The talk around the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on day two of the mammoth event was about the return to Jazz Fest by jam band Phish after 18 years. This return drew thousands of their rabid fans to the main Acura Stage. The other main stage headliner, Robert Plant, drew a large crowd as well, but the contrast between the audiences at the Acura Stage and the smaller Samsung Galaxy Stage was decidedly marked. The two scenes could not have been more different and it was appropriate that the two acts played opposite ends of the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
Perhaps the set that provided the best visual entertainment was local Bounce artist Big Freedia. Freedia's risqué stage show and theatrics got fans dancing and singing along at the Congo Square Stage. Audiences gazed in wonder at Anders Osborne's amazing guitar work. Earlier in the day, Tin Men showed fans at the Lagniappe Stage just how wonderful a washboard, bass and tuba can sound in a delightful setting among greenery inside the racetrack grandstand.
Phish was clearly the main attraction on Saturday. The improvisational band from Vermont has not played the festival since 1996 when touring hordes of Phisheads surprised festival organizers by coming to New Orleans in droves and were blamed for overcrowding that year. The three-hour set the band played featured many of their popular songs and generally fans were satisfied with the performance.
Set highlights included crowd favorite "Wolfman's Brother," a song Phish frequently plays live. Other fan favorites that made the set list include "Rift," "Ocelot" and "Character Zero" to close out the first 90 minutes. Phish came back for the second set with more upbeat tunes, saving the best for last. "Down with Disease," "Free" and "Harry Hood" thrilled the Phish faithful who left Jazz Fest charged up to hit evening shows like The Meter Men featuring Page McConnell from Phish on keys.
The "other headliner" Robert Plant took the Samsung Galaxy Stage at the opposite end of the Fair Grounds right around the time Phish took their set break. A much older audience took in the former Led Zeppelin vocalist's new project - Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters. The man can still wail like he famously did in the 1970s and his band is perhaps more impressive than one would expect. Tribal drums appeared often as did some epic guitar work. It may not have been Jimmy Page on the six-string but the music was solid.
Plant claimed during the performance that his keyboardist worked with Massive Attack. The name drop may have been lost on the crowd who seemed, at times, perplexed at how much the venerable rocker had aged since his Zep heyday. He did roll out some Zep tunes mixed in with his new material, pleasing fans of the classic rockers.
Big Freedia, on the other hand, delivered a wildly different set as the Bounce music pioneer exhorted her hometown crowd to sing along to hits like "Rock Around the Clock," "Y'all Get Back Now" and "Azz Everywhere." Bounce is a high-energy style of hip hop popularized in The Big Easy and made famous by Freedia.
Freedia and her entourage twerked, gyrated, chanted and generally showed fans how to have a good time while heavy bass thumped out of the PA. From the number of fans who made it to Freedia's 3:45 p.m. set, it was clear the local boy who made good generates a lot of pride among New Orleans music fans.
Anders Osborne, who has made New Orleans his home since 1985, made a splash at the Acura Stage for the second set of the day there. The singer-songwriter brought massive guitar chops and free-spirited attitude to his performance which was live-streamed by AXS TV. The singer has recorded with Galactic's Stanton Moore and Pepper Keenan, played with Phil Lesh and Friends and wrote a song for Tim McGraw, "Watch the Wind Blow By," that hit number one on the country charts several years ago.
Photos by Haley Odom and Sarah-Jayne Couhault for AXS.com
Read more on the all-AXS Jazz Fest Guide