For nearly a decade now, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s final weekend has gone out with some highly curated shows at the city’s Saenger Theatre. There was the tribute to the Neville Brothers in 2015, a salute to The Band and their “Last Waltz” concert in 2016 and 2021, and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats joining the revered Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 2019. This year, as weekend number two gets underway, it’s the Avett Brothers who will anchor “Second Weekend at the Saenger” with a pair of shows on Friday and Saturday.
Produced by Blackbird Presents, the shows feature special guest Anders Osborne and Friends, including Dave Malone of New Orleans heroes the Radiators. “When I’ve done these kinds of shows, I’m always careful to make sure that the support are local musicians, tried and true New Orleans musicians. Because it’s important to really understand why we’re there and why it all started, which is celebrating New Orleans music and music culture,” says Keith Wortman, CEO of Blackbird Presents, who recently orchestrated the massive two days of concerts celebrating Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday in Los Angeles.
In 2014, Blackbird Presents booked a Saenger show at the tail end of Jazz Fest with Dr. John. When Bruce Springsteen, who was headlining Jazz Fest that year, heard about it, he wanted in. Wortman says it took a police escort, a rarely lowered stage curtain, and the element of surprise to make it happen.
“I got a call from Bruce Springsteen. He said, ‘Lots of people don’t think of me when they think of Dr. John, but when I was coming up, he was kind to me, and he allowed me to open up shows for him,’” Wortman recalls. “And he said, ‘If you’ll have me, I’d like to play.’”
When Springsteen finished his set at Jazz Fest he joined the New Orleans Police Department in a race to the Saenger Theatre, where production was working to fix a rarely used curtain. “Bruce got there at 7:45, rehearsed with Mac for 15 minutes on ‘Right Place, Wrong Time,’ and we decided to make Bruce the first artist to open the show. As they were kicking off the music, the curtain rose,” Wortman says, “and the response was like 3,000 people won a lottery.”
Wortman won’t speculate on who might sit in with the Avett Brothers, but he’s excited to see the Americana band, pillars of the genre, enter the “Second Weekend at the Saenger” catalog. “They were at Willie’s birthday and we chatted a bit about some really special touches to add to their shows for Jazz Fest,” he says. “It’s all about the next level type of stuff.”