The closing set was the subject of the closing set at this year's Jazz Fest.
Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis introduced the festival-closing set by saying that three acts had closed the fest on what is now the Acura Stage—Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue—and that two of the three were coming up. There were a few other acts between Longhair’s death in 1980 and 1986 when the Neville Brothers took up residency in that spot, but the time slot has been associated with the Neville Brothers and Shorty for more than 30 years. In that time, the two bands have synthesized generations of New Orleans funk as a way of putting a hometown exclamation point on Jazz Fest. They’ve embodied many of the festival’s values including the city’s Creole culture, its deep roots in family, and a musicality as steeped in the past as in the present.
Shorty’s stint hasn’t been quite as must-see as the Neville Brothers’ closing sets, in part because they’re very different bands and that his songs don’t aspire to the same spiritual dimension that the Nevilles had. For many Jazz Fest fans, their sets were the secular version of going to church, but Shorty and Orleans Avenue have grown into the gig. He had people dancing not only right in front of him in the top-most row of the bleachers, as far from him as anyone could be without being on the track.
Shorty has also occupied the slot during a time of transition. The Neville Brothers played in a period when New Orleans artists were the biggest stars at Jazz Fest and were treated as such. Shorty took over the slot in 2013 and aside from the first year when he got the same time as The Black Keys who preceded him, his slot has been shorter than the those before him occupied by Arcade Fire, Lenny Kravitz, Neil Young & Promise of the Real, Kings of Leon (!), Jack White, and this year Jimmy Buffett. Because of that, Shorty’s shows have often felt like the after party, but he and his band played them gamely, seizing the moment each time, showing growth and charm each time. It is paying off as he is holding more and more of the previous band’s audience and attracting a larger one of his own.
As Sunday’s show with the Nevilles made clear, Orleans Avenue and the Neville Brothers are very different bands. Orleans Avenue doesn’t have a drop of hippie in it, and draws from some different musical traditions. Reggae and world music aren’t part of Shorty’s band’s DNA the way they were for the Neville Brothers, and rock means more to them than world music. Because of that, the Nevilles’ songs moved with uncommon efficiency when the bands played together. Ivan and Ian Neville and long-time Neville Brothers bassist Tony Hall joined them for cleaner, more muscular “Fiyo on the Bayou.” How clean? I understood most of the lyrics for the first time.
Cyril Neville then joined for spryly efficient “No More Okey Doke” that got Cyril stepping onstage, and a version of “Brother Jake” that generated runaway train momentum. Then Aaron joined them for “Yellow Moon,” a version of “Amazing Grace” accompanied only by Ivan’s organ, and “One Love,” which was a better vehicle for Aaron and Cyril than Shorty and company, though they acquitted themselves just fine.
Despite the set being billed as Trombone Shorty with the Nevilles, the Nevilles portion of the show was only 20 minutes. There are a lot of reasons it could have been like that, but when it ended, I didn’t need more. Cyril and Ivan have played with Shorty’s band and meshed well, but Aaron’s singular talent didn’t gel as effectively. His voice sounded otherworldly as usual, but he may have been feeling the absent brothers—Art, unable to make it, and Charles, dead—or maybe he was more connected than his look of concentration and unique voice could convey.
Shorty got the last word as he and Orleans Avenue ended with set with a medley of “Hurricane Season” and “Do To Me” that fit together roughly—really, the one rough spot in the set—and the dancing in the crowd was the most enthusiastic of the set. I think we were supposed to feel like a torch was passed on Sunday night, but after five years of Shorty closing the festival and showing his development as a singer, bandleader, and star, the gesture felt more like marketing than a real moment of transition.