NEW ORLEANS -- The best moment at Friday’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival featured an artist on stage, in the present, in the flesh, giving tribute to an artist who could be present solely in spirit.
“Levon Helm!” the mighty Mavis Staples proclaimed from the Gospel Tent stage.
“Levon Helm!” she repeated. “Levon Helm! Oh, yes, we’re missing our dear friend. But he left us so much good memories, sweet memories! And just calling his name is a ray of sunshine. Thank you, Levon.”
Staples spoke Helm’s praises after she’d sung them with her Staples sister, Yvonne, their band and singers plus a guest vocalist, Oscar-winning Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard. The troupe performed the Band’s “The Weight,” the same song the Staple Singers performed in “The Last Waltz,” the 1978 concert film that stars Helm and his fellow members of the Band and a parade of guest stars.
Staples had been scheduled to join Helm, who died April 19, for his scheduled Jazz Fest performance Saturday at the Blues Tent. In Helms’ absence, Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes with Dr. John (another “The Last Waltz” guest) will play a Helms tribute set.
Following her Helms tribute, the irrepressible Staples sang a powerful array of spirituals and freedom songs. Her performance of “Wade in the Water” sent forth a groove so infectious you’d have to be inhuman not to catch it. She also performed “This Is My Country,” the Curtis Mayfield song revived in 2006 by the New Orleans Social Club, an all-star band of New Orleans musicians who’d been exiled from the city following Hurricane Katrina.
Child of the church that Staples is, she testified as well as sang, adding some politics to the mix -- standing up particularly for her fellow Chicagoan, President Barack Obama. Addressing her Gospel Tent congregation, she vowed to keep her eyes on the prize, never turn back, keep marching on the freedom highway, stay on her path to glory.
Earlier Friday, singing violinist Theresa Andersson, a Swedish transplant who’s lived in New Orleans for 21 years, played the second set of the day at the Gentilly Stage. Andersson is such a versatile, gifted entertainer that she must be a star in an alternative universe.
The brassy “Fiya’s Gone,” featuring a six-piece horn section, swaggered like Siouxsie and the Banshees doing Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” Other songs, such as the easy-flowing “Na Na Na,” were both tunefully accessible and adventurous.
As good as Andersson is at sunny pop, she varied her show’s mood with the minor-key mournfulness of “Street Parade” and quieter music during which she played dreamy, otherworldly melody by applying a guitar slide to her violin strings.
Andersson’s audience included Allen Toussaint, the master New Orleans songwriter, pianist, arranger and producer whose many behind-the-scenes credits include Andersson. A Jazz Fest regular on stage and in the crowd, Toussaint was instantly recognized. He shook hands and obliged those who asked to take a photo with him. He performs at Jazz Fest Saturday afternoon.
Following Andersson, another piano man, Bruce Hornsby, took the Gentilly Stage to play music that was impossible to peg. Appearing with his organ- and saxophone-featuring band, the Noisemakers, Hornsby seamlessly blended jazz, funk, gospel and country.
“We never know what we’re gonna do up here,” Hornsby explained before launching another musical exploration. “It’s different every time, hopefully.”
An artist who’s had several hits, Hornsby appeared disdainful of them.
“What the hell, we’ll play a really well known song,” he said before started “The Way It Is,” teasing with the familiar intro but suddenly detouring into atonal improvisation that was more Schoenberg recital than ’80s pop.
Hornsby eventually returned to “The Way It Is,” playing a recognizable version of the song and then bringing in New Orleans trombone collective Bonerama for more improvisation, albeit more audience-friendly this time.
Hornsby and the Noisemakers also paid tribute to Helm.
“He just woke up every morning funky,” Hornsby said before playing a warm and faithful rendition of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Following the massive crowds that showed up for last weekend’s blockbuster lineup — a starry schedule highlighted by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Al Green and the reunited Beach Boys — the crowd was lighter for such Friday headliners as the Zac Brown Band and Ziggy Marley.
The final weekend of the 2012 Jazz Fest continues Saturday and Sunday.