced musicians who played the first Jazz Fest to put some jazz and heritage in the announcement, he conveyed the sense that Germaine Bazzle, Ellis Marsalis, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Vidacovich, George French, Little Freddie King, Orange Kellin, Lars Edegran, and Ronnie Kole are as important to the festival’s story as Buffett or Cray or Matthews.
But not necessarily The Rolling Stones. They’re in a line of their own.
Some final notes:
- When I reviewed The Revivalists’ Take Good Care, I predicted that they would headline the Gentilly Stage this year. I was right. They’ll close the show on Friday, April 26.
- You can grouse about the issues connected to The Rolling Stones at Jazz Fest, but if the tickets are limited to the number that fit in front of the Acura Stage, then the day will be less crowded than usual at the festival. The festival will not allow tarps and chairs to reserve space, though I’m not sure how the tarp part gets enforced. Keith Spera wrote at The New Orleans Advocate, “Reserving real estate with chairs and tarps is ‘antithetical’ to the spirit of the festival, Davis said, and they gobble up considerably more space than a person standing. ‘It’s going to be a big day, the biggest Thursday crowd ever,’ Davis said. ‘But it’s going to be comfortable.’” Sounds comfortable. On the other hand, this will likely be a light attendance day by Jazz Fest standards—I’m going to spitball 50,000 people—which will make for easy day to manage around the rest of the festival grounds.