Sunday, May 15, 2011

2011 New Orleans Jazz Fest

Hard to believe just a week ago we were in New Orleans for one of the best Jazz Festivals in recent memory. Although they all seem like the best one yet when you first get back. Unfortunately there is calamity unfolding in Louisiana once gain as I write this, with the opening of the floodgates threatening to destroy several parishes west of Baton Rouge. I am feeling sorry for those folks down in the Atchafalaya basin. Maybe that is why I enjoy going to Louisiana so much, you never know if each trip might be your last. It is a precious area that hopefully will continue to survive as they have for 300+ years.

Anyway, just thinking back to last week's trip for Jazzfest the weather was perfect every day except for the first day we arrived, which was the Tuesday between weekends. After checking into our hotel we headed straight to the 7th annual Threadhead Patry which was held this year under a tent at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World at the Port of New Orleans. I had planned to change into shorts or a dress but it was chilly so I decided to stay in the clothes I had worn for the trip. When we got to the venue, which was on a concrete deck right on the waterfront, I was glad I had my long pants and jacket on because there were white caps on the Mississippi and it was kind of like being on Narragansett pier in March. Very unusual for Jazzfest week.

Luckily though it didn't rain and we feasted on a vat of Zatarain's Jambalaya and a seemingly endless pirogue full of boiled spicy crawfish while greeting and catching up with friends we had not seen in a while. All this was accompanied by several kegs of Abita beer (which probably lasted longer due to the cold weather), Bin 504 wine, and drinks made with Old New Orleans spiced rum (including some hot cider towards the end of the evening).

The musical entertainment at this gathering rivals what can be heard in any one day at the Jazzfest, and this year was no exception,was in fact was one of the best ever.
We arrived at the end of the first set by Susan Cowsill band, then Honey Island Swamp Band got everybody rocking, followed by Eric Lindell, then Tommy Malone's (of the subdudes) new band Mystic Drone. My favorite set was by the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, a brass band featuring Craig Klein, Matt Perrine, Rick Trulson and a slew of other new Orleans horn players, during which a lone Mardi Gras Indian showed up. Not sure if that was planned or not but added a colorful dimension to it all. Ended up with a fantastic funky set by George Porter Jr. & Runnin' Pardners. What a way to start the week!

When we got back to the hotel ( a deal we had found on Hotwire that turned out to be RIGHT on Bourbon & Toulouse) we were asked to show room keys before getting on the elevator, an effort to keep out the staggering hordes from the street. Since it was a Tuesday night it wasn't TOO crazy out there but we were glad we had asked for a room overlooking the courtyard vs. the one on Toulouse originally offered. (We had decline the option of paying extra for a Bourbon Street view.) Inside the room, which opened out to a narrow balcony, it was pretty peaceful and ended up being a great place to stay.

Next morning we went to Camellia Grille's new French Quarter location just a couple blocks away on Chartres st. Same menu as the original one uptown, just more convenient for us touristas. Which was fine by me, very easy to get to and I got to get my grits on. I do make 'em at home in the microwave but something about the slow-cooked ones tastes better.

After passing by some shooting for HBO's Treme (I think) outside Napoleon House, we went by the Louisiana Music factory where the cast members (except Wendell) were signing copies of the new DVD. Kermit Ruffins was up next but it was so packed in there I could hardly get a glimpse inside. He was already so popular before but now with the TV show, plus the fact there's only the one record store left for the in-stores so EVERYONE is there on non-fest days. We met up with some friends outside and headed over to catch the ferry to Algiers, where one of the Threadheads was hosting his annual gathering/open studio at his glass-blowing studio, Rosetree Studios. After a lovely walk through the quaint little neighborhood, it was fascinating to watch them create beautiful works of art in the studio, turning hot blobs into exquisitely delicate pieces. One was a wavy bowl that had been won by someone in last year's Threadhead raffle. And we got to mingle with some of our friends in a quieter setting than we had at the previous day's party.

After the Rosetree fest, we stopped at Drago's in the Hilton Riverside to sample the much heralded Char Grilled Oysters that I have heard so many rave reviews about, and I must say they lived up to their reputation. They were big and juicy and swimming in just the right amount of garlic/butter sauce, no evidence of BP. Then since we were nearby we decided to stop by Lafayette Square where Marcia Ball was performing for free as she usually does on the Wednesday between fest weekends. WE caught some of the opening act, Girl Holiday and the Honky Tonk review, but did not stay too long because as much as I love Marcia Ball it was just a bit too crowded and we had just seen her recently from like 2 feet away at Patriot place in Foxboro, MA. (Catch you at Rhythm and Roots Marcia!)

Back to the hotel then out to dinner at Palace Cafe, then Chickie Wah Wah to see Paul Cebar, someone I always enjoy dancing to. He doesn't usually play AT Jazzfest but I have seen him on the grounds quite often just enjoying it, and he usually does a set or two somewhere during the week. Looking forward to seeing him at the upcoming Bayou 'n' Boogie fest in a couple of weeks.

Thursday was our first day of fest and I was excited to see Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, a band I had heard much about but somehow had never seen yet. They were fun way to start off the day. Lucinda WIlliams was next, she startd off kind of slow but by the end was rocking out. Love her new album,and in my opinion was a better jazz fest performance than last time I had seen her there. Next was Charlie Mussselwhite who absolutely packed the blues tent, where we stayed for some of the James Booker piano tribute, then caught some of Michelle Shocked set on the Fais Do Do before heading over to see Cyndi Lauper. She was probably the biggest surprise of the fest for me. She is doing more blues now (which is closer to how she started out) and had lots of energy and was a good entertainer. Charlie Musselwhite played harmonica with her, and she also featured a teen fife & drum group from Mississippi. I should have stayed for her whole set but really wanted to see some of Maceo Parker, who was playing at the same time on Congo Square. They were good, but closer to expectations. Always too many choices at Jazzfest.

After dinner at the Redfish Grille we stopped in at Irvin Mayfield's club at the Royal Sonesta to see Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs. The set was made more entertaining and interesting by hearing stories of the band's recent trip to Kazakhstan and Kurdistan(?) as United States cultural ambassadors. I had seen some of the videos before on Facebook/ Youtube and it was interesting to hear Shamarr's take on this unique experience. Hopefully they will continue to bring New Orleans music to other parts of the world. That is some government spending I don't mind supporting.

Friday we started out the day in the Gospel tent with the Electrifying Crown Seekers then the original Pinettes, one of the only female brass bands that I know of. They had some guy dancing on stage with them. I don't know if he is part of their act or was just a special addition for Jazzfest. Then it was over to Acura for Soul Rebels brass band, looking forward to their upcoming gig at the Narrows. Caught some of David Torkanowksi/ George Porter's Fleur Debris, then tried to see Kermit Ruffins but that area was so packed hard to get a good vantage point. We headed into the Lagniappe stage for Alex McMurray, who I have seen as a sideman with Paul Sanchez and others but this was my first time seeing him with his own band doing his own originals. Good stuff!

Ended up the day with Willie Nelson, whom I have seen many times before but not in a while. He played all the usual standards, "City of New Orleans", a few newer songs and a string of Hank Williams songs starting with Jambalaya. Blind Boys of Alabama joined him for "I Saw the Light". I considered going over to the Blues Tent for Gregg Allman, but I was glad we stayed for the whole set because as we were leaving we noticed a crowd gathered backstage by the infamous bus and I was able to get my fest hat autographed!

Saturday was our last day at fest and again we began at the Gospel tent then saw Shamarr Allen on the Gentilly Stage, wandered around quite a bit catching a little of several acts, tried to see Trombone Shorty but were so far back (like at Kermit) was not too good so again we headed for the Lagniappe stage where Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road show, which featured some songs and singers from Nine Lives,a musical in the works. We heard a little of Jimmy Buffet then ended the day and our fest with New Birth Brass Band on the Heritage stage. Nighttime was dinner at Deanies (on the way back to hotel, then showered and out to Frenchmen street -the music lovers' answer to Bourbon street - where we hung out at the Spotted cat and elsewhere until we had to head back to fly out the next morning.

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