Saturday, May 9, 2015

Elton Meets Jerry Lee Lewis at Jazz Fest

What makes Elton John nervous? Meeting Jerry Lee Lewis, one of his musical heroes, for the first time during the 2015 New Orleans Jazz Fest.


As he hustles around the Fair Grounds on a golf cart, Quint Davis, Jazz Fest's longtime producer/director, hears as much music as anybody. But he's also privy to backstage moments and encounters that the average fan never sees.

On the afternoon of May 2, the festival's massive second Saturday, Jerry Lee met with an apparently star-struck -- and Adidas track suit-wearing -- Elton John for the first time in a dressing room trailer behind the Acura Stage. "Elton said it was the most nervous he's ever been, more than any gig," Davis recalled.

Earlier, Davis paid a courtesy call on Jerry Lee prior to the rock 'n' roll legend's short set on the Acura Stage. In a backstage trailer, Lewis' wife, clad in black and gold, introduced herself as "Mrs. Killer."

Davis had had some concerns about scheduling Lewis just before Elton John on Acura, a high-profile slot with an enormous audience. But those concerns evaporated as soon as he encountered the Killer.

"That was a big risk on my part, to put a 79-year-old walking with a cane on before arguably the biggest act we've ever had," Davis said. "But when Jerry Lee shook my hand, it was not an old man handshake. It was solid and it was strong; there was no mushy in his hands.

"Right there I thought, 'Oh, yeah. He's got it.' He played a smoking set. I don't how long it was, 35 minutes, but he just pounded it out."

Davis' longtime friend Ken Ehrlich, the producer of the Grammy Awards show, was at the festival to direct AXS TV's coverage. As Lewis pounded away on the nearby Acura Stage, Ehrlich was chatting with Elton in the star's trailer.

"Elton said 'shhh,' and put his hand up," Davis recounted. "He listened out of the trailer for two or three songs. I think that's a big reason why we got what we got" from Elton, who delivered a powerhouse show.

When he first walked onto the Acura Stage, "he almost did a double-take," Davis said. "When you see that crowd, and all the flags, and the poles, and the vibe....

"I'm not saying he needed Jerry Lee to go to the level he went to. But he played the first song like you would play 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' at the end. I remember saying, 'Where's he gonna go from there?'

"He played a thousand percent from the very first song. His piano playing was nuts. When he would get way down deep in it for a little bit, his face would be contorted as he played something hard. Then he'd get it, and he'd smile. He was just wailing."

Sunny skies greeted Elton and Jerry Lee on the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. Many first weekend acts weren't so fortunate. On the opening Friday, April 24, lightning forced Davis to pull the plug on the closing acts an hour early. Forecasts called for the rain to clear out early Saturday, but it hung around most of the day. "It was supposed to clear at 11, then noon, then it never did. It rained all day, except when The Who came on."

The Who, stopping at the Fair Grounds as part of a 50th anniversary tour, put on "one of the best rock shows I've ever seen," Davis said. "The band was great, but not just that. They do a short version of 'Tommy' and go into 'See Me, Feel Me' – and the sun comes out for the first time since the festival started. And I mean really came out – it lit the place up. (Singer Roger) Daltrey just pointed at it and the crowd just 'ohhhed.'"

After the show, Davis mentioned the sunny moment to Daltrey. "He said, 'Yeah, that happened once before -- at Woodstock. We played "See Me Feel Me" and the sun came out.' So you tell me."

Overall, Davis -- music is his business, but he's also a major fan -- generally liked what he heard at the Fair Grounds. "Over and over, I saw incredible performances, incredible realizations of the talent that we booked and programmed."

He thought Pitbull "was fantastic. Pitbull by far drew the largest Hispanic crowd we've ever had." He was impressed that the members of No Doubt, sans singer Gwen Stefani, came to the Fair Grounds at 8 a.m. the morning of their May 1 show for a long sound check.

"I could tell that they were really good, really tight. And (Stefani) has got an electricity about her. People were excited about her. She generated some kind of electric spark. I haven't seen that very much."

For weeks after the 2015 Jazz Fest's initial talent release in January, fans speculated about who the "TBA" on the final Sunday might be. It was eventually revealed as Lenny Kravitz, who owned a home for a number of years in the French Quarter. Some were disappointed. But based on the big crowed Kravitz played to at the Acura Stage, many others were stoked.

"After all that commotion about who's the TBA, Lenny is beloved here in New Orleans," Davis said. "That was one of the biggest Sundays we've had, and a lot of it was him. He had a big crowd. They love him and have been looking for him to come back. He smoked the joint. He put on a great show."

Davis also caught part of Steve Winwood's simultaneous set at the Gentilly Stage. "Steve Winwood was transcendent. When I was over there, he was doing Blind Faith. He looked great, sounded great, and had a huge, rapt crowd that knew his music and came for him."

Davis is a familiar figure to Jazz Fest attendees, as he often provides introductions and outros for major acts. His introduction to The Who contained an obvious reference to the song "Who Are You," "which apparently a lot of people didn't get. I was like, 'They know who they are. Do you know who you are?' People were like, 'I know who I am.' I didn't put in the line, 'They really want to know.' Maybe I should have done that."

Some fest-goers were surprised that he didn't turn up for either an intro or outro for Elton John. "So was I," Davis said. "I had rehearsed an Elton intro for months, literally."

But Elton's show begins with a fanfare of recorded symphonic music. "So it was one of those situations where you don't actually introduce the artist, but you can go out five or 10 minutes before, say something, and, 'In a little bit, Elton John.' I was going back and forth on whether to do that, on whether that was the right thing. At some point I decided, 'I'm not going to that.' In retrospect, I should have.

"For 40 years, we've gathered in that field to have a special experience powered by music by some of the greatest ever. Because for us in New Orleans, music is not entertainment. It's sustenance. How can you have 40 clubs that have five or six bands a week? Because it's like food to New Orleanians."

Elton "was going to be one of these festival moments where you really take something in that nourishes you, that you can use. But this one was more than that. This was one prophecy. His name was on people's lips for decades: Will Elton ever come to Jazz Fest? It was the coming of a prophecy. And this was that moment.

"That's what I would have said. And then I didn't."

At the end of the show, Davis considered delivering a short speech to wrap up Jazz Fest's biggest day in a decade. But when Elton sprinted from the stage following his final song, Davis decided to scrap the speech.

"When they take a bow or wave or something, or they're standing there, it makes sense to do it. But when people are running off the stage before you can get out there, it's a little tricky. If you've got an empty stage and (the artist) is already jumping in the Escalade (to leave), it's a little bit different.

"It was a momentous moment, a prophecy come true for the festival population. I kind of regret that I didn't say anything. But I go back and forth on that. It's Elton John coming to Jazz Fest – does it really need me to go say something?"

- NOLA

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