Standing tall in sparkly pink high heels, Cajun-country fiddler Amanda Shaw spoke truth Thursday at the 2022 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “I think the AC broke,” she deadpanned between fleet fiddle solos.
It was a steamy afternoon at the Fair Grounds when clouds weren’t crossing the sun. But music fans, especially country and reggae fans, were underterred.
The crowd felt particularly large for a Thursday. Blocks-long lines formed at ticket booths as Louisiana residents took advantage of $50 tickets.
On the main Festival Stage, Shaw and her band, the Cute Guys, knocked out a tidy set of songs that referenced her early Cajun infatuation and her more recent efforts to write grown-up country songs, ie, “Don’t Treat Me Like Your Woman (If You Can’t Act Like My Man).” Her fiddle was her main foil throughout the set.
The jazz in Jazz Fest
The notion that there’s “no jazz at Jazz Fest” is ridiculous, as Tony Dagradi & Down Time pretty much filled the festival’s quota for jazz saxophone on their own. At the WWOZ Jazz Tent, within sight of Luke Combs’ tour buses, Dagradi, the longtime saxophonist in modern jazz ensemble Astral Project, anchored a line of six saxophonists for much of his set.
Dagradi, along with Khari Allen Lee, Clarence Johnson III, Dan Oestricher, Roderick Paulin and Derek Douget, backed by Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, alternately swung and soloed on a mix of saxophones (tenor, baritone, alto, soprano). With the mid-set addition of Dirty Dozen Brass Band baritone specialist Roger Lewis, the ensemble boasted as many as seven saxophonists blazing at once.
They briefly dropped down to four horns to showcase Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood.” But they mostly focused on Dagradi’s original compositions, such as the Cannonball Adderley-inspired “Cannonball.”
“We hope we brought that spirit into the tent,” Dagradi said. They did.
Dave Bartholomew tribute
Lewis then hustled to the Shell Gentilly Stage to join his Dirty Dozen bandmates for their salute to Dave Bartholomew, the Fats Domino producer and songwriter who died at age 100 in 2019. Lewis played in Domino’s band for many years, so he knew his way around “I’m Walkin’” – especially with Domino soundalike Al “Lil Fats” Jackson on piano and vocals.
Elvis Costello, dapper despite the heat, got into character for Bartholomew’s “The Monkey Speaks Its Mind”; Gregory Davis muted his trumpet with a plunger for a solo. Costello played it straighter for “Before I Grow Too Old,” a 1960 single written by Bartholomew, Domino and Bobby Charles. With the many horns of the Dirty Dozen, “Before I Grow Too Old” felt spry.
Combs played to a big crowd at the Festival Stage, but the Gentilly and, especially, Congo Square stages were closer to their full capacities for, respectively, Billy Strings and Ziggy Marley.
Combs and Strings hail from different planets in the same country universe. Combs is the mainstream everyman Nashville hitmaker. His band contained pedal steel and banjo, but they mostly weren’t audible. The big strokes of his arena- and stadium-sized country require drums, electric guitars and Combs at his most animated.
Early on, his Jazz Fest set was understated. The crowd responded to his hit “When It Rains It Pours.” But his voice sounded a bit raw, and it felt as though he and the band were pressing a little too hard. For its first 30 minutes at least, his Jazz Fest show didn’t have the same combustible energy as his sold-out stop at the Smoothie King Center in November.
Strings hails from much deeper in the holler. As his stage name implies, Strings is all about the stringed instruments. At the Gentilly Stage, his fleet picking and strumming on an acoustic guitar – which sounded at times like an electric – was bolstered by the equally nimble work of a five-string banjoist and a mandolinist, plus an upright bass. There was no drummer. The sound was all about the brightness of the strings.
And the frontman’s voice. Strings has roots in both Michigan and Kentucky, but his high-lonesome voice is pure Appalachian hope and hard times. The final “Meet Me at the Creek” was a tour de force. Each member of the ensemble showed his individual pickin’ skills, but they blended as a seamless whole. Strings embarked on an extended solo before landing back on the song’s refrain of “muddy water take my pain away.”
Meanwhile, Ziggy Marley conjured good vibes for an overflow crowd at Congo Square. His father, the late legend Bob Marley, wrote the greatest catalog in reggae history. Ziggy put out his own albums, but he would never live up to his father’s.
And so he has embraced Bob’s catalog, even in the show’s billing. He demonstrated that he’s worthy of it, as he and his band segued from “Get Up, Stand Up” through “Rumors of War” and “No More Trouble” with one long, uninterrupted groove. “Jamming” was light on its feet, as was “Is This Love.”
For many years, the Neville Brothers closed Jazz Fest with Bob Marley’s “One Love.” On Thursday, Ziggy Marley reclaimed it, living up to the song’s legacy at the festival.