Jazz Fest 2016: Our picks for the first Friday, 4/22

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell kicks off on April 22, 2016—the earliest date since 1994. With three days during the first weekend and four days during the second, Jazz Fest has something for everyone. Here are our picks. The full lineup is here.

When the great New Orleans drummer Smokey Johnson died last year, his funeral was packed with a who’s who of the New Orleans music community. The second line afterwards featured at least a dozen drummers. At the forefront was Shannon Powell, who leads a tribute to Smokey in the Blues Tent at 11:15 AM.

Smokey was best known for writing the famous beat leading off the classic R&B tune, “It Ain’t My Fault.” But he was also a versatile performer who spent years with Fats Domino and also played jazz as well.

Belize is the featured country this year in a long tradition at Jazz Fest of highlighting the music of various nations in the African diaspora. TR Shine is the first Belizean act scheduled to play. His music is a high-energy version of soca—the highly danceable music of Trinidad. He is a two-time winner of the Belize National Song competition.

Immediately following Shine on the Congo Square stage is Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers. For years, the organizers of the fest had Kermit (pictured at top) booked in the Jazz Tent. Since moving his act to the more spacious, outdoor stage, Ruffins has pulled out all the stops with numerous special guests. I expect another special set.

With headliners Steely Dan, Gov’t Mule, and Janelle Monáe drawing major crowds to the main stages, I have two suggestions for avoiding the crush. The Panorama Jazz Band hits at 4:20 PM on the intimate Jazz and Heritage stage. The band, led by clarinetist Ben Schenk, is a true crowd pleaser. Their repertoire ranges across the world including early Caribbean styles like the beguine to music from Eastern Europe. Expect a dancing crowd of open-eared music lovers.

While I intend to check out some of Steely Dan, they defined a unique approach to recording music in the 1970s and were very reluctant performers, I also like to see what else is out there.

Baby Bee is closing out the Lagniappe stage. The band, two brothers, Joe and David Stark, are rockers from Houma, Louisiana who will be playing their hearts out at their first Jazz Fest performance. Though I haven’t seen them yet, I did witness Joe do an uncanny imitation of Mick Jagger at a Rolling Stones tribute show a few years back.

Expect the same vocal focus and high-energy stage presence. Joe said, “Playing Jazz Fest is a huge thing for us as a band. We’ve attended so many times as fans and we’re just honored to be a part of the tradition.”

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