The Legendary Rocks of Harmony helped bring the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival back to life.
At 11:15 am Friday, the Rocks, decked out in matching navy suits and red neckties, ushered in the resurrection at, appropriately, the Gospel Tent.
“All the things going on in this world, we all could have been dead and gone!” enthused Andrew Jackson Sr., part of the family that has fronted the New Orleans gospel institution for more than 70 years.
After two years of cancellations courtesy of the pandemic, Jazz Fest came roaring back under sunny skies. The site was largely, but not entirely, the same as before the pandemic. The big green bleachers have disappeared from the rear of the main Festival – formerly Acura – Stage field. The bleachers near the Congo Square Stage have been reduced in size.
Getting Jazz Fest up and running – and actually getting into the festival – was not without its challenges and frustrations. The festival for the first time used axs.com, not Ticketmaster, to handle its ticketing, which included weekend-long wristbands. Some ticket-buyers reported problems getting their wristbands shipped and delivered on time.
2022 New Orleans Jazz Fest opened Friday, as not just a return, but a “rebirth.” Read the story here.
And early arrivals Friday faced waits ranging from 30 minutes to more than an hour to enter at the festival’s Sauvage Street gate. At one point, the line snaked down Fortin Street.
Any festival’s opening day is likely to have snafus. An opening day after a three-year layoff is likely to be more complicated.
“The first few hours of putting this thing together and trying to make it work is the toughest thing of the year – you haven’t done it for a year,” Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis said a couple hours after the gates opened. “Trying to make it run after three years is unprecedented. There’s all kinds of challenges.
“There are millions of moving parts and little details. Getting it all to work again after three years is a testament to the people who put it on, and the musicians, and the food people, and the craft people.”
‘Made my rounds’
Davis, who wore a facemask as a hedge against catching COVID in the midst of the festival, was as happy as anyone to see the 51st edition up and running.
Opening day on the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Friday (April 29). A celebration of music, food, art, and …
“I’ve made my rounds. Everything that was supposed to be playing is playing, and playing on time. The whole live music engine of this festival is running.”
Yes it was.
At the Sheraton Fais Do-Do Stage, Cajun accordionist Steve Riley led a retooled Mamou Playboys powered by his 12-year-old son, Burke, on drums. Co-founding fiddler David Greeley has rejoined the Playboys.
The band, Riley noted, has existed for 34 years and played Jazz Fest for most of those years. “Something happened the last two years and we couldn’t make it,” he said, in perhaps the day’s driest reference to the pandemic. “We’re glad we’re back. We’re glad you’re back.”
Horns and sing-alongs
Ceelo Green and PJ Morton, playing against each other at the Festival and Congo Square stages, respectively, worked similar terrain. Green fronted a big band with horns, backing vocalists and dancers, all clad in red, for his elaborate James Brown tribute to him. He sweated through his shirt and “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine,” then lost momentum as his set slowed down.
Homegrown favorite PJ Morton, meanwhile, had Mayor LaToya Cantrell singing along at Congo Square. Morton, too, deployed a big, horn-heavy band heavy on grooves, but without the matching attire.
Morton, the keyboardist in Maroon 5 when not pursuing his solo career, released his latest album, “Watch the Sun,” on Friday.
That he was playing to a hometown crowd was clear. He sang the praises of a “New Orleans Girl” and gave a shout-out to his alma maters, St. Augustine High School and Holy Name of Jesus. Of the latter, I have noted, “I was the only Black guy in the class when I first came in.”
Seattle alt-rock band Death Cab for Cutie wasn’t the most obvious choice for a Gentilly Stage closer. But black-clad frontman Ben Gibbard’s melodic ruminations on death translated well in the open air, from the hushed “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” to the jittery acoustic guitars and bass line of “Soul Meets Body.”
“It’s blowing my mind,” Gibbard said. “You could be watching Lionel Richie right now.”
Musical comfort with a smile
Forty minutes earlier, Richie had arrived on the Festival Stage in a sparkling orange jacket emblazoned with “All Night Long.”
“You all are only going to see this jacket for two more songs,” he said after the opening “Running With the Night.” “Then I’m coming out of this damn thing. But I had to look cute.”
Richie is nothing if not a pro. Granted, he’s been telling the same anecdote about the New Orleans pronunciation of “Lio-NEL” for at least 20 years. But he can be counted on to serve up musical comfort food with a smile.
Case in point: the Commodores classic “Easy Like Sunday Morning.” Accompanying himself on piano, Richie navigated the song smoothly as his guitarist knocked out the signature solo.
It went down, yes, easy like Sunday morning.
Or easy like a sunny Friday afternoon at Jazz Fest.