By Kim Lyle
It was around 6 p.m., the golden hour, when the beginning notes to “Tiny Dancer” tumbled out of Elton John’s piano. One by one the crowd chimed in, eventually belting out every word with such little refrain that it became difficult to distinguish Elton’s voice from the sea of vocals.
By the song’s end, barriers between thousands of one-time strangers melted away as they remembered why it was they had come here in the first place.
These moments are the reason a near record-breaking crowd showed up for the last weekend of the 46th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. From pop hits on the Acura Stage to home grown Zydeco on the Fais Do Do Stage, little kernels of magic were everywhere.
The mantra of this year’s festival had one foot firmly planted in the city’s past and one in the present, as only a place like New Orleans can. From Louisiana-born legend Jerry Lee Lewis literally banging out “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano to the Queen of Bounce Big Freedia bringing 15 audience members onstage for a twerk-off, there was something for everyone.
As the sun granted the masses a final reprieve from its scorching heat, the closing acts were cued to begin. Elton John, T.I., and Ed Sheeran were the highlighters, a trifecta of talent. Choosing one over the other was as difficult as deciding on a single ice cream flavor to eat for the rest of your life.
Neapolitan not an option, the only thing left to do was pick a stage and not look back. Luckily, all three turned out to be stunning performances.
On the Congo Square stage, a bare chested T.I. won over admirers with one of his most well-known songs, “Whatever You Like.” Despite several technical difficulties during his set, T.I. managed to rebuild the crowd’s energy while serving up a generous dollop of Southern hip-hop to all his fans.
Next door on the Gentilly Stage, British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran delivered his second only performance at an American festival. For such a young artist, the surprisingly vast number of hits spanning his two records made for a dynamic show. A masterful linguist, Sheeran weaved lyrics from Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” into some of his own work.
A brief lull in the middle of his set was quickly extinguished once the melody for “Thinking Out Loud” poured from his guitar. Teenage fans waved signs and cellphones, desperate to share the moment on social media, while starry eyed couples held each other a little closer.
Just diagonal was the Acura stage where an overflow of people gathered around the perimeter, enclosing legend Elton John at its center. Playing hit after hit donned in a sequin coat with “Captain Fantastic” embroidered on the back, Elton left no question as to why he was the weekend’s main attraction.
During his final songs, he recognized this festival as possibly being one of his last few performances. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing this for,” said Elton just before returning to his piano to play the familiar first notes of “Rocket Man.”
“We drove all the way from Florida to see him,” said Glorie Wright, a devoted fan of his music. “I grew up listening to him and have so many memories tied to his music. The first time I kissed my husband I remember ‘A Candle in the Wind’ was playing in the background.”
And in the end, it’s the memories so deeply rooted in music that keep people returning to Jazz Fest year after year. Of course, there are also the crawfish beignets.