Friday offered a rather diverse lineup at Jazz Fest, with performances by everyone from R&B elder statesmen Little Anthony and the Imperials to New Orleans rapper Mystikal, Rodrigo Y Gabriela's fast and furious guitar strumming to Ziggy Marley's reggae/pop, Cajun firebrands Feufollet to the countrified rock of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
It was a big day for female vocalists. A far cry from her recent solo Jazz Fest performances, Theresa Andersson was at full volume, beautifully delivering material from her recent Street Parade album, backed by a full horn section and John Michael (of MyNameIsJohnMicahael) on guitar. Potter was also impressive opening her show a cappella, and though she switched back and forth from a flying-V guitar to organ, it seems that just as a vocalist, she should could carry a soulful and bluesy rock band (a la Janis Joplin as a few people on the Grounds noted) if she would let loose and shed the country pop. One of the odd moments in her show was a detour into the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right." She said the band was a big influence on her while growing up, but I don't know if everyone was aware that it was a tribute to Adam Yauch, the former Beastie Boy who died of cancer this morning.
There also were tributes to Levon Helm, who was scheduled to perform at the festival. Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers paid tribute to Helm by singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The song is credited to Robbie Robertson, but Helm worked with him on it, and famously stopped playing it in concerts in the mid-1970s. Also paying tribute to Helm was Mavis Staples, who sang The Band's "The Weight" during her performance in the Gospel Tent.
Staples' voice was a bit gravelly at first and seemed to get smoother as she went. But she also did a lot of talking. Besides "The Weight," she strayed from gospel music often and was preaching civil rights more than anything else. At one point she invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but not long afterward, she delved into contemporary politics. She stopped in the middle of The Impressions song "This Is My Country" to ask "What's with all these people disrespecting the president. Saying he isn't a resident. You see the president's face painted like a clown. You hear people saying 'We're gonna take our country back.' Back to where? The '50s and the '60s. No. No. No. I ain't never going back to the back of the bus."
Donald Harrison turned in a solid if not familiar Jazz Fest set at Congo Square. He was joined by percussionist Bill Summers, guitarist Detroit Brooks and one of his 15-year-old students. When the band went into an extended version of "Iko Iko" and five Mardi Gras Indians came on stage, one knew that Harrison was changing into his own Congo Nation suit. When he finally re-appeared in a massive suit of lime green and royal blue feathers, it was stunningly grand - tall headdress, huge wingspan, handheld feathered totems on each side. The whole ensemble eclipsed the entire drum kit at the back of the stage. And Harrison showed the crowd that the back of the suit also was completely feathered with its own design. The Indians stayed on stage as Harrison led the band in a jazzy rendition of "Hey Pocky Way," but during the final number, a rap (the name of which I do not know), Harrison had to catch his breath at first, which is saying something considering the blisteringly long and powerful solos he had already delivered on his saxophone. Marching in a full suit is a no easy burden to bear, let alone singing as a chief goes, but with the bright sun shining down, a Big Chief can look truly sublime.