For years I have heard many great things about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (AKA Jazz Fest). The annual "musical Mecca" takes place every year during the last weekend of April and first weekend of May and features a myriad of artists from blues and funk icons like BB King and the Neville Brothers to rock standards like Billy Joel and Hall & Oates, as well as jambands like Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews. That doesn't even include mention of indie rockers like the Black Keys or more pop oriented stars like Frank Ocean. Jazz Fest is truly a festival for the whole family. While there is a little bit of everything there is a whole of lot of jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, bluegrass, and Zydeco so one must be prepared to get funky!
This year the stars finally aligned and I was able to get down here and see for myself what Jazz Fest is all about. Most people try to get down for a single weekend but I decided to go all-in and stay for Jazz Fest in its entirety. Take a gander at the Jazz Fest schedule - its a job unto itself to pick out your own personal schedule. The festival runs three days the first weekend and four days the second with over 60 different musical acts per day on 10 different stages in the festival ground. And when the sun goes down, the fun is just beginning. There are well over 60 different music clubs featuring live music after shows, after-hours shows, and after-after hours shows. Some of these venues hosted three acts a night after Jazz Fest ended so trying to figure who to go see, when, and where was a serious undertaking. Fortunately, there were a couple of sites, WWOZ and JazzFest Grids that made this a little bit easier.
I rolled into town on Friday evening after missing the first full day of Jazz Fest. While many would think it’s a shame to miss a day in the Fest, you have to pick and choose your battles. Those who plan to see a lot of night shows should not expect to go to all of the daytime shows. The festival ground is huge and there is a lot of walking around so between that, the dancing, and the drinking, burning out quick is easy. My adventure started at the Howling Wolf, which had 4 bands on its bill that night: Monophonic, The New Orleans Soul Stars, Dumpstaphunk, and Rebirth Brass Band. It was a particularly special night as they were all paying tribute to Sly & The Family Stone, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, and Michael Jackson. The show, which kicked off around 9PM, went into the wee hours of the morning. Rebirth Brass band went on somewhere around 2AM.
The next morning after a large NOLA style breakfast I headed into the festival around 1:45PM. That’s about 3 hours after it kicks off but, like I said, it’s hard to party all night and be the first guy into the festival the next day. Arriving at the festival ground, the party was in full swing and there were a ton of people rocking and a-rolling. Rumor has it that there were almost 300,000 people in attendance that day! It took awhile to get my bearings and I walked in a few circles but caught a some tunes from Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars and Bonerama in the first hour. My first full set was Dumpstaphunk, which was kind of ironic after seeing them the night before, but, in their defense, they are pretty awesome. Lead by Ivan Neville, they can really bring down the house. After that set, we followed the herd down to the main stage to see Billy Joel alongside everybody else in New Orleans. Billy pulled out a bunch of classics with a cameo from Preservation Hall Jazz Band on "Italian Restaurant", a rendition of "Iko Iko" in the middle of "River of Dreams" and closed the set with "Piano Man". I am 100% sure he was drunk because his stage antics were hilarious.
We headed in for our second day of official festival action. Sunday we got around quite a bit, catching a bunch of different acts some of which I personally have never heard of. Jazz Fest is full of hidden gems from New Orleans and Southern acts we would rarely see otherwise in the Northeast. These acts included CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Band (Zydeco), Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys (Cajun), Kermit Ruffins & The BBQ Swingers (Blues), Midnite Disturbers (Jazz), and The Selvys (Gospel). For the headlining acts, we were treated to the Nevilles (sans Aaron Neville), Dave Matthews, and BB King, who we felt obligated to see because it may have been our last opportunity to catch him in person. King was also joined by NOLA Jazz legend Allen Toussaint. We were blessed with torrential downpours to complete the full down and dirty festival experience. Between the rain and the musical marathon, there was not much fuel in the tank for an evening activity but after a day like that, sitting on a couch at a local friend's place was a Godsend!
Monday was a day of rest for the most part as the second weekend of the festival resumed on Thursday. We ate lots of food and strolled down Bourbon Street. When most people think of New Orleans, the first thing that comes to mind is drinking, Mardi Gras, and flashing boobs on Bourbon Street. The area is definitely the "junior varsity" cheesy touristy experience of New Orleans but that being said, it is not as extreme as we tend to think, save maybe during Mardi Gras. In reality, it’s just a string of bars that despite the drunken tourists and conventioneers has some decent music acts going on. We saw some particularly good music coming out of Fritzel's (Standard Jazz) and The Tropical Isle (Zydeco).
Despite the festival being on hiatus, there was good music going on in the music clubs at night during this slack time. I was fortunate enough to get invited to a private party at the Maple Leaf with a free crawfish boil and three different bands playing. Although the party was not an official Jazz Fest show, whoever played was not on any Jazz Fest list, there was some serious jazz, funk, blues and crawfish eating going down - a true NOLA experience. After the Maple Leaf, I headed back to the French Quarter to see Dragon Smoke, Ivan Neville (piano), Rob Mercurio (bass), Stanton Moore, and Eric Lindell (guitar). Kickass show that went on until 3AM.
Still alive, although dragging ass. Jazz Fest is not for sissies. Got a fantastic foot massage from a Chinese massage place that saved the day and perhaps the week. After going to so many shows serious fatigue starts to set in in the feet and legs. Somehow I rallied and made it out for a show at the Maple Leaf with Ivan Neville, George Porter Jr. (bass), Johnny Vidocovich (drums), and June Yamagishi (guitar). Yet another rocking super jam. As if that wasn't enough I went back to Frenchmen street to catch the Bayou Gypsies' Jimi Hendrix Tribute at 3AM at d.b.a.
Jazz fest resumed but it was raining cats and dogs. Finally around 3pm I put on a bathing suit, rain jacket, flip flops, and rode a bike to the festival. It was late so I headed straight to the main stage where Widespread Panic played a 2.5 hour straight set in the pouring rain. Their thousands of loyal fans lapped it up despite the rain and were rewarded with the sun coming out at the tail end of the set. Despite being prepared, I still ruined a good pair of flip-flops (still worth every penny)! After the fest ended, I headed to Vaughan's, a classic NOLA venue, to catch another set of Kermit Ruffins - it was so crowded that I listened from the street but the sound was still great. After the set, I rolled back to Maple Leaf, clear across the other side of town, to check out another super jam with Eric McFadden (guitar), Terrence Higgins (drums), Robert Walter (organ), Khris Royal (sax), and Roosevelt Collier (steel pedal). The show ended at 1-2AM, but I hadn't had enough so I went to One Eyed Jacks for Fiya Power with Ivan Neville, Stanton Moore, Skerik, Roosevelt Collier, and Andrew Block (guitar) and raged until 5:30 AM. Was the music all bleeding together? Yessir, but it still rocked my socks off!
The weather was pretty chilly and overcast, atypical of New Orleans this time of year. Rather than going to back to Jazz Fest, I mixed it up at another festival called Fiya Fest with 10 bands and an all-you-can-drink-and-eat ticket. The lineup is really too long to run through but it was pretty sick. Highlights included super jams G.A.B.E., Dr. Klaw, and Karl Denson and a whole bunch of friends. Late night was spent with George Porter Jr. and his Runnin' Partners. Out past 5AM again...
Package check? Still there. Day started with some drinks on the riverfront. I made it to the festival too late to warrant paying for a ticket but I did help 5 people get tickets for $20 or less. My good deed of the week - musical charity. I did however amble into the neighborhood after the festival for 2 hours and then on to Frenchman Street where I listened to a few shows and participated in a moving disco that was DJ'ed from a shopping cart. Hit the wall early but was all good because there was still one last day of the festie.
Woke up early and got into the festival around 1PM. Sadly, I bought a fake ticket from an old lady but lucked out with my second purchase. It felt like a musical decathlon on this last day: The Meter Men, John Boutte (jazz), Brushy One-String (blues), Leo Jackson & the Melody Clouds, The Black Keys, Hall & Oates, and ended it with Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave. What a day!! Black Keys were pretty sick and H&O were surprisingly great but Trombone Shorty's finale took the cake!
I am limping around now because the soles of my feet hurt from dancing so hard and trekking around to see so much great music over the course of 10 days. What I have seen at Jazz Fest over the last 10 days is like nothing I have ever experienced. While the festival is in the confines of the fairground, the vibe spreads all over town. I saw shows in the festival and in the music clubs and they were all rock solid. In the festival, you see bigger shows with larger crowds that are made up of a diverse panache of people. The bar scene shows are more intimate but also jammed packed with sweaty music aficionados. Is one better than the other? I don't think so and both are worth experiencing. BUT the festival doesn't stop there. At least twice a day I would happen upon a brass band playing some funky jazz marches on some random street corner in town.
What makes Jazz Fest so special? It's easy to say it's the music but really it's the people who come that put it over the top. I met people from all over the world who made the pilgrimage down to New Orleans to revel in the music that inundates the town for 11 days. Some of them have been coming here for 5, 10, 25 years or longer. While the people who come are great, we can't forget about the people who live here either. They bend over backwards to make sure you are comfortable and know where you are going, that you're seeing the right music, and that you're eating the right food. The food is a whole story unto itself and it certainly adds fuel to fire.
Jazz Fest has come and gone and I will be in the recovery room for some time. I can say without a doubt that I caught the Jazz Fest bug. I got a fever and the only prescription is more Jazz Fest. See you all at Jazz Fest 2014!!
Signing off from New Orleans...