With over sixty acts on ten stages, the Gospel Tent was the best place to start on the first Sunday of the festival, where Paulette Wright & Volume of Praise had people on their feet with a rousing cover of “Tell Me Something Good”. Wright and her choir of singers dressed in white, sang contemporary gospel soul that was moving and inspirational as she told everyone to “minister your soul…cause of all the hell you’ve been through”.
Out on one of the large stages, Voice of The Wetlands All-Stars featured Dr. John, Cyril Neville and numerous friends who offered up a pretty mellow set of blues and rock that didn’t seem to bother a birds nest full of eggs resting on the grass in front of the stage that festival staffers fenced off.
The rain poured down about mid-afternoon with such force that folks came running from all directions into many of the covered stages, including the Jazz Tent where drummer Hamid Drake let loose a set of free jazz with bassist Nobu Ozaki and saxophonist Rob Wagner. At times the rain competed with Drake’s intense drumming but in the end, the musicians won the battle and endeared themselves to the drenched standing room only crowd.
As the downpour lightened a bit, the Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas and her band, The Professionals, took to the stage with “Sweet Home Chicago” and knocked out one classic hit after another, including her first “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man)”, “Time Is On My Side” and the most appropriate “It’s Raining”. Thomas’s strong, classic voice rang out with clear-as-a-bell enjoyment as she thanked the crowd for being “part of our recovery” and for standing in the knee deep water and mud-filled field.
After Ms. Thomas’ rousing set, The Del McCoury Band led the bluegrass charge on the small Fais Do Do Stage, built to resemble an old time shotgun shack. McCoury, who is quite the silver-haired fox, and his foursome sang some sweet harmonies around one microphone. Their cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lighting” was a thrilling surprise as this hardcore audience ate up every note. McCoury introduced his song “Beauty Of My Dreams” by thanking the band Phish. “They recorded this”, he explained. “It was real nice every time I go to my mailbox there’s a lot of money in there.”
As the group was transporting listeners with a stirring acapella version of “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray”, a booming bass was heard from the distance proclaiming Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s set had started. The two musicians, along with a full band and Toussaint’s powerful four-piece horn section, retooled a few classic Costello hits and played songs from their 2006 album, “The River In Reverse”. Deep, soulful and celebratory, Toussaint and Costello were the perfect set up for one of the day’s final performers, Al Green.
With the sun finally making an appearance like a lone spotlight pointed at the stage, the Reverend bounded on stage in a three piece suit and the cleanest pair of white sneakers ever seen at a mud-strewn music festival. The soul legend greeted fans with an ear-to-ear grin and an endless supply of red roses he generously threw to those down front. Book-ended by two blue zoot-suited dancers, Green danced and wiggled up a storm, leaving the crowd wanting more. Never has a sea of music fans sung as enthusiastically as they did when Green took to the mic, joining him on all of his hits including “Take Me In Your Arms” and “Let’s Stay Together”.
Wanting so to weep as the first notes of “How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” were played, Green set the sadness aside and opted to let the band take center stage while he mostly stuck to growling out the chorus. Falling to his knees on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, Green reached Sunday service heights with a glorious version of “Amazing Grace”.
There is nothing like seeing live music as awesome, heartfelt and joyful as Reverend Al Green and JazzFest should be applauded for continuing to bring such life-affirming sounds after 38 years.