French Quarter Fest, my favorite music festival of the year and the largest free festival in the South, opened its 28th year with a special treat – Locals Lagniappe Day (though some called it “Hooky Day” as many bosses snuck out after lunch and unattended employees were gone by 3). An entirely local festival featuring over 70 local, non-chain restaurants and more than 800 local musicians and international musicians playing local music on 18 stages throughout the Quarter, the normally 3-day festival was opened a day early to provide a less crowded experience for locals.
It was at this festival last year, with the sun setting behind Anders Osborne and into the Mississippi, that I realized that I would never move from New Orleans, that I could die happy here. This year, I was a local. I’ll never be from here no matter how deep my family’s roots run on St. Charles Ave., but this weekend, being local came down to a simple fact – I walked to the festival from my place everyday.
The day started in Jackson Square at what’s touted as “The World’s Largest Jazz Brunch” with plates of food ranging from $3 to $9 (for a combo platter). We hit the line for Muriel’s amazing goat cheese crepe early so as to avoid long lines. This year, it was coupled with a savory summer squash dish. Then it was off to Saltwater Grill‘s tent for a bread bowl filled with crawfish and spinach in sauce. Then to Tujague’s (pronounced two-jacks), the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans, for shrimp stuffed mirliton. They were also serving their signature brisket of beef in horseradish sauce but I’m so spoiled here, I’d already eaten it earlier last week (but that’s a topic for a later blog post). Then to Jacques-Imo’s for shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake. And that was just lunch.
Bellies full, it was time to check out the music. The weather couldn’t have been more idyllic with sunny skies above and cool breezes coming off the river. We sat about 50 feet back from the Abita Beer stage (a local beer of course), and let Lillian Boutte introduce us to her Musical Friends. In 1986, Miss Lillian was named “New Orleans Musical Ambassador,” the second to hold that title after Louis Armstrong. Her band mostly needed no introduction with the amazing Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar, Eric Bolivar on drums and Craig Klein of Bonerama on Trombone. Brian Coogan jammed on the organ, Rex Gregory played sax and I unfortunately couldn’t hear the name of the terrific guitarist.
Lillian is the older sister of John Boutte, who was recently made more well known as the writer/singer of The Treme Song, theme song to HBO’s Treme. She spends most of her time in Europe now so it was a rare treat to see her heartfelt and energetic performance. Several times, she graciously thanked those from out of town who’d come through for the city after Katrina. She invited family member, Tanya Bibi Boutte, to sing along with Debbie Davis then had 3 “aunts” join them onstage to be “Boutte shakers.” As so often happens here, despite the large stage and full crowd, I felt like I was invited to a family bar-b-que. They ended the set with a sexy version of Proud Mary then reminded us that we’re not to use video from the festival as it infringes on the music rights. Amen. Check out iTunes for some of the fantastic music we heard.
Between sets, I met our lawn neighbors, members of the K College Band who’d come from England to plant trees and marsh grass and play an upcoming set on the International Stage featuring Miss Boutte! Intrigued, I put it on my list of things to check out.
Next up was Irvin Mayfield‘s Los Hombres Calientes with their African and Cuban influenced beats. A NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) graduate, Mayfield turned down a Juilliard scholarship to study with Ellis Marsalis at University of New Orleans (UNO). In 1998, he and drummer, Jason Marsalis, founded Los Hombres Calientes with Bill Summers, a master percussionist who’s played on everything from the Roots soundtrack to the stages of Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder.
Trumpeter, Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, also attended NOCCA, having played since the age of 9. Drummer, Jamal Batiste, (the Boutte, Marsalis, Andrews, Neville and Batiste families have all contributed several generations of music to this city), started playing at 3 and has been on Jazz Fest stages since 5. Like Mayfield, he earned his degree at UNO in Jazz Studies. Bass player, David Pulphus, also studied jazz with Ellis Marsalis at UNO. Michael Watson was all smooth groove on his trombone and the other drummer will have to forgive me not hearing his name.
I’d heard Bonerama for the first time at last year’s festival. With the rock influence of Mark Mullins, the band doesn’t just play great originals and covers of local standards, they mimic guitar licks with their trombones for covers of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix among others. Along with Craig Klein, who’d played with Miss Boutte earlier, Mullins played with Harry Connick Jr. from 1990 until forming Bonerama in 1998 in order to cut loose from Connick’s orchestra style. Drummer, Eric Bolivar, was also back as well as keyboardist, Brian Coogan. It’s hard to earn the title of “hardest working musician in town” this week, but these guys were off to a good start.
Joined by guitarist, Bert Cotton, trombone player, Greg Hicks and multiple instrumentist, Jason Jurzak, the band was at its best in its soulful rendition of the Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post. It was the perfect closer to a perfect opener of the festival.
On our way home, we stopped by the new French Quarter location of everyone’s favorite Who Dat shop, Fleurty Girl, who’d just opened their doors that day. In addition to the tutus, jewelry and artwork, they had a jar of Roman chewing candy, an old-fashioned gourmet taffy. Now you can find the sweet treat without having to search the city for the wagon-wheeled cart rolling St. Charles since 1915.