It has been 20 years since I cast my shadow on the hallowed fairgrounds where the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is held every year. Back in the early 90s, I went to the festival three times and held very fond memories of the ambiance and food and was curious to see whether so many years and several hurricanes later whether it remained the same incredible event. The following is an account of my short but happy discovery of the marvels of Jazz Fest in 2013. At least four of my five senses were in overload the entire time – sight, sound, taste, and smell where all super-stimulated.
The trip did not start out well as American cancelled my flight into New Orleans on Thursday night forcing a noon arrival at the airport and thus cancelling ideas of visiting the festival on Friday itself. I had purchased two one-day passes and didn’t want to burn one on less than half a day. A few things I learned by the way: there is a 4-day pass that gets you private rest rooms and some food plus a little preferential seating called Krewe of Jazz that costs about $225 (already sold out for the 2014 edition!), a Grand Marshal pass that allows you to be right down next to the stage at Congo Square, the Gentilly Stage and most importantly at the Acura Stage for $750-850, and lastly the Big Chief pass with special semi-private VIP seating (on the actual Acura stage I believe) which costs between $1175 and $1250. All of these are only worthwhile if you are staying for the full Thursday-Sunday experience rather than just a weekend as I did for $65 per day (I actually bought tickets on StubHub for $55/each about one month before the festival).
Longest line seen during my stay (seriously, there were like 100 people queued up on the sidewalk!)
As for accommodations, book EARLY because it is excessively hard to get a room at a “reasonable” price during Jazz Fest. In the past, I stayed at a ramshackle mansion in the Garden District for cheap. Well, that place (now the Creole Gardens, was The Prytannia Inn) was renovated and now goes for about $240-$400/night with a 4-night minimum stay. You will most likely find – as I did – that the 3-4 night minimum stay is pretty standard, so if you are planning a shorter stay, you’ll have to keep digging. I found the O’Keefe Plaza Hotel this time at $160/night was a good price/performer. It got miserable reviews on Trip Advisor (only #134 out of 150), but was honestly not at all as dirty or unfriendly as some of the comments there indicate. Better yet, it was only a 5 minute walk to the quarter and especially the Roosevelt Hotel (>$200/night) which as you may know is the home of the classic Sazerac cocktail. I highly, highly recommend a detour over there to enjoy this perfect mix of Sazerac Rye Whiskey, Absinthe, Peychaud’s Bitters and simply syrup. Perhaps one of the smoothest, most satisfying drinks I have ever enjoyed for the not-so-modest price of about $15.
All that to say that I skipped Friday and just moseyed around the French Quarter checking out old haunts. It has not changed all that much – many of the semi-crappy jello shot and hand grenade bars are there on the strip, Pat O’Brien’s is of course still there next to Preservation Hall serving their “world-famous” hurricane’s, and my mainstay bar – Molly’s on the Market (as well as Molly’s on Toulouse) is still the best rock-n-roll bars down there IMHO. Food is naturally amazing but more on that later.
Now what I haven’t said is that I was not in Nawlins alone. I have a cousin that is a punk rock singer and born exactly two days before me and had I not had my flight cancelled, we would have celebrated out birthdays together down there as mine was the original arrival date. Despite the airplane mishap, my cousin and I had a great time and I took him out to an old favorite Superior Seafood out at 4338 St Charles in the Garden District. He nearly keeled over from the extraordinary shrimp on grits pictured here. My blackend catfish was similarly mind-blowingly delicious. That is truly one of the magic elements of the Big Easy – the local cuisine is unparalleled in America for variety, flavor, and originality.
A teaser photo – New Orleans hangover cure – thank god for the open container law 🙂
On Saturday morning, we had a nice cajun breakfast and headed to the Sheraton. Another Jazz Fest tip: best way out from downtown/French Quarter out to the festival is the shuttle bus from the Sheraton on Canal Street. It costs $18 round-trip and is commented by knowledgeable tour guides and runs literally ALL THE TIME before, during, and after the festival. I grabbed a schedule there (but was idiotic because I forgot to just download the App for my iPhone from the hotel (I don’t have global roaming so am hopelessly dependent on wifi during my trips out of France)) and hopped on the bus. Our tour guide taught us several things about NOLA during the 25 min ride in. Once there, we got our bearings and just walked around for a while. At 11:30am, things are just getting wound up and the fairgrounds were only about 20-30% full. This number swelled to probably close to 90k or 100k folks by 4pm. The weather was absolutely perfect. In fact, we learned that we had lucked out in skipping the Friday shows because it was miserably rainy and muddy all day.
Funniest sign I saw:
Both days I visited – Saturday and Sunday – were spectacular in that it was sunny and cool and slightly breezy. Just walking around I saw Tonia and the Left Field Band (R&B with a NOLA twist), Al Berard Family Band (great cover of the Kinks “You Really Got Me” in French), Roddie Romero and the Hub City All Stars (great classic blues and cajun blues), Eric Lindell (country blues from my cousin’s hometown of Sonoma, CA), Terrance Blanchard (extraordinary set including a young Cuban pianist/composer of exception and a guitarist from Benin that performed an astounding solo where he sang through a harmonizer and sounded like an entire band and chorus all by himself), and a disappointing Fleetwood Mac. A word on that: I was disappointed with Stevie Nick’s voice which couldn’t hit any high notes and with the depressing songs they chose in the middle of the set. Now, I was really far back (they started earlier than on the printed program) and I couldn’t hear very well and I understand that she apologized for having a virus affecting her voice so perhaps I am being unfair. There was a crowd of probably 60 or 70,000 people there and I was way back on the right. In any case, after nearly 90 minutes, I was fed up and walked away. Needless to say, the food was incredible and unforgettable.
Side note: I realized that the iPhone is far from the ideal camera for concert photography. I took shots of various stages and artists but with barely any zoom and no control over focal length or aperture, I am too embarrassed to publish any here. Instead, here is another foodgasm photo or two:
My cousin had to head back home Sunday so I was on my own. I met Brian Ross on the bus over who was a Big Chief pass holder (and given the crappy Fleetwood Mac experience I had, I can appreciate why one would fork out money for decent seats!) who suggested a few bands I needed to see and I appreciate greatly his advice. I checked out the young talent of NOCCA Jazz Ensemble in the Jazz tent before heading over to Lagniappe Stage to catch a little of The Grayhawk Band (white native American indian music) before watching a piece of Ellis Marsalis in the Jazz tent (always a pleasure and a Jazz Fest classic), then headed over to thoroughly enjoy Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans (incredible clariphonist that they call the female Satchmo because of her huge cheeks as she is playing old ragtime and New Orleans jazz standards – a MUST!!) at Economy Hall, hurrying back to the jazz tent for a bit of John Boutté (perhaps the most beautiful male voice in New Orleans today) and then skipped out to wait for The Black Keys. Now, I had to grab a cab back to the airport for the last flight back at 18h30 so I knew I’d be pressed for time. I got a decent spot about 200m in front of the left screen at the Acura Stage. Rumors were spreading that Dr John would join the duo on stage but these turned out to be unfounded. I am a big Black Keys fan dating back to their thickfreakness disc and was blown away by the eight songs I was able to catch before fighting the crowd out to the taxi stand. These guys are electric live – they were traveling with an extra rhythm guitarist and bassist (he played a dual-neck bass on a few tunes – I had never seen one of those before!) but the real treat was Dan Auerbach’s blazing guitar (changing axes for nearly every song) and blistering vocals with Patrick Carney’s massive chops on drums. They didn’t waste time talking but dove into the heart of their repertoire with infectious energy. I missed about 2/3 of the set which apparently concluded with an amazing Lonely Boy / I Got Mine encore. Oh well, I’ll just have to see them again. They easily exceeded my expectations.
So, get off your ass and reserve some tickets for 2014 Jazz Fest – you should definitely check this out at least once. I can’t compare it to Mardi Gras having never been at that bucolic event but given the safety of the event, the outstanding quality of food and music, and the entire overall experience, it is the one festival you do not want to miss.