Manny Bas photograph

New Orleans Jazz Festival

We were most concerned with the possibility of thunderstorms. For months my wife and I had told as many friends as we could about the wonderful experience we had at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (http://www.nojazzfest.com/) a few years back. Now it was time to go back, and this time we were recruiting fun loving partiers to join us for this musical experience. The weather was of particular interest to all of us, especially with this festival being of the outdoor variety.

For those not in the know, here is the scoop. This event is held over two weekends, the first weekend consisting of Friday through Sunday, with the second one gaining an additional day by starting on Thursday. There are 12 stages and tents (2 main stages) of music from 11 AM till 7 PM with minimal pauses during changeovers. Don't let the name fool you; it's not all jazz and blues, although that alone would make this thing worthwhile. Many kinds of music are showcased here, including some well known commercial acts known more in the rock and R&B circles. It is held at the Fair Grounds Race Course, a horse track just outside the downtown area, and a one day ticket (2005 prices were $20 to $35 a day depending on when you bought them) is good for any day for that given weekend.

As most out door events, you are allowed to bring in chairs, bags and soft coolers to the grounds, although the coolers must be void of food and drink. A major beer company is a big sponsor, and they have plenty of booths all over. The prices were slightly below what I expected, especially for ice cold cans ($3 each, they used to be $2, but its still not bad) accompanied by fist-sized blocks of ice upon asking (a nice touch, especially when you have a soft cooler). Definitely cuts down on the frequency of those beer runs (or water, soft drinks, etc...).

The food booths are not what you used to at all. This is New Orleans folks. Cajun country! A friend of mine from Spain couldn't believe how good the food was, and reasonably priced as well. Great food was a-plenty, from heaping bowls of crawfish Monica to savory amounts of jambalaya and gumbo. The selections varied from po-boy sandwiches with a variety of fillers to savory deserts such as home-made fruit pies pecan pralines. We were able to get in-and-out of this large and inviting and diverse food court with surprising ease.

We had decided to attend the first full weekend of concerts which ran from Friday, April 22nd to Sunday, April 24th. At the time, the band lineup was not completely finished, but it already looked good to me. Some of the names that got my attention out were Steve Winwood, Ozomatli, Buckwheat Zydeco, Wilco, and a tribute to Louis Armstrong. I was already hoping there wouldn't be too many conflicts, an inevitable circumstance when you have multiple stages. When I found out that the Black Crowes were thrown in the mix a week later, I just didn't care. Whatever stage they would be on, that's where I would be.

I found there are three ways to take in Jazz Fest. One way is the method we employed on Friday. Basically, if there is a show you can't miss, you b-line it to that stage once the gates open, set up camp, and take in all the acts without straying to much. It's a crapshoot. At times some bands can be painful to watch and your patience will be tested, but you'll luck-out sometimes and get some unexpectedly good bands that you never heard of. The point is that at least you'll be in prime position for the band you came to see.

We lucked out, for all the bands we saw were very entertaining. The Crowes rocked, and in staying with the jazz and blues spirit, played 10 minute versions of most of their classics. Does anyone sing with more passion than Chris Robinson? He wailed on "Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye", a favorites of mine. They played 10 songs and were on for about 80 minutes. Certain things stood out. The musicianship these guys have is not easily matched by most bands today. They were masterful. Also, they kicked ass playing their bluesy type of rock that most record companies would say is not commercially viable, yet they pack this and other venues. I mean, who sounds like them??? Who would have thought they would have outlasted Nirvana? (Actually, I called it back in '92, but for the wrong reasons)

The whole scene was classic; colorful homemade flags and banners with humorous themes were everywhere (we often used them to find our way around), the awesome sounds of crunchy bluesy electric guitars permeating the air, the sweet smell of herb floating around (hip older crowd). It was a pretty relaxed environment. Hell, I didn't even have too many problems fighting for space either. The camp we setup consisted of a blanket and folding chairs, and we quickly had our small section of grass staked out early in the day. Usually, for big acts, you can get squeezed in by the excess crowds. Then you inevitably get the squatters who sneak in once the music starts and your guard is down. We had our share of this, but it was relatively minor.

Saturday was spent moving from stage to stage, stopping at those that caught our attention. This is the second of the approaches I mentioned earlier. It's difficult to get very close to the stage this way, but there is always room way in the back where you can still hear the music pretty well. The crowds are sparse back here and you have more personal space than you need, but it's a welcome change from the Crowe's concert. They do an amazing job with the sound when I thought about where we were camped. With so many simultaneous acts you would think the music would all bleed together and make a mess of it all, but it didn't happen.

It was a pretty day, and we spent it lying on our blankets, soaking in the sun and tunes. We saw a few fun bands like The Boogie Men and Rockin' Dopsie Jr. & the Zydeco Twisters. They were typical New Orleans party bands, groups with lots of energy and attitude. They got me motivated enough to get up and actually dance a bit, a great feat after eating so much gumbo that day. We decided to move over to a stage featuring Fishbone, a punk-ska band around since the late 80's. I've seen them a few times in small clubs and they have always been great. It seems their reputation had preceded their trip here as the field facing their mid-level stage was swollen with fans. I wasn't expecting it, and again we sat way in the back and chilled for a while.

Our last day was an interesting one. My buddy and I decided that we would ditch the rest and go exploring (Approach No. 3). It was sunny and warm Sunday, and the rest of our group had decided to camp at the Congo Square stage. For the first time ever, the festival dedicated a stage solely to Hispanic music. It featured many big acts from Latin America like Victor Manuelle and the hugely popular Juanes.

Having the liberty of traveling light, we set off with no agenda to experience this event like few people do. We went to all the nooks we could find, hitting all the small stages and tents for short durations. It was fun taking things in like this. We checked out the gospel tent for a bit, although I must admit feeling odd about drinking a cold one in there. Lots of energy there let me tell you. By chance we stumbled into an interview of the great Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) being hosted by none other than Harry Shearer being held in a section of the grandstand. We caught the end of a Flamenco show and listened to a old time jazz quartet. A bit of eating was followed by a bit of shopping. Did I mention the art on display, most for sale? Hell, we actually sat down for a 15 minute cooking demonstration of Tres Leches, a fabulous desert. Is that varied enough for you? In essence we had a taste of all this musical buffet had to offer. We stayed away from the main stages, at least till the end. We did see most of the Juanes show, and we admit to catching glimpses of Dr. John, the aforementioned Brian Wilson and Nelly, but the true fun was had walking around and discovering things. It was a fun way to end our melodious weekend. There is more to this festival than music, but don't get the wrong idea, it is still the main event. Hey, and it didn't rain!

By Manny Bas

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