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Jon Batiste shares New Orleans jazz and joy with ACL Fest 2021 concertgoers

The celebratory show on Sunday night was as close to a New Orleans second-line as you could get within the festival format.

AUSTIN, Texas — If Jon Batiste could have brought a full parade to his set at Weekend Two of the 2021 Austin City Limits Music Festival, he would have. The celebratory show on Sunday night was as close to a New Orleans second-line as you could get within the festival format.

He may be best known as the bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” but New Orleans native Jon Batiste has had a long career playing jazz and soul. He released his debut album in 2003 when he was just 17, before attending Julliard. This year, Batiste won an Oscar for his work writing the music for Pixar film “Soul.”

Credit: John Gusky
Photo: John Gusky

Decked out in a suit with shorts, a sparkly shirt and Nike high-tops, Jon Batiste was joined by 10 others on stage, with imagery that evoked Sun Ra and a band that brought to mind Sly and the Family Stone. Launching into “We Are,” the title track from his latest album of the same name, the band laid a groove as his three backing singers sang, “We are the golden ones/We are the chosen ones.”

The song, which reflects on the racial struggles of Black Americans and recalls the summer 2020 protests, set the stage for Batiste’s belief in the power of music to heal and bring people together.

That love was the theme of the night as Batiste had everyone join in holding up the universal “I love you” hand gesture.

“Nobody else in the universe is you,” Batiste said.

Credit: John Gusky
Photo: John Gusky

The energy continued its upward trajectory with the quick, percussive hip-hop track “WHATCHUTALKINBOUT,” on which Batiste delivered lyrics with rapid-fire energy.

This is when Batiste upped his status from stage musician to bandleader.

“This is more than a concert – it’s a spiritual practice,” he told the audience as the band performed the soulful, expressive song “Cry.” 

The band’s strength and musicianship shone through as Batiste at one point stepped away and let his backing singers take the lead, before returning for a melodica solo that brought him to his knees.

Then, the hip-hop/R&B theme returned as the band rolled into track “BOY HOOD,” before a string of covers, including Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”

But what finally got the whole crowd dancing was a song designed to do just that, “I Need You.” It’s a warm New Orleans hug of a song that asks for radical joy during a time of world crises. For this song, Batiste put on a cowboy hat and said, “It’s a character – Buffalo Bill.”

The positive, high energy continued with "Freedom," another single from Batiste’s latest album – a lively, funk-forward ode to Batiste’s contagious joyfulness. It was followed by a singalong of the Impressions’ “It’s All Right,” which Batiste covered for the “Soul” soundtrack.

On the band’s closer, “Tell the Truth,” Batiste managed to get as close to the crowd as the stage barriers would allow, even if it seemed he wanted to lead the band and festivalgoers through Zilker Park. With the energy in the moment, we all would have followed.

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