Aaron Neville sings in the Blues Tent.
At the first Jazz Fest in 1970, there were 66 paid admissions, said Preservation Hall Jazz Band tuba player and creative director Ben Jaffe. Speaking from the stage in the Blues Tent Saturday, he told the crowd his mother, Sandra Jaffe, had pointed that out to him earlier in the day.
“It’s amazing what it’s become,” Jaffe said, before thanking the audience for supportinging New Orleans. The sentiment put a positive spin on one of the busiest festival days in recent memory. The day was marked by long lines, and crowds for Jerry Lee Lewis set at the Acura Stage sprawled, leaving areas of the track and infield normally used for transit clogged with fans. But the attendance was a testament to the strength of a pair of headliners – Lewis and Elton John. Their music's relevance to jazz piano links them to New Orleans’ music heritage.
Lewis’ voice isn’t what it once was, but by the time he got to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” he’d satisfied the crowd with enough lightning fast excursions up and down the keys that nobody seemed to mind. His chatter between tunes was difficult to understand, but he eventually kicked out a solid “Great Balls of Fire” jam before wrapping up his set early. It was at least 10 or 15 minutes before he was scheduled to close when Lewis gave a wave to the crowd, picked up his cane and sauntered off as the band continued to play.
Elton John was more reliable, interspersing hits like “Rocket Man,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Candle In he Wind” with chord-packed clusters of robust piano virtuosity. Close to the end of his set, he gave a shout-out to Percy Sledge and Ben E. King. Less than an hour later, Aaron Neville did the same in the Blues Tent, kicking off his set with a nod to King and a voice fluttering take of “Stand By Me.”
Neville breezed through a mix of crowd pleasers including Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and the Neville Brothers’ “Yellow Moon” before mixing things up with a Bob Marley reggae medley and a moving, lilting version of “Louisiana 1927.”
Despite the hits and big names at various stages, the day’s highlight was Midnight Disturbers, a local supergroup that’s become one of the best reasons for brass and funk band fans to look forward to Jazz Fest. With Stanton Moore, Kevin O’Day and Mike Dillon on drums and percussion, the sprawling, horn-centric band tackled a mix of funk standards led by Shamarr Allen. A three-part sax section was made up of Ellmans – with Ben Ellman and his relatives – while Trombone Shorty, Corey Henry and “Big Sam” Williams held down the trombone section. Matt Perrine’s sousaphone blasts kept the bass lines progressively funky, driving both the rhythms and melodies throughout the set. At one point, the high-school aged Revon Andrews stepped up for a solo that began cautiously and ended with raucous bursts of from the lowest registers. The group finished the way it usually does, with Allen serving up a “Buck It Like a Horse” enticement for the crowd to rock out.