Between weekends, Thursdays are known as "locals day" at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Jazz Fest doubled down on that this year — its 50th anniversary — with a price break for Louisiana residents on both Thursdays (April 25 and May 2), and tickets priced at $50 at the gate. It’s a stark drop in price from the $250 the May 2 day was originally priced at had the festival been able to maintain the Rolling Stones as the headliner; the group cancelled due to Mick Jagger’s health troubles.
Plenty of Stones t-shirts and covers were in the air Thursday, though, a sign of the longing for what could have been. Anders Osborne was certainly content to revel in a second locals day, while 3L Ifèdé, a theatrical drum and dance troupe from the West African country of Benin honored festival producer Quint Davis and Rita Coolidge paid tribute to the late great Allen Toussaint among others. Plus, Ziggy Marley and Mavis Staples headlining.
Here are the highlights from day five of Jazz Fest 2019.
12:45 p.m.: If New Orleans has a happier-ending version of A Star Is Born’s Jackson Maine, it’s Osborne. The Swedish-bred singer/songwriter cut a similar tall scruffy frame standing on Acura Stage, rip-roaring guitar solos for days a bit into his set on “Big Talk,” digging into Led Zeppelin-type grooves on “Had My Reasons.” “I got a limited amount of time so I won’t chat too much just play some music,” Osborne said after “Reasons.” Noting that Thursday is locals day at Jazz Fest, he said, “It’s like a whole family reunion here.” Osborne’s new LP Buddha and the Blues has a distinct Southern California/Laurel Canyon vibe and the Mamas and the Papas sound on “Traveling With Friends” bore that out. Osborne ended his set with “Black Tar” and finally “Isis.”
He sat down with Billboard earlier to talk playing better music sober and what he’s doing to help musicians dealing with addiction. “Before, I just couldn’t make the gigs. You can’t muster up enough mental strength just to make it to the airport,” he said. “You’re always relying on others to set things up for you, pick you up and carry you there. It’s an emotional state that we put ourselves in when we’re intoxicated, so we enjoy that feeling for an hour or two both as a listener and as a creative.”
Osborne, now ten years sober as of January, added, “I’ve never seen [being an addict] work for anyone in 30 years of being a recording artist.” But he’s been trying to help. Osborne’s Send Me A Friend program is a national network of “sober friends” that will sit with artists having trouble staying sober from drinking at the many bars and clubs they frequent for gigs. “You’re only as successful in life as your five closest peers,” Osborne cautioned. “Look around and see who you’re hanging with. Look at your group. If you think it maybe leans toward a certain lifestyle you don’t want anymore, replace a few people with some new people that have better influence. It can be that simple.”
1:15 p.m.: Festival producer Quint Davis is getting coaxed on stage for a brief dance routine with 3L Ifèdé, a theatrical drum and dance troupe from the West African country of Benin, prepping for its big finale on Congo Square Stage. The group leader dresses Davis in a tribal head covering and necklace as Davis follows along impromptu with their dancing. There’s a small turnout at the stage, early on the festival’s slowest day, so there wasn't much to see. But the cultural exchange is a beautiful thing. It’s a big part of what Jazz Fest is about. Davis scours the globe for talent like 3L Ifèdé, putting them in front of their largest stateside audiences ever.
2:45 p.m.: Jazz Fest founder George Wein is presented with the key to the city at Acura Stage by the city’s new mayor, LaToya Cantrell. It’s to commemorate Wein’s founding of the festival and how essential it’s become to New Orleans culture. “I know you’re going to be the greatest mayor ever,” Wein said, kissing Mayor Cantrell on the cheek. “God bless you.”
3:50 p.m.: Coolidge started her career-spanning set on the Gentilly Stage with one of her many takes on Allen Toussaint-penned songs, “Basic Lady” and “Late Again” written by former flame and collaborator Kris Kristofferson. Coolidge was a highly in-demand background singer in Memphis, Los Angeles and beyond in her ’70s heyday, culminating famously on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and record. Plus, there’s her lead-singer career in three duet records with Kristofferson and an iconic Bond movie theme for Octopussy (“All Time High”).
Her next songs, “Satisfied” and “Doing Fine Without You,” (written by Graham Nash) — both off Coolidge’s new record Safe in the Arms of Time — seemed like hard-won, long-considered reflections of a lengthy life well spent. She also touched on “Walking on Water,” a co-write and duet with Keb’ Mo’, also off her new record, as well as Toussaint “Shoo-Ra.”
She seconded Toussaint’s take on the meaning of its title, since people have asked her for years. “It doesn’t have to mean anything,” she said, a former background singer making quick sense of half words full of vowels. Coolidge wound down the set with “Fever,” the jazz standard popularized by Peggy Lee, “We’re All Alone” and a feel-good closer “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher And Higher,” a funkier take on the tune popularized by Jackie Wilson.
5:20 p.m.: Coolidge sat down with Billboard behind at Gentilly Stage to talk about her storied career, captured in her 2017 book DELTA LADY: A Memoir, as well as her May Day (May 1) birthday, which she just celebrated. “I always spend my birthdays at Jazz Fest!” she said. It’s a stark difference from her birthdays as a young woman: a preacher’s daughter, rocketed from studying art at Florida State University to buying late Doors singer Jim Morrison a television in a matter of years.
“I happened to be in Woodstock and was looking for a bathroom and there happened to be people shooting up,” she said of her first years on tour. “I almost threw up, it scared me so bad! Because I had never been around that.” Coolidge has always considered herself a storyteller, relating it back to her Cherokee heritage. “Music is so significant with indigenous people because it carries with it tradition, history, ceremony, things that — with native people — the American government tried to take away.”
6 p.m.: Marley is halfway through his set at Congo Square Stage, in the midst of the “Coming in From the Cold” an moving into his father Bob Marley’s iconic song “One Love” which gets the crowd really vibing. “Circle of Peace” follows, a cut from Ziggy’s latest LP Rebellion Rises. “Beach in Hawaii” lends a welcome change up to the set, with textures of ukulele and hand percussion thrown in the mix. “Love Is My Religion” comes later, a manifesto or statement of purpose behind not just Ziggy's lyrical aim, but the Tuff Gong and Marley family’s (“I don’t condemn, I don’t convert,” he sings. “No one is gonna lose their soul.”)
It’s all positive vibes until “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” a pointed condemnation of hunger and class strife, namely in the Marley’s native Jamaica. (“Them belly full but we hungry,” Ziggy sang, reviving his father’s timeless words. “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”) Ziggy sped up his father’s “Is This Love” amid his own “Look Who’s Dancing,” ending with “Harambe” (no, not the gorilla), popularized by his mother, Rita Marley.
6:30 p.m.: Soul/gospel icon Staples absolutely packed out the Blues Tent. It was standing-room-only in one of three of Jazz Fest’s largest seated venues. After her Talking Heads cover of “Slippery People,” Staples goes into a couple of songs from her new album We Get By (“Change” and “Anytime”) and brings on Trombone Shorty, getting the whole tent on its feet for “Who Told You That.” Whenever one of her bandmates, or a guest like Shorty, really kills it on a vamped solo, Mavis has a tell she’s really enjoying it: she slaps them on the shoulder, hard, but joyously.
She does this for her guitarist Rick Holmstrom, too, who takes a solo after Shorty (and just before Shorty takes another quick little solo on the decrescendo). Afterward, there’s soul-inflected cover of Buffalo Springfield’s landmark protest song “For What It’s Worth,” followed by the tender and sweet Jeff Tweedy-penned song “You Are Not Alone.” “Touch A Hand” provides a feel-good dance along for the crowd.
But Staples, who will turn 80 in July, sat intermittently during and between these high-energy soul songs, sometimes for full tunes, but her voice still totally brings it regardless of whether she's standing or seated. Her passion and energy still burn bright, even as her contemporaries and past collaborators fade away (Levon Helm, Prince, her father, Pops Staples). “No Time for Crying” is a rallying call during which Staples began preaching. “I don’t know about you but I’m sick and tired of this man!” The crowd knows exactly who she’s talking about. “We’ve got motherless children, well, taking babies putting them in cages. I’m sick and tired of it. I’m going up there!” to Washington, she insisted.
“I tell ya, I might just run for President! Will ya vote for me?” she laughed. But the crowd’s dead set, not laughing at all. “You need to leave our babies alone, leave our children alone!” she implored, from preaching to beseeching. She does no encore, she’s said her peace. Staples is a woman who lived in the civil rights movement the way barely any other living musician has. Considering all the giants the music world has lost over the last few years, here’s to listening to her and heeding her call while she’s still around.