NEW ORLEANS — Woodstock Music & Art Fair unified a counterculture in 1969. A year later, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival started, and while it didn't define a generation, it has had longer legs, continuing yearly.
The first weekend of the fest's seven-day run concluded Sunday (the event continues May 1-4) at the Fair Grounds Race Course with performances by Eric Clapton, Vampire Weekend, Charlie Wilson and Delfeayo Marsalis (brother to Wynton and Branford).
Approximately 85% of the performers on the festival's 12 stages are from Louisiana, and national artists have often been drawn from the era that launched the fest. This year, that lineup included Clapton, Robert Plant and Santana, who closed the opening night with a set of fiery Latin rock that ran overtime with festival producer Quint Davis onstage playing maracas.
Still fighting the power
Friday's most curious set came from Public Enemy, not because it was an unusual one for the militant hip-hop group that was inducted last year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but because hip-hop has generally appeared at JazzFest in trace amounts. Not only was Public Enemy missing from the festival's lineup during the group's late '80s/early '90s heyday, but it's hard to imagine it was ever seriously considered.
The group is as explosive now as ever, with its sound augmented with a rock band in addition to DJ Lord, who replaced Terminator X. Flavor Flav remains unpredictable, ending the set by talking about Vladimir Putin and the missing Malaysian airliner, while Chuck D is still prone to hyperbole. While playing JazzFest's Congo Square Stage — named for the historic space where slaves could congregate and dance — he rapped that "Congo Square is the home of all music," a claim not even New Orleanians will make. Still, he dedicated the band's Timebomb to local funk heroes The Meters, and on more than one occasion asked the audience to find ways to help get those displaced by Hurricane Katrina home again. Not surprisingly, it was a hits-heavy show, but Public Enemy worked in songs from the past decade and remade Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos with a more sinuous, less abrasive groove.
Earlier in the afternoon, British vocalist Laura Mvula made her JazzFest debut as well, and her set wasn't quite standard fare, either. Backed by a harpist, two string players, a bassist and drummer, Mvula drew on a number of traditions, including dramatic, Dusty Springfield-like pop balladry, African elements and '90s British club music. Mvula presented it all with a level of drama rarely seen on a JazzFest stage, slowing things down for a jazzy solo piano version of Father Father before revving things back up with her biggest hit, Green Garden. The set was charming, but members of the audience camped out for Santana were noncommittal about the obvious commercial polish.
JazzFest often has an international component, and the most exciting of this year's crop of bands from Brazil is BaianaSystem, a group that played traditional Brazilian rhythms but in a contemporary way, complete with a producer onstage adding samples and tweaks to the sound. Robertinho Barreto played a five-stringed, short-necked electric guitar that was designed to be played while mobile during Carnival, and that was the band's visual hook, but the deep bass and percussion didn't give the audience any choice as to whether it would dance or not.
Bigger than 'Blurred'
Saturday's schedule allotted three hours for Phish, whose fans traumatized festgoers when the band last played JazzFest in 1996. The unruly, nomadic audience that followed the band then was nowhere to be seen Saturday, but a plywood plank over a drainage ditch on the infield of the Fair Grounds became an interpretive dance floor for all who would fit on it. It looked like more people were seeing Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters remake Led Zeppelin songs with the aid of Juldeh Camara and his Ghanaian goje.
Robin Thicke sang for those who knew him for more than Blurred Lines, and since he has performed at the Essence Music Festival regularly, those people exist in New Orleans. They were supportive of him from the opening Give It 2 U through good-time versions of Al Green's Let's Stay Together and Michael Jackson's Rock With You, and even a faltering version of Dreamworld that Thicke had to stop and restart after a mistake. In return, he was energetic and genial throughout, and he left the stage to sing in the audience during the finale of Blurred Lines. Afterward, though, he surprised the crowd by ending the set with more than a half-hour left of his allotted time, but once he'd played the hit, much of the crowd headed for the gates to get a jump on the drive home and didn't wait around or call him back for an encore.
Fulfilling a fest wish list
It's surprising that, as rooted in the '70s as JazzFest is, it took 45 years to get Eric Clapton. He walked onstage Sunday in an untucked gray dress shirt and blue jeans and, dressed for work, went to work. He opened with Somebody's Knockin' and Keys to the Highway, warming up and giving the band a chance to settle in. His own Pretending inspired the first hot solo, and the tone for the show was set. He let his his guitar do the talking when another instrument wasn't.
Louisiana rock band Royal Teeth has been treated well by its song Wild, which first dented the public consciousness when it was the soundtrack for a Buick commercial. Earlier this spring, the band played the song at South By Southwest and on American Idol, which likely helped its draw at JazzFest, to judge from the youthful age of the audience. The band's new-wave sonic palate is endearing or grating, depending on your attitude toward the '80s, but there's no denying singer Gary Larsen's unflagging energy or vocalist Nora Patterson's sweet vulnerability. The audience Sunday was with the band without reservation.
Record collectors know Chocolate Milk as New Orleans' other '70s funk band. They didn't make the same mark on music that The Meters did, but its members were in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer Allen Toussaint's studio band. In the mid-'70s, the band flirted with national success that never quite happened, but Sunday it played the songs that made the band local heroes. Moments wandered or got stuck in third gear, but the summery jam Groove City, the fat groove on My Mind Is Hazy and the cover of Pharrell's Happy said fans had a reason to believe Chocolate Milk had a bigger future.