2016 marks the 20th anniversary of my love affair with New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival. (skipped last year but returned this year for my 17th.) The festival is 2 consecutive weekends. Fri/Sat/Sun last weekend in April, and Thursday through Sunday first weekend of May. I've never done all 7 days of the festival but I like to go for a week and do some of each weekend plus the "daze between". Here's my jazz fest journal from the first weekend:
Day 1 4/23
Hit the ground running Saturday - plane landed at noon, we hooked up with our regular cab driver we've known for 10 years now, who brought us to the hotel where we did a quick check in and off to the fairgrounds by 2 pm. I found my way to our friends' camp at the Gentilly Stage where Tab Benoit was getting ready to come on, but no one we knew was there at the time, they must have been off getting food or seeing something else. I love Tab but I've seen him plenty of times in small venues, where it is a much different and better experience, so was not really into it. We stayed for about 30 minutes waiting for the gang to return but hunger took over, since we only had a egg sandwich in the airport at 6 am, and Southwest peanuts and pretzels on the flight. The food area was packed with long lines. I was going to get some fried chicken but the line was not moving at all so I opted for a combo of pecan crusted catfish Meunière and seafood Mirliton casserole. Joe had a combo of Spinach/ artichoke /seafood casserole and sweet potato pone. Yeah, this is not your average festival fare. The first time you go it's surprising, but the food is such a big part of the festival you quickly get used to sampling restaurant quality food out of paper plates and plastic forks standing around in the sun with several thousand dining partners. This started way before food trucks made it seem almost commonplace. The hardest part is deciding what to try - there is so much to choose from!
After lunch we went to the Economy hall tent just to get out of the sun and have a seat listening to some traditional Dixieland . The dancers were doing their thing, snaking their way through the aisles in a joyous second-line hoisting their umbrellas and waving their kerchiefs. I saw many familiar faces there and was happy to be back!
Returned to the camp, and met up with some of the group there. It was difficult picking my way through the crowd which was really packed with people., chairs, tarps, and no aisles. I'm nursing a knee injury and am fine with normal walking but not so much with the kind of maneuvering it takes to navigate a crowd like that. But I made my way in to see Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, whom I'd never seen before but heard on radio and seen on Austin City. Well I didn't see them much now either, as we were pretty far back and had to stand to see the video screen. The music was soulful and danceable, and sounded great with the horn section. Some of it kind of reminded me of Eric Lindell's band, and a little Van Morrison who was up next.
40 minute set break, seemed like a good time to get a beer but again the crowd was so dense at the nearest beer stand. I waited a long time with no progress and just getting jostled by people trying to pass so I moved to another stand closer to the Fais do do stage. I heard a tune that was familiar, and not, at the same time.... What was it... good ol Rocky Top! Played on electric guitars with a horn section by a band called the Brothers Osborne! This was my favorite moment. I stuck around for a couple more songs ending with "The Shape I'm In" recalling the famous Toussaint-arranged horns. I then made my way back to Gentilly for Van Morrison, where a bunch more Threadheads had returned and were grooving and chilling out on the tarp.. I had never seen Van Morrison live before ( He had in his signature hat, jacket and dark glasses) so I really enjoyed hearing a lot of familiar songs and some good jams with friends. I heard some people comment that it was "too mellow". But I thought it as a great way to end the day.
Started making our way out on the last song ( Gloria) to meet up with some other friends we hadn't seen in a long time. They had a car so we were going to get a bite to eat and catch up/ visit with them. We tried going to Parkway bakery but the line was all the way around the building and not moving. Then tried Buds Broiler, which didn't look crowded but after waiting there for several minutes and no movement ( this was the theme of the day) we went to a place called Riccobono's Cafe Navarre http://cafenavarre.com Perfect! Not too crowded but still open, good service - and prices, four of us had beers/ po boys / Cuban sandwich for $60 + tip.
Planning a trip like this sounds great on paper as you don't have to waste a day just traveling but I wouldn't recommend it. Getting up at 4 am to catch a 6:50 flight out of Providence and then a half day of festing is exhausting! So I was in bed before 11 but after a good night's sleep I was ready for another day!
Day 2 Sunday 4/24
Woke up and went to sit out on the sundeck of our timeshare to have coffee. It's a pretty nice place just steps from the bus stop to Fest but we were in a small ADA room. We didn't think about it much when we first checked in since we wanted to get to the Fest. But on a closer look we decided we would try to switch rooms as soon as possible. More on that later.
Waited for about a half hour for the bus - it's so maddening seeing it there at the end of the line but not moving. Was tempted to take the streetcar (2 came before the bus) but the bus gets you closer and is faster when it finally gets moving. Finally we boarded and were on our way. It's so much better entering the fairgrounds closer to opening time at 11, instead of in the middle of the day like we did Saturday. It's less crowded, you can get your bearings, plan the day and most importantly get something to eat without waiting in long lines! My breakfast was a Cajun duck po boy and Joe had the paneed chicken sandwich ( lightly breaded/ pan fried) .
First stop was the Alison Miner stage in the grandstand to see an interview with Rhiannon Giddens, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and who has just released a fantastic solo album produced by Tbone Burnett. She was doing a set later that day we were looking forward to the most but it sometimes is fun to get more personal insight from the artists in an interview. She talked about her country heritage and the black string band tradition from North Carolina, told stories behind some of her songs, experience of touring , history, family, life on the road, playing at the Grand ol' Opry and instruments. Her current favorite is a fretless 5 string banjo with no resonator and gut strings so it has a more mellow tone than what we're used to. She played and sang a few songs on that instrument and at least one on fiddle.
We went from there to see Leyla McCalla,ex-Carolina Chocolate Drop and current resident of New Orleans ( from Haiti) who was performing on the Lagniappe stage with her band that included her daughter on viola. She got her start in New Orleans playing baroque classical Cello with a group of children that still does busking outside the Jazzfest! ( I think she may have been one of the teachers) and now she plays on a stage. Leyla also plays banjo sings and writes songs. Rhiannon joined her for a few songs too.
Next I wanted to see this band called at Royal Teeth! I don't know why....it's a younger band, touring nationally but from Louisiana and they were playing on the Gentilly stage. I just like to see something different I wouldn't normally go for. They were ok, kind of smooth sounding "indie-pop". They had to work hard to get the crowd to sing along with something, seemed kind of forced. And it was easy to get up front not like the day before . That should have told me something. meanwhile Joe had gone to see Glen David Andrews in the blues tent and get a spot for Rhiannon. I heard later it was a killer set and should have gone there. Oh well that's the beauty of Jazz Fest it offers a thousands of different experiences, that's why you want to go back again and again. It so fun to trade stories with your friends, everyone has a different experience and collectively you can get it all.
On my way to the blues tent I got a mango freeze and stopped to listen to Dede Saint-prix from Martinique at Congo Square . He and his band were having no trouble getting the crowd to sing and dance along, to the carefree Caribbean music. And the crowd was really having a good time. But if you watch the Fest on AXS TV there will probably show Royal Teeth instead. ( that's where the cameras were) . I also has caught some of Beausoleil on Fais Do Do befor e finally catching up with Joe at the Blues tent just as Glen David was finishing up.
So we had a good spot for Rhiannon Giddens just 10 rows back on the side. She was joined by her Carolina chocolate drops band mates and Dirk Powell on accordion and fiddle. At first there were sound problems, drums too loud .. drowning out her beautiful voice. But they made some adjustments . She did some material from the album like the Patsy Cline cover "She's got You" and some CCD material. She was the hit of the Fest! Even getting an encore where they did "hit em up Style" . And they seldom let artist do encores at the festival, since it's on a tight schedule.
Headed out to the bus stopping briefly at Liuzzas to catch up with friends. When we got back to the hotel we were able to upgrade to a much larger nicer room. This took some time and kind of killed any idea of going out to see more music that evening but was worth it. We had a late dinner at Creole House around the corner and before turning in for the night.