The legendary New Orleans act partnered with Grand Rapids Symphony on Sunday night for an upbeat mix of jazz and classical performed under clear skies and with perfect temps. Review, photos.
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Steeped in New Orleans’ legend and lore, Preservation Hall Jazz Band may be viewed as a proxy for the Crescent City itself, representing the resilience, tenacity and joie de vivre of the city that care forgot. What better band to welcome music lovers back to the re-imagined amphitheater Sunday night after a staggering 667 days since the last main summer concert series performance.
(Technically speaking, Ralston Bowles, The Accidentals and Roosevelt Diggs were the first to welcome back music fans to the venue earlier this month for the Tuesday Evening Music Club, but Sunday was the first main concert event.)
Coming full circle, Preservation Hall Jazz Band was the last band I saw perform live before the pandemic hit the fan. I caught them in October 2019 in Boston as part of their “A Tuba to Cuba” tour. It was fantastic.
While that was not technically the last live performance I enjoyed before lockdown, it was the last full band, complete with dancing, close crowds and loud voices. And at my lowest points in 2020, I wasn’t sure we’d ever get back to those things again. Often, I am really happy to be proven wrong.
The band’s performance under clear skies at Meijer Gardens — with just under 1,200 in attendance for the opener of a series delayed by more than a month due to COVID — was the first time I’ve enjoyed live music since it again became an option. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t emotional to see these talented musicians come together, reacquainting themselves with the stage and the nuance of sharing their gifts with a group of strangers.
As bassist/tuba player/creative director Ben Jaffe pointed out, this was only the band’s fourth time performing live together in nearly a year-and-a-half. Six months ago — even three months ago — they weren’t even certain the performance would be able to happen. It was a privilege to be part of an icon’s return to the fray, and if they felt out of practice, it didn’t show.
A PLAYFUL AND RICH MUSICAL VOLLEY BETWEEN THE TWO GROUPS
The seven-piece band performed for roughly an hour before exiting for a brief respite, when the Grand Rapids Symphony took over as part of Meijer Gardens’ new relationship with the local arts organization.
Michigan native Sameer Patel conducted the symphony for about 15 minutes of upbeat classical music before the band rejoined for 40-plus minutes of a playful and rich musical volley between the two groups. (And hat tip to our hometown musicians for their part in Sunday night’s event; we are fortunate to have so many talented musicians in our midst).
A particularly meaningful rendition of 2019’s “Keep Your Head Up” and show closer “Go to the Mardi Gras” were among the musical high points of the evening.
Of course, it wouldn’t be summer in West Michigan without a petty disagreement about how to position one’s body during a concert. The pandemic meme, “nature is healing,” came to mind as I watched one fan chastise another for daring to stand up and dance during a particularly lively number. (Seriously; she admonished her after what was less than 60 seconds of standing.)
“People are arguing about the appropriate way to enjoy live music at Meijer Gardens? Nature is healing!” Deep sigh. I was hoping that policing other people’s harmless experiences would fall by the wayside in the so-called new normal, but alas.
Collectively we’ve been away from live music for a REALLY long time. It’s OK to stand up, cut loose and indulge in some less-than-on-tempo dancing in public. Musicians dig seeing people enjoy their music. Promise.
That said, Sunday’s two-thirds-full crowd did seem to appreciate and truly like the music, even if in its own subdued way.
As we readjust to seeing things beyond the narrow confines of our screens, here’s hoping we can cut loose for the remainder of this abbreviated two-month season. Welcome back.
The Grand Rapids Symphony — featuring the music of “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park” — plays Meijer Gardens again at 7:30 p.m. Thursday ($58, $55), and with Pink Martini on July 29 ($74, $72). Details, tickets here.
PHOTO GALLERY: Preservation Hall Jazz Band & Grand Rapids Symphony at Meijer Gardens
Photos by Jamie Geysbeek