Crowds, Jerry Lee Lewis and sign language at Jazz Fest 2015's Second Saturday


The Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians parade at Jazz Fest.
  • The Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians parade at Jazz Fest.

Today's headliner, Crowds, dwarfed the tiny Acura Stage and its headliner, Elton John, hours before he was set to perform. Sweeping camera shots of the stage showed lines, chairs and people — lots and lots of people — gathered around the surrounding racetrack behind the stage and in the many yards in front of it. Chairs blocked the tracks reserved for walking, turning Jazz Fest 2015's second Saturday into one of its most people-packed days of this year's event. The crowds were there for Sir Elton — bridges around the moat to his castle were in a constant traffic jam.

But across from the Fairgrounds at the Lagniappe stage, cellist Helen Gillet held a massive Saturday crowd at attention with her impressively looped, experimental baroque-inspired pop. As percussive loops (built by her tapping her instrument) built around her melodies, she hopped around the stage (in gold glittery boots) and in front of dozens of dancing, enraptured fans. Lagniappe this year knew how to pick 'em. Many (or most) of its artists from both weekends are in a career or creative sweet spot. Gillet just released two tremendous albums. Cardinal Sons — the up-and-coming New Orleans rock 'n' roll trio that followed Gillet — are on the heels of a well-crafted EP and are getting well-earned recognition for their knack at writing a hook. Last weekend, performers included The Deslondes, about to release an anticipated full-length album this summer, and Brass Bed, who, despite playing in front of a slim crowd (the band played at the same time as Tony Bennett  & Lady Gasa, Jimmy Buffett and Pitbull), ripped up the stage like they were in a packed venue. (In fact, after Brass Bed played, a group of 20-something bros blew their own minds when they not only discovered the band but a short line for beer and oysters.)

Helen Gillet.
  • Helen Gillet.

Gillet wrapped up her set with a cover of "I Live Off You" by X-Ray Spex. "I played drums in a punk band," she said, "before I realized I could play cello."

Jerry Lee Lewis, a few months shy of 80 years old, strolled onto the Acura Stage wearing a white jacket, tie and loafers with a maroon shirt and gold-tipped cane, which he waved to the crowd to say hello. "We got a flock of people here!"

Lewis removed a big ring and shoved it into his pocket before ripping into his grand piano for "Move on Down the Line," "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" and "Before The Night Is Over" (which he concluded by slamming his hand on the piano and exclaiming, "Mercy!"). He suggested he'd rather have a solid gold monument than a headstone and wrapped a brief set with "C.C. Rider," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire" before exiting 15 minutes before the advertised closing time.

Lewis, born in Feriday, Louisiana, seemed frail as he walked but was comfortable as ever wailing and rolling into the ivories, including his signature stacatto shredding into the high notes. Though his voice has withered, he still smiled, joked and tossed in his goofy stutters and lyrical nonsense while sending lightning bolts into his fast-fingered playing.

Huge crowds overwhelmed the Fairgrounds.
  • Huge crowds overwhelmed the Fairgrounds.

Between the mass of people separating Lewis and Elton John was Big Freedia and a small army of dance all-stars from Freedia's dance crew. Freedia said her reality TV hit Queen of Bounce was on its way to its fourth season and paused for a moment of sincere gratitude to the crowd and her homebase in New Orleans: "I've been rocking around the world representing for y'all," Freedia said. "If you think it's easy, stand up here and try my shoes."

After Freedia's set, someone from the crowd had hrown out their "Release your wiggle!" and "yaya" signs, only for a man to excitedly pick them up and triumphantly carry them to Big Sam's Funky Nation.

Signs from Big Freedia's crowd.
  • Signs from Big Freedia's crowd.

Atlanta rapper T.I. — today's Congo Square Stage headliner — executed his set with a simple, often-repeated mantra: "I got hits." The Atlanta rapper packed most of them (mostly abbreviated versions) into his hourlong set, which spanned "Rubber Band Man" from his breakout 2004 album Trap Muzik to his 2008 hit factory Paper Trail, with songs like "Live Your Life" and "Whatever You Like," the latter of which ended a raunchy mini-set dedicated to the women in the audience.

Which brings me to the real star (and MVP of Saturday): sign language interpreters. The duo at stage right went blow-for-blow with T.I. as he rapped detailed thoughts on a woman's anatomy, types of guns and what they do, and T.I.'s metaphorical gift of gab, which the interpreters were gamely illustrating.

T.I. ended his set with a shoutout to Lil Wayne, a request to free former Cash Money rapper B.G., who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2012, and a "rest in piece" to slain New Orleans rapper Solja Slim. Apart from his set breaks for a requisite "follow your dreams" and sweet talking, T.I. thanked New Orleans for its years of support, coming in second only to his Georgia hometown.

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