By Andy J. Gordon

The 2024 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival launched with fantastic, sunny weather, big crowds and a diverse mix of international artists. Weekend one kicked off on Thursday April 25 and ran through Sunday with several big stars plus an assortment of the usual local and regional artists, covering all types of music. Fans came out in force to see favorites like Widespread Panic, Stephen Marley, The Killers, The Beach Boys, Chris Stapleton, Vampire Weekend, Heart and many more.

This year, the festival runs over two consecutive, four day 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. Each weekend has a unique schedule so fans can pick individual days, an entire weekend or attend both, knowing that their experience will be distinctive and unmatched be any other festival in the world. We tried to catch as much of the first weekend’s action as possible while also indulging in the food, parades and cultural experiences that make this event unlike any other.

An amazing gallery of photos from this weekend by Andy J. Gordon is located here.

Highlights from the first weekend:

  • Widespread Panic fired on all cylinders with a long set of heavy, jamming tunes to close out the opening day at the main Festival Stage. The band has played the fest many times over the years and always gets a long time slot, that they use to stretch out on several tunes. John Bell’s vocals were guttural and impassioned while his rhythm guitar complemented the always impeccable, distinctive guitar solos by Jimmy Herring. Songs like “Greta,” “Tall Boy” “All Time Low” and “Ain’t Life Grand” slayed, plus they threw in a sweet cover of Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me.”
  • The Killers opened their headlining set at the biggest stage on Friday with “Mr. Brightside” and did not let up from there. Lead singer Brandon Flowers pranced around the big stage singing and encouraging the huge crowd to join him on several of their chart toppers. The band got the audience fired up by playing hits like “Human,” “Smile Like You Mean It,” “Read My Mind” and “All These Things That I’ve Done.” They also paid tribute to their surroundings by playing a moving cover of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”
  • While The Killers were entertaining a huge crowd at the Festival Stage, local hero and the latest to carry the New Orleans musical torch, Jon Batiste, held court for an equally large audience at the opposite end of the track at the Gentilly Stage. Batiste has gone supernova hot with multiple Grammys and global touring, but his roots are in New Orleans and he paid tribute to the local heroes that came before him.

Sitting at a gorgeous grand piano alone on the stage, Batiste noodled a bit of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” before rolling into Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” which smoothly segued into “Big Chief” as the band joined in. Over the course of the set, that band included guest spots by Meters drumming legend Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, who played with his band on the same stage earlier that afternoon, and young gun guitarist Brandon “Taz” Neidermaier. Batiste and his great band played hits like “Tell The Truth,” “We Are” and a frenetic “Freedom.”

  • Michael Franti is the perfect artist for an afternoon set at an outdoor festival. His infectious enthusiasm and forays into the crowd always make the show a party. He invited Amanda Shaw to join him for a few songs. She is a local talent who broke out beyond Louisiana a few years ago with her amazing voice and energetic fiddle playing. Shaw had just completed her own set across the track at the Gentilly Stage. They played feel good songs including “Life is Better with You” and “I Am Lost But Not Alone.” Franti also invited pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph to join the band. Randolph blasted solos on his shoulder strapped portable lap steel as Franti belted out “Happy is the New Sexy” and “I Love You Still.”
  • Allman Betts Band did a late afternoon set on Sunday in the Blues tent. It was emotional from the opening notes since Duane Betts’ father Dickey died just ten days earlier. When Duane sang and played lead guitar on the Allman Brothers classic “Blue Sky” written by his father, there were few dry eyes in the audience. After the song, Duane turned away from the crowd, lowered his head and Devon Allman wrapped his arm around his friend and bandmate. They played a few original tunes and stretched out on the Allman Brothers Band standards “Dreams” and “Jessica,” but that “Blue Sky” moment made the day.
  • Heart is a historic, classic rock band that was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. The Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy, have been the core of the band since 1995, but their strained relationship has been thoroughly reported and they have rarely been seen together on stage in the past several years. They played in December 2023 for the first time in over four years and their 2024 Royal Flush tour just kicked off eight days prior to their Jazz Fest appearance.

There was no indication of any friction as the sisters led an excellent band through several of their classic tunes and a few well-chosen covers. Ann’s famously strong voice was on full display with an occasional hiccup (a few struggles with some high notes) and Nancy contributed additional vocals in addition to beautifully nuanced guitar and mandolin playing. They did fine versions of “Magic Man,” “These Dreams,” “What About Love” and “Barracuda.” Mixed in covers included Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Led Zeppelin’s “Going To California,” plus “The Ocean” during their encore. They closed out that encore with a scorching “Crazy On You.”

  • Several bands impressed us over the course of the weekend – a few were new discoveries and some were regional stars that may not tour extensively but know how to put on a great show. Papa Mali, a swamp blues local legend, led his trio for an early set at the Festival stage – he quipped “this is a longtime dream and my first time playing this big stage.” Cimafunk, the high energy Afro-Cuban mash up got everyone’s booty shaking on that same stage. Shamarr Allen showed that he is one of the very talented trumpeters and bandleaders in New Orleans that is equally adept at brass band, funk, soul and hip hop. Astral Project delivered a set of modern jazz and showed off their impeccable skill while honoring the roots of why the festival was founded 54 years ago.
  • Mr. Sipp, the Delta Blues guitarist and singer, played a scorching set in the blues tent. The bluesman duck stepped, wailed solos and strode into the crowd for an extended jam. The Batiste Brothers did a tribute show for Russell Batiste who died last year at 57. He was a prolific drummer and several of his family members did multiple shout outs to Russell in between playing “Mustang Sally,” “Iko Iko” and songs written by various members over the year. The Revivalists are always on fire when they play live and they performed their mega hit “Wish I Knew You” plus recent single “Hey Kid.”
  • Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway brought vibrant vocals and bouncy bluegrass to the main stage. They also did a shout out to Dickey Betts with a twangy cover of “Ramblin’ Man.” Midnight Disturbers is a uniquely New Orleans horn ensemble. Several of the best trumpet, trombone, saxophone and tuba players get together only for this Jazz Fest set and blast out funky beats. They also did a dirge and “I’ll Fly Away” for a few brass musicians that recently died. Robert Cray Band closed the Blues tent on Saturday. He was silky smooth while playing his songs plus an unusually slow version of the standard “Sitting on Top of The World.”

This year’s Jazz Fest continues Thursday May 2 with a special headlining performance by The Rolling Stones. The festival runs through Sunday May 5. We will be there to document the performances. Check back here to read about second weekend highlights and see photos that capture some of the unique experiences that only happen at Jazz Fest.

An amazing gallery of photos from this weekend by Andy J. Gordon is located here.

Photos courtesy of Andy J Gordon ©2024
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