Jon Batiste may be best known to millions as the bandleader for Stephen Colbert’s late night talk show, but the full spectrum of his talents has to be seen in his own shows to be believed. The New Orleans native has a long career as a jazz and soul musician, having released his debut album in 2003 at 17. The Juilliard-educated singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has performed all over the world in dozens of contexts, streamlining down to this year’s stunning eighth studio album We Are. Thus we were understandably excited to finally have this remarkable musical polymath make his ACL debut, and Batiste rewarded everybody’s anticipation with a performance for the ages.
The cowboy-hatted ten-piece band hit the stage with a Caribbean groove before Batiste himself arrived in his own Stetson, leading the ensemble into the title track of We Are, the leader’s funky, celebratory anthem of the African diaspora, with Batiste even flexing a verse from Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”. The high energy onstage and off signaled that this would be a show that started cranked up to eleven, and would just get higher from there. Batiste sat at the piano (briefly) to kick off the amped-up single “I Need You,” bringing gospel fervor, New Orleans funk and the leader’s cameo on saxophone together. The crowd barely had a chance to catch its breath before the unmistakable sound of a New Orleans second line floated in the air, heralding the arrival of that city’s Hot 8 Brass Band from the back of the hall. The melodica-wielding Batiste left the stage to join the band in the middle of the crowd for the Love Riot chant – “I feel good/I feel free/I feel fine just being me!” – and had the crowd in his pocket as he cued them to wave the white handkerchiefs distributed before the show began.
Batiste came back onstage for “Boy Hood,” a tribute to his youth in the Big Easy that mixed rap, soul balladry, a trombone solo from the Hot 8, and portions of Bob Marley’s “One Love,” Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” which Batiste made into both a reminder that all people are in it together and into choir practice for the crowd. Batiste paced the stage, waiting for the next tune, which was “Whatchutalkinbout,” a seamless blend of rap and rock that let guitarists Brandon Niederaruer and Ari O’Neal cut loose with duelling solos. As the Hot 8 rejoined the proceedings, Batiste picked up his Bo Diddley-style axe for “Tell the Truth,” a soulful raveup that spotlighted firebrand percussionist Négah Santos. Batiste took the opportunity to preach positivity to the people, before tossing his guitar aside, adding a piano solo, and commanding the mic once again. “This is not a concert for me,” Batiste asserted after the song concluded. “This is not a concert. This is a spiritual practice. I play music to be with y’all.”
The Hot 8 once again started a second line groove, letting the leader get in some dancing time, before he turned over the vocals to singers Tamara Jade, Desiree “DesZ” Washington and Susan Carol (playfully dubbed the Jonettes). Batiste then had the crowd go as low down as they could – “quad workout, baby!” – before, naturally, a massive audience jumpfest for the coda of “Tell the Truth.” Batiste and the horns snuck off the stage during the celebration, leaving the band to jam on some serious funk that showcased every member, including bassist Thad Tribbett, keyboardist David Grant, drummers Joe Saylor and Lunar RAE, Santos, and the two six-stringers.
Having exchanged his red suit for a blue striped ensemble, Batiste returned, dazzling at the piano on a variety of jazz, classical and ragtime pieces, including Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” “Chopsticks,” Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” Bach’s “Partita No. 1 in B-Flat Major,” and New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary Blues,” among many others, some lasting no more than a phrase. That last piece concluded with Batiste and the Jonettes back on vocals, leading a Cab Calloway-style call-and-response with the crowd. He finished his medley with some boogie woogie that transitioned into Jerry Lee Lewis pound. Batiste then revisited his recent Oscar-winning soundtrack for the animated film Soul with “It’s All Right,” turning it into a medley by recasting the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” in Soul’s image, before returning to “It’s All Right,” driving the audience wild.
Then it was time for a surprise guest, as Austin favorite son Gary Clark Jr. casually walked up onstage, picked up his guitar, and traded solos with Batiste on the slinky soul tune “Cry.” “Y’all ready to get free?” Batiste asked the crowd, to off-the-charts applause. Naturally, that exchange was a harbinger for “Freedom,” a classic feel-good anthem that got band and crowd dancing with abandon. Then it was back to the second line, as the white handkerchiefs came back out, the Hot 8 Brass Band returned, and Batiste joined the fans on the floor, leading the entire room in the joyful catharsis of a reprise of “I Need You.” The Hot 8 took us out, as the crowd went wild once again.
Amazingly, Batiste returned to stage after the finale, sitting at the piano for a captivating take on his ballad “Don’t Stop,” from 2018’s Hollywood Africans – a mic drop if we’ve ever heard one. It was an incredible show destined to be a Season 47 highlight and we can’t wait for you to see it when it hits your local PBS airwaves this fall.