NEW ORLEANS — Billy Joel finally got his sunny day at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Joel alluded to his previous Jazz Fest appearance, a 2008 show during which a mammoth rainstorm poured on the Fair Grounds Race Course, and expressed his gratitude for a dry day. “The last time I was here we got a flood!” he said.
The singer-pianist’s Saturday headlining show at the Acura Stage also drew festival-goers in numbers that matched Jazz Fest shows in previous years performed by Joel’s New Jersey-New York area peers, Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi.
Joel’s Jazz Fest show was just his second full-length concert in three years. Last weekend, he played the Stone Music Festival in Sydney, Australia.
It remains to be seen if his New Orleans and Sydney concerts are the beginning of a return to performing or merely a test of his interest in playing more often. Regardless, Joel was in strong voice Saturday during a 90-minute-plus show that featured many of his many, many hits plus lesser-known samples from his vast catalog.
The crowd delighted in the hits, including Joel’s working-class-anthems-meet-pop songs, “Allentown” and the majestic “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’ ” which he dedicated to the people of Boston.
There was more social commentary in “Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway,” before which the singer-pianist mentioned Hurricane Sandy, which devastated areas of New York and New Jersey last fall.
Saturday’s set was also a reminder of what a master tunesmith and, beyond that, composer, Joel is. The lovely “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” became a mini-pop opera, big enough to include a guest appearance by New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Joel, a star who’s expressed his boredom with playing greatest-hits shows, seemed to especially enjoy “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” “Zanzibar” was another especially adventurous, jazzy performance.
The self-effacing Joel, who turns 64 on May 9, rubbed his largely bald head early in his set, joking, “I’m starting to look so much like my father that my mother’s gonna hit me.”
Two great piano men followed each other Saturday at the Acura Stage. Before Joel’s appearance, New Orleans’ Allen Toussaint played his annual Jazz Fest set. As always, he assembled a big, talented group of musicians and singers to accompany him.
This particular Toussaint Jazz Fest show, however, held less familiar material from the composer of “Mother-In-Law,” “Southern Nights” and “Yes We Can Can” and many other hits.
Toussaint also paid tribute to the late Levon Helm, the singer and drummer in The Band who died shortly before Jazz Fest last year, with a performance of one of the group’s signature songs, “Life is a Carnival.”
Jason Marsalis, a member of the New Orleans jazz family of musicians that includes his famous brothers, Wynton and Branford, returned to the Jazz Fest for his first performance as a group leader in 11 years.
Since his previous Jazz Fest set, Marsalis has shifted from drums to that melodic percussion instrument, vibraphone. Standing center stage behind his vibes, holding mallets with red, tennis ball-sized tips in his hands, Marsalis filled his Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent show with music from his vibraphone-centered new album, “In a World of Mallets.”
Marsalis believes jazz can be free to accept any genre of music he cares to interject into it. His “Ballet Class,” for instance, began as a classical waltz before venturing into unexpected musical territory. In “Blues Can Be Abstract, Too,” Marsalis demonstrated the blues genre’s versatility and ongoing potential, a reflection of his belief that blues is as relevant in 2013 as it was 1930. He got a standing ovation for his efforts.
The New Orleans trombone collective known as Bonerama, playing at midafternoon on the Gentilly Stage, features three trombonists in its front line, all of whom also sing lead. The group’s multi-sectioned interpretation of the traditional Mardi Gras Indian song, “Indian Red,” was a truly grand, a neo-Southern rock rendition accented by a New Orleans second line beat.
Along with Bonerama’s powerful three-trombone attack, group member Mark Mullins enhanced the band’s power by blowing his trombone through a guitar amp attached to a wah-wah pedal.
Simultaneously at the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stag, the Lost Bayou Ramblers mixed rock and Cajun music in another example of the day’s genre-blending.
At a noon press conference, festival producer-director Quint Davis said Friday’s opening day exceeded last year’s opening day attendance. And Saturday’s attendance was noticeably heavier than Friday’s, evidence that Davis wasn’t kidding when he said Jazz Fest becomes, during its two weekends at the Fair Grounds, the fourth-largest city in Louisiana.
Davis also mentioned that Billy Joel, Saturday’s headliner at the Acura Stage, warmed up for Jazz Fest by playing an impromptu three songs at the piano in the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar and then walked down Bourbon Street, where he sang with a group of doo-wop singing street performers.
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