By Andy J. Gordon

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is back to normal in 2023, which is to say fantastic, after pandemic related cancellations and rescheduling. Weekend one kicked off on April 28 and ran Friday to Sunday with an array of big name bands, local and regional artists, spanning all types of music. Fans came out in force to see favorites like Lizzo, Ed Sheeran, Steve Miller, Gary Clark Jr. and Tedeschi Trucks Band.

The festival runs over two consecutive, extended weekends on the property of the New Orleans Fair Grounds, a horse racetrack where thirteen stages are set up for music that includes rock, soul, R&B, blues, jazz, funk, gospel, zydeco and much more. We put in the miles to see as much of the action as possible and indulge in the food, parades and wild times that make this event unlike any other.

Highlights from the first weekend:

  • John Papa Gros, the talented singer, keyboardist and composer best known for leading Papa Grows Funk, led a groovy group through several of his New Orleans themed songs. The crowd stomped their feet and danced as Gros and his band played catchy tunes.
  • Trumpet legend Kermit Ruffins cracked jokes, sang and had fun with the audience. He blasted his horn on a few of his tunes and classics like Cab Callaway’s “St. James Infirmary,” Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” and a lighthearted, improvisational version of the Flintstones theme song.
  • Tank and the Bangas were a perfect opening act for Lizzo. Tarriana “Tank” Ball is a theatrical dynamo with a booming voice fronting a talented band that plays a cross between funk, soul, rock and hip hop. Their set got the crowd energized for Lizzo’s performance.
  • Lizzo is a draw for fans of all ages and her Friday headlining set had the biggest crowd of the weekend. She had celebrated her 35th birthday the day before her Jazz Fest show and said, “I’m hungover as shit. Nobody makes you sleazy like the Big Easy.” In spite of that, her performance was special. She commanded the big stage and belted out high energy hits while dancing with her eight Big Girls – all clad in short-shorts, unafraid to shake their booties. She worked in a flute solo during “Juice” and closed the show with “About Damn Time” as fans danced and sang along.
  • Original Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli has been wowing audiences with his fast fingers for decades. His band included the incredible bassist Bill “Buddha” Dickens and drummer Jamal Batiste, plus slide guitar wizard Marc Stone. Their set featured Meters classics “Cissy Strut,” “No More Okey Doke” and “Fire on the Bayou.” Cyril Neville, from the Neville Brothers, was an unannounced guest singer during the show.
  • Ed Sheeran headlined the biggest stage on Saturday. His solo performance, with only a keyboard setup, foot pedals for looping his sounds and his guitar, drew thunderous applause. That cheering peaked during “Thinking Out Loud,” the song he has had to defend in court against copyright infringement charges brought by the Marvin Gaye estate, claiming it copies “Let’s Get It On.”

Check out the review of the second weekend of Jazzfest by Andy J. Gordon here.

  • Classic rocker and blues-rooted legend Steve Miller headlined the other big stage on Saturday. While the Miller audience skewed older than Sheeran’s, they were no less enthusiastic, as many in the crowd sang along to every classic tune. Miller has not lost a step as his voice sounded strong and his guitar playing was on point. He delivered hits like “Living In The USA,” “The Stake” and “The Joker.” His version of Elmore James’ “Stranger Blues” with scorching slide guitar, brought him and the audience back to his roots.
  • Dumpstaphunk are New Orleans’ epitome of modern funk rock. Ivan Neville led the band with two bass players and four horns through several of their hip shaking songs. “Dancin’ to the Truth” capped off their booming set. Neville usually sits in with many artists during the festival and he did that with Gary Clark Jr. who followed Dumpstaphunk on Sunday afternoon.
  • Clark is hard to characterize, but whether he is playing blues, rock, soul or hip hop, it is enjoyable. His Jazz Fest set included wailing guitar solos, passionate and sometimes angry lyrics, along with moments of falsetto crooning. Blues and soul based rockers “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Give It Up” had the crowd gyrating. The Ivan Neville sit in on keys happened during “The Healing” and ended with a warm embrace between the two stars. The set closing “When My Train Comes In” was a tour de force of Clark’s brilliant voice and guitar expertise.
  • It was clever programming to have Clark’s blues and soul based performance lead into the weekend closing set by Tedeschi Trucks Band. Susan Tedeschi cut her teeth on blues roots music, earning several Blues music awards along the way. Derek Trucks built his legend with the Allman Brothers Band as the best living slide guitarist. Their combined band, with twelve amazing musicians, thrilled the sun drenched crowd that filled the fairgrounds for the final headlining set.

Check out the full gallery of photos from this first weekend at Jazzfest here.

Tedeschi’s amazing, soul infused voice and traditional blues guitar playing complemented Trucks’ searing solos on “Made Up Mind,” “Midnight In Harlem” and an inspiring cover of Derek & the Domino’s “Keep on Growing.” The background singers provided great harmonies and occasional lead vocals while the superb horn section filled in the sound with sparkling arrangements. Mike Mattison sang lead on the band’s homage to Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” while Tedeschi sang passionately on B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get.” They wrapped up the stunning performance with “The Storm,” a song inspired by past weather disasters in New Orleans.

Jazz Fest 2023 will continue on Thursday May 4 and end on May 7. We will be there to chronicle the range of music that will fill the air. Check back here to read about our second weekend highlights and see photos that capture some of the unique vibe that is Jazz Fest.

Tedeschi Trucks Band setlist:

Playing With My Emotions
Ain’t That Something
Hear My Dear
Everybody’s Got to Change Sometime (Taj Mahal cover)
Take Me as I Am
Circles ‘Round the Sun
Just Won’t Burn (Susan Tedeschi song)
Part of Me
Midnight in Harlem
I Walk on Guilded Splinters (Dr. John cover)
How Blue Can You Get? Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers cover)
Show Me Joe Tex cover)

Photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon ©2023

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Check out the full gallery of photos from this first weekend at Jazzfest here.

Check out the review of the second weekend of Jazzfest by Andy J. Gordon here.

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