The Who took to the main festival stage at Jazz Fest on Saturday night and jumped straight into “Who Are You.” Pete Townshend threw a few pinwheels and got the crowd moving.
At the end of the song, Roger Daltrey simply said, “It’s great to be back. It’s great to be anywhere.”
It was a sentiment shared by many stages on a beautiful day at the fairgrounds. And maybe it came more from the musicians, as the festival fans seemed to be back in the groove.
Jason Isbell said he was happy “just playing for people” after “two years in the house”. But he’s been busy for the past two years. His set included a song from “Georgia Blue,” an album of songs by Georgian artists he promised to record if the state of Georgia surrendered to President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
Isbell also drew inspiration from his own recent recordings and returned to play music from his Drive-By Trucker days. Several songs dealt with alcohol use and recovery, such as “It Gets Easier”. He and the band The 400 Unit sounded excellent, whether on heavy rock tunes, including “Only Children” and “Overseas” from his album “Reunions”, or being relatively softer on “Last of My Kind”.
Isbell also pressed on the labels, telling the crowd at the Gentilly stage: “I’m often called a country singer, so I might as well play a country song. This one has football, trucks and soldiers from the state.” He picked up an acoustic guitar to sing “Speed Trap Town,” with his heartbroken start, “She said it’s none of my business but it breaks my heart / I dropped a dozen cheap roses in my basket / Went to the truck without breaking down / Everybody knows you in a speed trap town.”
It was a strong set whether or not Isbell likes being associated with country.
The Cultural Exchange Pavilion showcases a variety of acts rather than focusing on a single nation or culture. This actually means that there is a two-iron system in effect, as many of the bands that perform in the tent also have other sets on the same day. The Young Pinstripe Brass Band started the day in the pavilion and let fans know they were celebrating their 10th anniversary. The first set featured covers of songs like Sade’s “Kiss of Life”. The band did a more traditional set later on the Jazz & Heritage scene.
Haiti’s Lakou Mizik had two sets, and the last one in the pavilion showed the advantage of playing in a relatively smaller tent, getting the crowd dancing with a groovy set. The band was happy to be on tour and noted not only the pandemic, but also the unrest in Haiti last year.
But if there was a policy to consider, no band had a warmer reception than DakhaBrakha, a band from Kyiv, Ukraine. They were greeted by a crowded tent with many fans carrying small blue and yellow Ukrainian flags. Accordionist Markho Halanevych greeted his compatriots: “The Ukrainian people have become the heroes of the resistance.” Singer and multi-instrumentalist (drums, keyboards, accordion and more) Iryna Kovalenko also dedicated a song to Ukrainians fighting against a Russian invasion.
DakhaBrakha describes itself as a world music quartet and draws on Ukrainian folk songs, classical training, vocal tours and more. Their sound is accessible like folk music, but unpredictable – and often gets a very strong impulse from Nina Garenetska’s cello, either with her bow or her string playing. The members met at an art center in kyiv, and they’re doing something unique with popular music.
The group often harmonizes in addition to a good rhythm coming only from the bass drum and the cello. Sometimes they sing haunting vocals, and sometimes they detour into instrumental interludes. For one song, bird calls accounted for half the votes, with Kovalenko hissing and tweeting. The band’s music was one of the most enjoyable exotic finds at Jazz Fest on Saturday, and the crowd’s enthusiastic support for the band hoisting a Ukrainian flag was heartening.
By the time DakhaBrakha ended at 2:40 p.m., the festival grounds were packed. While there may have been people lined up and eager to make first contact with the festival site on opening day, Saturday was slower, even though the ground was full for The Who. But if seeking shade and getting away from the heat is part of the rites of Jazz Fest, then normality is back.
In the gospel tent, Irma Thomas had a slightly different perspective on this. She wore a huge flower-shaped bodice and what looked like church lady glasses to start the set. She may be joking about setting the “backfield in motion” when she’s on the main stage singing R&B, but in the Gospel tent, she’s spreading the word. But not without humor. “It’s hot in here,” she said after one song. “But keep praying, because if it’s hot, you don’t know what hell is like.”
The first day of Jazz Fest 2022 felt like the last three years never happened. It was so right, so human to be in giant crowds! Classic, by…
One thing is clear from his Gospel Tent performances is that at age 81, Thomas hasn’t lost a beat. And she can wear the whole set by herself. She had a full band and backing vocals, but they put chairs on stage for the backing vocals, because there’s a lot of time when it’s just Thomas and a piano player accompanying him.
Much younger folks are scheduled in the AARP Rhythmpourium, a space that’s one of the more fun upgrades to the Jazz Fest tents. The decor resembles South Florida, with a piano lounge look, with a chandelier hanging above a small stage with a backdrop of tropical plants. There’s even a wine bar in the tent — “bubbly prosecco” anyone? — and AARP members who check in can get a free drink and access to a small lounge.
At the end of the day, The Who had their own approach to aging gracefully. Townshend, 76, still works at plenty of windmills, and Daltrey, 78, can’t attend a full show without at least unbuttoning his shirt, but the Brits aren’t keeping pace with Irma Thomas. They may have lost a step or two. But they know what they are working with.
Daltry and Townshend played the hits, like “You Better You Bet” and “Rain On Me.” And they fill the supporting stage. Daltrey and Townshend are backed by a full rock band. And on this tour they add full orchestras – or at least most of an orchestra. It may not have been the entire Louisiana Philharmonic on the main stage, but there were at least four French horns, lots of strings, and classical musicians everywhere.
They made good use of the orchestra, including long instrumental interludes. But it worked better on the closing song, “Baba O’Reily”, which has a lot of fiddle parts. And the violinist danced with Daltrey and Townshend as the song reached its crescendo. Daltrey even seemed to trip over a loudspeaker, but he and Townshend were happy to repeatedly wave and thank the conductor.
On the pitch, it sounded pretty good.
Close the first weekend of the Jazz Fest with these shows.