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Jazz Fest 2017 halftime report

Jazz Fest #48 is officially underway, and by all accounts weekend 1 was a huge success.  Even with the constant complaints of excessively high ticket prices and a scarcity of true jazz music, Jazz Fest continues to deliver plenty of those magical moments that keep the crowds coming back year after year.  The crawfish bread is still delicious, Miller Lite is the drink of choice, and gale-force weather is nothing more than a minor inconvenience when there’s dancing to be done.  The night show scene didn't disappoint either, with the usual cast of world-class musicians throwing down epic performances until the wee hours of the morning at every club across town.

The party continues through this week and there’s no shortage of great shows to catch (check jazzfestgrids.com for the full rundown).  While we have a chance to take a breather, here are our highlights from weekend 1 and our top picks for the days ahead.

Pedrito Martinez Group

Thanks to the easing of travel restrictions, Quint Davis was finally able to book an extensive assortment of Cuban musicians this year.  As a Jazz Fest vet and one of the premier modern Cuban jazz artists, Pedrito Martinez and his band led the charge with their infectious and electrifying takes on traditional Cuban music.  Martinez is a master percussionist and managed to make his set of hand drums sounds as big as a full-on rock drum set while also handling vocal duties and leading his band like a true professional.  Look out for Martinez playing alongside other Cuban artists throughout the Fest on weekend 2.

Nas with The Soul Rebels

The Soul Rebels are no strangers to the world of hip hop, infusing boom-bap rhythms and rapid-fire rhymes into their songs and regularly collaborating with a number of high-profile rappers.  So it wasn’t too surprising when The Soul Rebels were announced alongside Nas as the Congo Square headliners for Day 1 of Jazz Fest.  Nas, the elder statesman of New York hip hop, gave the people a top-notch show heavy on cuts from his seminal debut album Illmatic as well as a smattering of other hits from his early-90s heyday.  The infusion of live brass into his classic songs provided a fresh energy that allowed the serious-minded rapper the chance to let loose a little bit and party with the best brass band in town.  The Soul Rebels were locked in as usual, playing off each other and Nas in a way that felt natural and exhilarating.  Let's hope this is just the beginning of a new creative partnership between the two artists.

Andrew Duhon

Local singer-songwriter Andrew Duhon has been steadily building buzz the past few years thanks to his expertly crafted alt-country songs and his powerfully weathered voice.  On Friday afternoon, Duhon and his trio delivered an exceptional set on the intimate Lagniappe Stage that provided the perfect break from the growing crowds and bursts of sunshine.  Duhon’s Americana-tinged sound initially sounds out of place in the New Orleans soundscape, but a closer listen reveals a subtle connection to Louisiana roots-rockers like Eric Lindell.  The Lagniappe Stage is all about stumbling into something completely unexpected and beautiful, and Duhon's heartfelt songs definitely fit the bill.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones @ Tipitina's

St. Paul & The Broken Bones exploded out of the Birmingham retro-soul scene a few years ago and quickly built a reputation as one of the best live bands around.  The band kicked off the weekend on Thursday at The Orpheum Theater, but their Friday night barnburner in the intimate confines of Tipitina’s provided an appropriately sweaty environment for the band to leave it all on the stage.  The show started slow and somber, with frontman Paul Janeway covered in a foreboding black cape.  As the first song came to an end, Janeway threw off the cape and the ace horn section came to life.  For the next 90 minutes the band tore through their catalog with equal amounts of reckless abandon and carefully curated catharsis.  The band managed to work in some choice covers, including a faithful rendition of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” and a reworked “Eventually” by Aussie psych-rockers Tame Impala.  The packed crowd erupted into cheers after every song and pushed the band to play harder and louder, elevating the show into the stuff of Tipitina’s legend.

WimBASH @ Blue Nile

Doug Wimbish’s annual WimBASH took over Blue Nile for a late night jam session Saturday night with some of the best musicians in town.  The core band was made up of Wimbish on bass, Corey Glover and Nigel Hall holding down the keys, and a horn section consisting of Big Sam Williams, Maurice “Mobetta” Brown, and Khris Royal. Wimbish led the charge as the band grooved on everything from pure improvisation to Hendrix covers as the musicians pushed each other to take each song higher and higher.  A seemingly neverending parade of guests wandered on and off the stage throughout the night, including pedal steel god Roosevelt Collier, P-Funk guitarist Eric McFadden, and 13-year old guitar prodigy Brandon Niederauer.  The crowd kept right with the band, dancing and shouting until past 4:00 am when the final encore wrapped.

Here are our post-Fest picks for the rest of the week:

Thursday: Kamasi Washington @ One Eyed Jack’s (8 pm and 1 am)

The world’s most in-demand jazz saxophonist sets up shop at One Eyed Jack’s for six shows over the course of three nights, with early and late shows each night.  Washington's residency at Jack's last year during Jazz Fest drew rave reviews from jazz purists, hip hop fans, and the jam band faithful.  Not to be missed.

Friday: Mystikal, Partners-N-Crime, DJ Jubilee @ The Carver Theatre (9 pm)

The reborn Carver Theater hosts a trifecta of NOLA rap royalty, including a headlining set by Mystikal with a live band.  The theater’s new sound system and lighting rigs will be on full display for the biggest party in the Treme on Friday night.

Saturday: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead @ The Joy Theatre (10:00 pm)

The premiere Grateful Dead tribute band had to add a third night at The Joy Theater this year to keep up with the demand for their wild, freewheeling interpretations of the Dead catalog.  The shows are sold out but you can always hope for a miracle and check out the resale market.

Late-Night Saturday: Marco Benevento @ Blue Nile (2:00 am)

The king of late-night Jazz Fest brings his trio to Blue Nile for a “Real Morning Party” that will keep the bodies moving late into the night.  Catch your second wind and keep those feet moving all night.

Sunday: Khruangbin @ One Eyed Jack’s (9:00 pm)

This instrumental band filters Thai surf-rock through the desert grooves of their home state of Texas to create something wholly original.  The perfect come down after a week of partying.

Shane Colman writes about music for NolaVie. Email him at shane@nolavie.com. Follow him on Twitter @canesholman and on Instagram at shawncoolman.