Sacrifices must sometimes be made to make the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival happen. It is not always easy.
Consider Beausoleil fiddler and singer Michael Doucet. Doucet broke his hip after slipping on ice in Alaska on April 1 – while still recovering from knee surgery. Yet he gingerly ascended the stairs to the Sheraton Fais Do-Do Stage on Sunday, took a seat near his guitarist brother David Doucet and, with a smile and good humor, played haunted and happy Cajun fiddle.
Consider Charlie Gabriel. The 89-year-old saxophonist and clarinetist of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band sat out Jazz Fest’s first weekend with COVID. And yet he fronted a traditional jazz band at Jazz Fest’s Economy Hall Tent on Sunday.
He sat down when playing clarinet and tenor sax, but stood to sing. He smiled and clapped and introduced his ace band from him. It included Pres Hall creative director and bassist Ben Jaffe, who also missed the festival’s first weekend with COVID.
Maze featuring Frankie Beverly performs on the Congo Square Stage during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Sunday, May 8, 2022.
Gabriel’s horns held their own alongside trombonist Craig Klein and trumpeter Kevin Lewis. Gabriel’s clarinet gave “Yellow Moon,” a song he cowrote with Jaffe – not to be confused with the Neville Brothers song of the same name – a Middle Eastern tinge. He sang “Come With Me,” another Gabriel/Jaffe composition.
Joshua Starkman, a regular at Pres Hall since it reopened last fall, worked a 1950s Gibson archtop guitar near Gabriel. His solos and rhythm work by him fit right in the pocket created by Jaffe, pianist Meagan Swartz and drummer Glen “Buddha” Andrews. Andrews maintained his focus on him even as he kept an eye on his 3-year-old son, Glen, and Glen’s 4-year-old cousin, Keilan, as they frolicked on the stage.
A Kool day with Irma, Buffett
The 2022 Jazz Fest’s final Sunday also encompassed Jimmy Buffett kicking off his flipflops to lead his Hawaiian shirt-clad Coral Reefer Band in their opening “I Will Play for Gumbo.”
Bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs wailing on mandolin for a Bill Monroe song at Fais Do-Do segued into Kool & the Gang hosting a “Celebration” for a huge crowd at the Congo Square Stage.
Irma Thomas sported her custom-made BayouWear dress and a Mother’s Day mom at the Festival Stage. After a synthesizer-heavy take on her contemporary Galactic collaboration “Heart of Steel,” Thomas, her band and horn section minted New Orleans rhythm & blues gold with “Ruler of My Heart,” “Breakaway” and “Wish Someone Would Care.”
After Willie Nelson canceled his Sunday headlining slot at the Gentilly Stage 48 hours out, the festival could have simply promoted Promise of the Real, the band fronted by Willie’s son Lukas, to the closing slot. Or bumped up the Radiators, who closed the Gentilly Stage for years.
The Zac Brown Band rocked the Shell Gentilly Stage during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Sunday, May 8, 2022. Zac Brown replaced…
Instead, the producers hustled and, in five hours, found a last-minute, marquee replacement in the Zac Brown Band. Instead of having a day off following a Saturday night gig in Austin, the band’s musicians and crew scrambled to get themselves and their gear to New Orleans by Sunday morning. Their crew hustled the gear onto the Shell Gentilly Stage as other bands were playing.
Big shoes to fill
The Zac Brown Band closed Jazz Fest’s main stage in 2012. Taking Willie’s slot meant they’d play on a smaller stage, with a smaller field. The band squeezed onto the stage as thousands of fans filled the field.
“We’ve got some big shoes to fill,” the bearded, heavily tattooed Brown announced even before plunging into the first song, “Homegrown.”
Later, after the Buffett-esque “Toes,” he continued, “We’re so glad we were asked to do this. There will never be another one like Willie. He’s one of my heroes. Just to be associated with him in the same sentence is f—- awesome.”
Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band perform on the Festival Stage during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Sunday, May 8, 2022.
Like everyone else who has ever met Willie, he told a story about Nelson trying to get him so stoned that he couldn’t perform: “I think that was entertaining to him.”
The Jazz Fest booked the Zac Brown Band but ended up with a pretty good cover band. Brown and company reeled off a brawny take on the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” and, after their own “Same Boat,” a fleet run through Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
But they were just getting started. Chewing up lots of set time, different band members sang big chunks of throwback covers: “Poison,” “Sledgehammer,” “All Night Long,” “Happy,” “Sabotage” and more. It was fun, but they might have done something by Willie Nelson – or more by Zac Brown.
Norah meets Tank, Shorty signs off
With the crowd pooling outside the WWOZ Jazz Tent, Norah Jones called out special guest Tarriona “Tank” Ball of New Orleans’ Tank & the Bangas. “We’re going to do a song we both know,” Jones said.
It was actually a song everybody knew: “Don’t Know Why,” her breakout single, first released 20 years ago. Ball jumped in on the second verse; she and Jones harmonized on the bridge. It was lovely and fun.
With Frankie Beverly and Maze having stopped early at Congo Square, it fell to homegrown talent Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his Orleans Avenue to close down the whole 2022 Jazz Fest just after 7 pm
Photos: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue perform on the Festival Stage
With approximately half of New Orleans onstage with him – the New Breed Brass Band, Mardi Gras Indians, his brother James “12” Andrews and more – Shorty detoured into “When the Saints Go Marching In” before a final ovation.
“Happy Jazz Festival!” he shouted by way of conclusion. “We will see you next year!”
Hopefully he’s right.