The 2019 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrated strong female voices yesterday (April 27) on its de facto main stage, the Acura Stage, for its first Saturday at the Fair Grounds Race Course.
Alexis Marceaux’s voice soared during Sweet Crude’s set and Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff sang rousing and radical rock ‘n’ roll and folk rock. Finally, Katy Perry brought glamour, humor and an earnest attempt to win over New Orleans locals for her headlining set.
Here are highlights from day three of Jazz Fest 2019.
12:45 p.m.: Sweet Crude hit the stage a few minutes late but won over a small crowd on the Acura Stage thanks to their Francophone songs. The band, fronted by multi-instrumentalists Alexis Marceaux and Sam Craft, exudes a modern update on a Luaka Bop Records sound with their bright collages of disparate rhythms and melodies. This marked their fifth set at Jazz Fest and their biggest one yet, and they rose to the occasion with majorette-like backup dancers and fully fleshed-out arrangements of “C.O.G.O.” (“Come on, get off!”). The song is a whimsical-but-serious vision of the future, and recalls Devo’s lyrics and LCD Soundsystem’s grooves. Another, “Sun Sept,” invokes Fela Kuti’s African funk while employing post-punk drums and a big vocal harmony chorus at the end. The dancers hit the wide-stanced praise hands for the show-stopping “Mon Esprit” featuring soaring vocals from Marceaux before they wrapped the set with “Parlez-Nous à Boire.”
2 p.m.: Sweet Crude’s good-vibes-only live performances, as well as a 2017 LP Créatures, got them signed to Verve Records recently. “We’re over the moon with them, they’re extremely supportive and really understand what we’re doing,” Marcheaux told Billboard in a post-set interview. “We’re excited to release this thing we’ve been working our booties off to write and record.”
Craft added that Sweet Crude is now labelmates with Tank and the Bangas, another hot new band out of New Orleans. “We recorded in New Orleans” with their trusted producer out of Los Angeles, Sonny Diperri, he shared. “It’s possible for people to be successful in this industry and not live in New York or L.A.,” Marceaux added. “We can live in beautiful city like New Orleans where music thrives and we can break barriers from here. It’s important to us that the world knows that. Our music community is like no other. We play on each other’s music. We support each other.”
2:35 p.m.: Better Than Ezra hit the halfway point of their set on the Acura Stage with ’90s smash “Good” followed by the lovelorn power pop of “Sincerely, Me” with a Louisiana State University Tigers shout-out in the middle. Frontman Kevin Griffin spun a yarn about being torn between your smartphone and everyday “real life” experiences in New Orleans during “At the Stars,” which featured Sammie “Big Sam” Williams on trombone and Andrew Baham on trumpet.
That was followed by the irrepressibly catchy “Crazy Lucky” and the humility of “Grateful,” with a little two-step dance at the end by Griffin. Better Than Ezra’s whole set is full of silly little gags and dad jokes, but none more so than covering “Tiny Dancer” in a simultaneously earnest and intentionally hokey way. “Desperately Wanting” served as the band’s finale, with a hammy vamp break in the middle by Griffin that can only be described as one performed by Adam Sandler if he were a tight James Brown-style band leader doing silly voices.
Griffin sat down with Billboard before the set to discuss Better Than Ezra’s continued relevance and crowd draw in its native Louisiana and beyond, plus the second act of their career in the Nashville area.
“There may as well be a Better Than Ezra class, or something you have to check off, because everybody knows Better Than Ezra at Jazz Fest — our crowds are massive,” Griffin said. “Our flans fly in from all over the world.” He’s invested in the festival boom himself now and co-founded Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival in Franklin, Tenn. outside Nashville. The fest and its Pilgrimage Foundation were modeled after Jazz Fest and its New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “I wanted to do for Middle Tennessee what Jazz Fest did for southern Louisiana,” Griffin said, whose had several big co-writes in the Nashville songwriting game since moving there, from Sugarland (“Stuck Like Glue”) to American Idol winner David Cook and even some Taylor Swift tunes.
3:45 p.m.: Hurray for the Riff Raff hits the Acura Stage with the title track of her career-defining concept record, 2017’s The Navigator. It’s a stripped-down sound compared to all the bells and whistles of the record, but Alynda Segarra’s passionate vocals remain on “Hungry Ghost” and the simmering groove of “Rican Beach” with roiling political lyrics (“You can take my life / But don’t take my home / It's a solid price / It comes with my bones”). In contrast to her lyrics, Segarra’s political statements between songs are mostly matter-of-fact, with a momentary “Power to the people!” or “Rock n' roll is the people’s music!” in between songs — that is, until “Pa’lante.”
“It means ‘go forward,’ and that means all of you,” she said from the stage, introducing her most powerful song. “Not [to] let people in power divide us up.” Her calls at the end of the song are for Latinx power, “queer power, trans power,” she says in an intersectional call to arms with Puerto Rican liberation at the center. Segarra recites an excerpt from Pedro Pietri’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” in place of the sampled actuality of Pietri on record. His — now hers, or their — refrain of working-class Puerto Rican names “Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, Manuel” is absolutely stirring. It could seem anticlimactic to follow a bold song like “Pa’lante” with, well, anything. But the band’s cover of Blondie’s lighthearted “Dreaming” as a finale lifted off the emotional heft of “Pa’lante.”
5:50 p.m.: Katy Perry was ten minutes late to the Acura Stage, but when you saw the statement gown she’s wearing (think: a pleather piano) and her stage setup, you understood the slight delay. Pre-recorded fanfare preceded her — as it should for anyone who enters a stage with a big pink treble clef on their head. Perry got right down to business with “Teenage Dream” (she adjusts its lyrics to “we drove to NOLA / And got drunk on the beach”), then she strapped on a Flying V guitar for a hard rock edition of “Hot ‘n’ Cold,” which flowed into “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).”
The track's song’s horn solo was provided by a backing track instead of live horns, the latter of which is customary for Jazz Fest. That seemed like a missed opportunity until the Soul Rebels join her for a rearranged trio of “Pendulum,” “Chained to the Rhythm” (both from Witness, though the live-horns version of “Chained” sounds way better than the record) and her number-one single “Dark Horse,” with a dirty New Orleans funk groove buttressed by the Soul Rebels’ tuba and saxophones.
“They really showed up for me and make everything better,” she said of the Soul Rebels. “They’re about the music.” Before that, there was “California Gurls” with a ‘70s funk makeover, “I Kissed A Girl” with a ‘90s house remix for the first verse and a stellar guitar solo from her band’s lead guitarist Devon Eisenbarger.
Perry doesn’t get enough credit for all of her kitsch and (intentional) corniness. She has killer comedic timing and can land a joke, on her feet, like a true pro. Perry’s material — largely off the top of her head, mind you — seems like a more-risque throwback reminiscent of Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball. During “Peacock,” she swore, “It’s just about a bird!” She mugs and sells the joke, winking. Interpolating the song with C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Swear (Everybody Dance Now)” just put it over the top, right where the act needed to be. Even her anecdotes about her past New Orleans visits, in which she ate everything in sight, were funny. “It was so great, I rode my bike everywhere,” she said. “I put things in my mouth that I should have not –” she said, looking off to the side, as if eyeballing the press re: her phrasing — “and you can quote me on that.”
Perry brought the mood down a bit for “The One That Got Away,” a lower-energy break for a ballad. She stepped away for a costume change, while an “Iko Iko” dance break with her band and dancers kicked the tempo back up for “Part Of Me” with a little Mardi Gras Indian percussion. Perry finished out with “Swish Swish” and the soaring “Roar,” which would've been a grand-enough finale. But then Perry’s set turned gospel — a bit of a nod to her past life as a Christian singer — with “Oh Happy Day” leading into a gospel rework of “Firework” with New Orleans youth choir Gospel Soul Children. If Perry hadn’t won the locals over up to that point, she sure did in that moment.