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New Orleans Jazz Fest for someone who hasn’t been

May 9th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Music, Real-life Adventure Tales

Brian NOLA Jazz Fest

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Whatever the particulars of any all-encompassing multi-day music festival you’ve been to — this one takes place in New Orleans.  When the festival music is over each night, instead of driving into a traffic jam or walking to a campground or checking into some generic hotel, you’re living in history and set loose in New Orleans.  And with apologies to New York, this is the REAL city that never sleeps.

And it’s a music town with more great clubs than you’ll ever be able to hit with shows that start at all hours of the day and night so you can be hearing live music until the sun comes up if you want.

But the Fest itself is something that takes place over two consecutive weekends at a “Fairgrounds” that’s normally a horse racing track.

They’ve been doing it for over 40 years and have got it down masterfully in every regard.  And because it’s so good, people keep coming back and a group mind of kindness has evolved and runs through everyone from the groundskeepers to the headliners.  I call it “The Random Acts of Kindness Festival” because that’s what it is.

Whereas most festivals give booking preference to out-of-town acts, Fest is the opposite.  Rather than being shut-out, local musicians come home from world tours to be central figures, doing 2 shows on a slow day.  This is a celebration of The Musicians’ City, and nobody misses the party.

The Festival Grounds:

This was the big beautiful surprise to me — how much I LOVED being on those grounds.  It’s only open 8 hours a day — from 11AM to 7PM.  And the most fun days are the two Fridays and the Thursday when you kinda have the place to yourself with about half the crowd of the weekends.

That The Grateful Dead are the most ubiquitous band represented on t-shirts, flags etc. (“I saw a DeadHead sticker on a stop sign.”) makes sense because DeadHeads created their own culture within their audience-world.  The same thing has happened at Fest — in large part because the same people have been going year after year.

It’s hard to convey — but it’s utopian.  Every single person is SO nice you won’t believe it.  It’s a music festival for cool adults.  And the field is designed so brilliantly — again, over 40+ years of tweaking.

At each end of the giant oval they have a main stage.  One of them had your Bruce, Petty, Beach Boys, Eagles — and the other end had your Florence & The Machine, Bon Iver, My Morning Jacket, Fiest — so all the young people into the newer music are at one end, and the slightly older demo is all the way at the other.

Then in the middle there’s a Congo Square stage with sort-of more all black artists, and another stage that’s basically bluegrass styles and wooden music, and another stage that has traditional New Orleans music.  Then there are 3 main giant tents that have rows of chairs for about a thousand people or more — one that’s all gospel, one that’s all blues, and one that’s all jazz.

There are 12 stages in all, all running simultaneously.  And you can get anywhere really easily and quickly.  The opening day I was listening to Bon Iver at one end of the fairgrounds, looked at my watch, headed to the Beach Boys at the far end and was there in four minutes!

And the festival is famous for running the stages like clockwork — I’ve never experienced anything like it in a lifetime of going to shows and festivals.  Sets start and end the minute the schedule says they will.  And all the performers buy in, and nobody overruns their slot — except sometimes the final headlining acts of the day will run a few minutes past 7:00.  Or in Bruce’s case, 25 minutes past.  😉

At the two main stages they mark off an enormous area in front of the stage as standing room only — so, the people who want to bring chairs and camp out for the day can’t take the area right in front of the stage.  And it causes turnover in the standing area cuz people don’t wanna go and stand there the whole day.

95 different local restaurateurs are providing the food so it’s all different and really good and not your normal food vender crap at all.  Like, you can’t buy a hotdogor hamburger anywhere on the site!  And there’s about a dozen giant tents selling beer to go, and also booths that sell champaign and wine.

And there’s about 40 gazillion port-o-potties, plus this giant grandstand building with regular porcelain bathrooms if that’s your need.

But those are all just the physical amenities — what’s really special and unique is the mindset of everyone who’s there.  You could say it’s like being at a church revival in that everyone is joyous and extremely polite and reverential and in love with each other like everyone’s on ecstasy or something.  And friendly — my gawd!  Most everyone has traveled from somewhere far away to be in this special place and so you’re all united in the mindset of joy and gratitude and camaraderie with like-minded music lovers.  I also call it “The Good Ears Festival.”   And I thought I knew a lot about music, but holy heck!  I am such a freshman!

The thing I missed the most when it was over were the people — both the soulful locals and the intrepid visitors.  Fest is not peopled by the idiots on Bourbon Street or young loogans chasing the pop band of the day, but rather by people with really broad musical minds who travel to hear musicians from all over the world they’ve never even heard of playing and bending and blending every strata and style of music imaginable.

It’s Dr. John playing with Bruce Springsteen. (above)
It’s Ani DiFranco playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
It’s Pancho Sanchez playing with Terence Blanchard.

And it’s a festival full of people who “get it.”

One of the most interesting things I noticed was — there’s all these stages going on with vastly different styles of music and in front of every one of them people are having epiphanistic experiences.  You’ll be having yours somewhere — and meanwhile someone is in tears of salvation at a gospel show, someone else is catching some South American band you’ve never heard of saying it was the musical highlight of their life, others are second-line dancing in finger-waving joy at a party at a brass band stage, others are jaw-dropped in rapture at some one-time-ever jazz combo, and others are standing playing air guitar at some thunderous blues stage.  And when the day is over and you think you’ve been in the magic spot for the best possible music — every single person you talk to will have been at an entirely different series of performances and feeling exactly the same way that they were at the once-in-a-lifetime magic moment spot.

And with the shows all being held in daylight — in a complete contrast to almost every performer’s regular gigs — they can see the faces of everyone in the audience, and respond in energetic kind.  They’re performing in our house — at a great party.  This isn’t their concert in some arena.  This is in the people’s field on sacred ground at a special festival with an audience who have more discerning ears than just about any other place the musicians ever play.

It’s hard to grasp just how big and awe-inspiring and fun this whole thing is.  I’m trying to put it into words, but you really can’t.  There’s something literally divine about this place — something intangible, transcendent, spiritual, and life-affirming that has to be experienced to be believed.  And even then you won’t believe it.

The Night Showsaka “The Jazz Fest Endurance Test”

So, what happens is — you get out of Fest a little after 7:00.  Which looks sumpthin like this, if you’re the last person leaving:  🙂

As soon as you walk out the gate, you’re in this residential neighborhood of old houses — most of them bungalows with nice big peopled porches — and in this couple block area there are numerous street parties going on, including around a corner bar named Liuzza’s that’s selling beer and Bloody Mary’s out a back window faster than you could sell ice cream in a desert.

The general rule of thumb is to hang with these hangsters for a while and let some of the crowd melt back into the city and then you can jump on a bus, or streetcar, or cram in a cab with a buncha other crazies and for $5 each head to the Quarter.

One of the many Jazz Fest evolutions over time has been advent of a site called JazzFestGrids.com which lists in a grid form starting from before Fest until after it’s over, every club in the city and every show they have every day and night.  It makes it super easy to scan through every show in the city to pick your poison for the evening’s dosing.

It seems like there’s about a hundred clubs and they almost all have 2 or 3 shows a night — basically an 8:00, an 11 and a 2AM show.  So, if you don’t make it to two different clubs in a night you’re sort of slacking off.  But at an absolute minimum you go somewhere and hear something that blows your head off.

And a great n hilarious thing is — so many of the shows are not even bands!  They’re just 3 or 4 different cats from different combos who are playing together that night in a one-off.  It’ll be some jazz horn player from the west coast with some rock drummer, some blues guitarist, and some B3 funk player.  Then, after the set, they all gotta leave because they’re each going to some other gig to play with a completely different line-up for the next time slot.  And this goes on for two freakin weeks!

But you have to pace yourself because you gotta be back at work at 11:00 the next morning.  And have proper footwear.

Brian NOLA Jazz Fest end

That’s why I call it “The Jazz Fest Endurance Test.”  😉

 

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For more on New Orleans and the Jazz Fest Adventure check out my “Gorgeous Gumbo” riff on it.

Or here’s The Acts I Caught At Jazz Fest.

Or here’s a recent Adventure with Dr. John in Toronto.

Or here’s another Adventure involving Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Or here’s the “The Grateful Dead Played My 30th Birthday” Adventure.

Or here’s the best of the best live music performances ever as curated thru RockPeaks.

 

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by Brian Hassett

karmacoupon@gmail.com

BrianHassett.com

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15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Phil Hopkins // May 9, 2012 at 10:33 PM

    Sounds amazing!

  • 2 Elizabeth Sutherland // May 10, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    The NOCVB thanks you for your enthusiastic coverage!

  • 3 Kate Bromley // May 10, 2012 at 10:13 AM

    Once you’re on the tourism board, Brian, put me down for a comp flight; at least one way. 😉

  • 4 Ross Perlmutter // May 10, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    Sounds like that great “what the f*ck was THAT?” we talked about. :>)
    When you leave — a week later, you’re driving down a finely manicured boulevard in the burbs in your hometown and you realize just how surreal … how special … how unique the experience has been.
    For all it’s grime, crime and “buddy can you spare a dime,” it’s still my favourite place on the entire planet.

  • 5 Kay Smith // May 10, 2012 at 2:00 PM

    Sounds like you had a great time! You Canadians certainly know how to partyyyyyyyyyy ! 😀

  • 6 Paul Rizzo // May 10, 2012 at 5:35 PM

    One of the worlds best festivals … and largely because it is New Orleans. I went from 88-04 and saw my best performances I ever have in my life anywhere.

  • 7 Jeff Cantin // May 10, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    Brian, I’m totally visualizing all of this because I’ve been to many of the same places, seen some of the same music, and probably met some of the same people. All thanks to several post-Katrina work-related trips that in turn spurred a couple of pure pleasure visits. It’s a small enough city that with a little time on the ground and a sense of adventure you can learn your way around and get to know the people, the places, the culture, the food (!), and the history. Enough so that at some point someone actually asked me if I was from there. I remember the smile that broke across my face as I realized the implication of the question, and my response “no, but I sure wish I was.”

  • 8 Andrew Geltzer // May 10, 2012 at 8:12 PM

    Okay … you’ve convinced me. Where do I start?

  • 9 Phil Wagner // May 11, 2012 at 7:01 PM

    And the city never stops drinking either!

  • 10 Joe Myles // May 12, 2012 at 2:44 AM

    It’s like what the Folk Fest would be like
    … if Winnipeg was New Orleans.
    😮

  • 11 Ben Kleiman // May 15, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    Okay — this sounds like the perfect primer. Let’s do this thing.

  • 12 Megan Reese // May 15, 2012 at 10:45 PM

    You’re right! It sounds like a place I’d be right at home. Healing vibes and people with a Jerry running through it.

  • 13 Dominic Anthony // May 16, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    It sounds like an annual Woodstock with all the kinks worked out …
    hmmmm Note to self: go to Jazz Fest.

  • 14 Lewis McDermott // May 19, 2012 at 6:28 PM

    This is freakin perfect! What a description! I “get it” now. Thanks for the layout. Let me work on this and I’ll get back to you.

  • 15 Rob Salmon // May 23, 2012 at 9:51 PM

    It sounds like the musicians have as good a time as the audience. I bet the late night jams in that town are sumpthin crazy!!

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