Van Morrison, Steely Dan at 2016 Jazz Fest

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Van Morrison at Jazz Fest 2016 (photo Douglas Mason)

Photo by Douglas Mason; courtesy New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

The first weekend of the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 22-24) presented a mixed bag of classic rock performances, from the desultory live jukebox that is Steely Dan to a joyous sort of homecoming for Van Morrison. Morrison, of course, is from Ireland, but nobody embraces the spirit of Louisiana blues, R&B and even country music with more gusto. Every time Morrison has played New Orleans he’s brought his “A” game. One time through he fired his band the night before and hired a new group of New Orleans musicians for the gig.

This time around the 70-year-old Morrison was in magnificent voice over the course of a set that balanced deep funk, rock, hard blues and supple jazz moves in equal measure. He started the set with no introduction before his allotted time, getting through most of “Celtic Swing” before his scheduled start. It seemed like he designed the set for the maximum enjoyment of both himself and the crowd, touching on all the hits – “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Wild Night” – while leaving space for improvisation and scat singing – “I Believe To My Soul,” “Carrying a Torch,” “Sometimes We Cry” – and opportunities for Morrison to lend guitar, saxophone and harmonica to the ensemble.

He choked off a searing harmonica intro to “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which segued into “Parchman Farm” and “Don’t Start Crying Now.” He rolled into another choice medley of “In the Afternoon”/”Ancient Highway”/”No Plan B”/”Raincheck.” He reached into the deepest recesses of his soul for a powerful version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” He sang the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya” as if he wrote it himself. Then at the end of the set he pulled out all the stops on a hard rocking version of “Gloria.” The band was still playing well after his scheduled finish time.

Morrison’s set took place on the Gentilly stage, the smaller of the festival’s two main stages, located at either end of the Fairgrounds racetrack. The Acura stage at the far end is much larger and feels like a different festival altogether. It takes a band with commanding presence to engage with the enormous crowds at Acura, and on the first day of the festival both Michael McDonald and Steely Dan had a hard time pulling it off.

Michael McDonald Jazz Fest (photo Douglas Mason)

Photo by Douglas Mason; courtesy New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

McDonald was in good voice, but his set could not compete with the buzz of a largely disinterested crowd. Steely Dan played the hits – “Aja,” “Black Cow,” “Bodisattva,” “Peg,” “Reeling In the Years” – and it all sounded like the records, just not as good. Even Donald Fagen seemed a bit bored. “Usually at this point we just walk off the stage, then come back and do our encore,” he said at the show’s close. “But we’re just gonna stay here and play it. It’s too much fucking trouble.”

Saturday’s crowd at Acura was treated to a much more energetic performance from Pearl Jam, who closed with the terrific one-two punch of The Who’s “The Real Me” and Neil Young’s “Keep On Rocking in the Free World.” Sunday’s Acura set was even better as the Red Hot Chili Peppers brought the noise. Flea’s bass was thundering across the landscape throughout, then for the finale he introduced members of the Meters – bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, along with keyboardist Ivan Neville – to play an extended jam based on the RHCP’s tune “Give It Away.”

The festival’s 10 smaller stages are where some of the most memorable music is made before more intimate audiences that can interact with the performers themselves rather than giant video screens. The highlight of the first weekend had to be Janelle Monae’s set at the Congo Square stage on opening day less than 24 hours after she learned that her mentor Prince had died. Monae’s emotionally charged show included several songs co-written with Prince from her Electric Lady album and closed with two Prince classics – “Take Me With You” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Related: Our list of the Top 10 New Orleans Rock Bands

The coolest cover of the weekend came from a relatively new group, Ed Volker’s Quintet Narcosis. Volker, leader of the Radiators (see our Top 10 New Orleans Rock Bands listicle), recruited his former bandmate guitarist Camile Baudoin along with two members of the Iguanas, bassist Rene Coman and saxophonist Joe Cabral, and percussionist Michael Skinkus. The group, making only its second appearance, finished their set at the Lagniappe stage with a swamp music version of “Jumping Jack Flash.” During the solo break, Cabral built a terrific baritone sax solo into the classic Bobby Keys solo from “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” before the band segued into “Satisfaction” and slid back into “Jumping Jack Flash.” A beautiful deconstruction of some deep rock touchstones.

Related: Listings for 100s of classic rock tours

John Swenson

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