Van Morrison at sunset at the packed Gentilly Stage on April 23.
Ever year New Orleans pretends Jazz Fest is the center of the universe, a big ass magnet bringing the stars to us because
it's New Orleans and why else. We forget there are a billion music festivals and all of them have morphed into versions of the same thing, with bands hopping from festival to festival or adding a few to their spring and summer tours, and Jazz Fest is one of them. Yes, Jazz Fest is set apart with a generous local lineup and focus and lots of citywide stuff supporting New Orleans music and culture. But most of the time, it's another tour stop. And most of the time, those audience expectations don't match the artist's ambitions.
arrived on the Gentilly Stage with a small band (organs and keyboards, drums, a background vocalist, bass and guitar, with Morrison also playing sax and harmonica) fit more for a twilight amphitheater or intimate jazz club rather than a late afternoon, sun-beaten crowd of thousands. But he was game to try, and to those paying attention, Morrison and his band delivered nuance, prayers and a weird-but-satisfying rendering of jazz and blues.
But Morrison doesn't fuck around. He's famously punctual and sticks to his time slot and set list. What he doesn't do is bend his set to the audience's whims — in Jazz Fest's case, entitled boomers expecting an hour of "Brown Eyed Girl" followed by an encore of "Brown Eyed Girl." Morrison's mid-set "Brown Eyed Girl" felt like a tossed-off pity performance to them. Of course the crowd ate it up and sang along, just like they've practiced at every wedding and suburban cover band they'll hear for eternity, then resumed their loud conversations over Morrison's sparse arrangements.
They were looking for a Morrison that wasn't onstage. Morrison — in sunglasses and a pinstriped suit and felt fedora and strapped with a sax in front of a gold microphone — didn't summon his mystic jazz poet, or rock 'n' roll soul man. He played at his most comfortable (and looked it) dueling solos on his sax and serving as his band's jazz maestro. His pop crowd pleasers — "Wild Night," Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" and set closer "Gloria" — fit uncomfortably in a curious set list that included late '80s and early '90s gospel hymns ("By His Grace," "Carrying a Torch" and "Whenever God Shines His Light") and blues and R&B (Ray Charles' "I Believe to My Soul," John Lee Hooker's "Think Twice Before You Go") that painted a picture of Morrison in worship mode, revisiting gospel spirituals and the blues songbook he reveres, and not entirely present to play "hits" but to find something interesting in a line here or there on saxophone or in his voice between an upright bass pluck or piano riff — a dozen people around me had grown restless. (Thankfully, a man taller than me shook a man next to us and asked, "Do you have to talk so loud?")
In 2010, Morrison's Jazz Fest set ("Brown Eyed Girl" came second in that setlist, for comparison) brought out a gorgeous rendering of "Northern Muse" and Astral Weeks
' stunning set closer "Ballerina." Here, Morrison's hourlong set kept winding back to that loose jazz, where the band sounded its natural best, shaping eventually into the low-key, seductive "Moondance," which appropriately dipped into "My Funny Valentine." Morrison's versatile, signature voice — meandering highs and lows with a heart-cutting tone — carried his words beautifully throughout the set, despite his deadpanning or impatience with a festival crowd. He walked off stage during "Gloria" while the band transformed the three-chord rave up into several minutes of jazz fusion.
Morrison is a transcendent, eternally gifted writer and performer. Jazz Fest isn't really the place to pick apart a performance, or the crowd during that performance, surrounded by sweaty, tuned-out people figuring out what they're eating after the show.
Here's his setlist:
"Close Enough For Jazz"
"I Believe To My Soul"
"By His Grace"
"Carrying A Torch"
"Baby Please Don't Go"
"Parchment Farm"/"Don't Stop Crying Now"
"In The Afternoon"
"No Plan B"/"Raincheck"
"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"
"Sometimes We Cry"
"Moondance"/"My Funny Valentine"
"Days Like This"
"Whenever God Shines His Light"
"Think Twice Before You Go"