Nestled in the valley between the 2 weekends of Jazz Fest, Chaz Fest is a one day concert in the Bywater (a neighborhood near the French Quarter). Eponymous washboard player, “Washboard” Chaz Leary, Chaz is more than just a symbol of the independent free spirit of Chaz Fest, he plays a few songs with every band. The event started 6 years ago when Alex McMurray, guitarist for 007 (a super group with members of G. Love and Special Sauce, the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars and the Iguanas) and the trio, Tin Men, decided to take matters into his own hands after being rejected by Jazz Fest.
Solar powered since 2007 (supplied this year by South Coast Solar), the eclectic lineup reflects the sounds of Frenchmen Street and other downtown sounds. Though many of the musicians are experienced and many play with some pretty big bands, they find a new voice and form new groups that are often more right for the backyard gathering of Chaz Fest than the madding crowds of Jazz Fest.
As we checked in with the front door to square away tickets, we were given a paper wrist band and a used thimble from Washboard Chaz. War Amps was on the Main Stage when we entered. Given the giant metal drum onstage, they joked they were “Heavy Metal” and played some fairly aggressive rock songs.
The Actioneers took the Bywater Juke Joint Stage, a tarp-covered make-shift stage tucked in a cove of shady trees so magical I expected to see faeries. Part cover band, part party band and all entertainment, they provided us with fun out of the sun. Another word on the weather – it’s been glorious for months now. I know heat and humidity are around the corner, but it’s been an amazing Spring.
The Main Stage was set up while everyone was in the tree fort area and vice versa throughout the day so that they music was non-stop, even slightly overlapping at times. Established in 1994, the newly reunited Mas Mamones was next up. We ate delicious Cochon de Lait from The Joint while bopping to the Latin jazz beats. The amiable band’s mascot was an adorable tiny tot named Little Louie who danced to nearly every song and got more women dancing than Travolta could’ve. The band offered a free CD to anyone who gave their email address inspiring the relaxed concert-goers to wait in line until the box was empty. I’m hoping to listen to mine after I get through Jazz Fest.
For me, the highlight of the day was Sarah Quintana on the Bywater Juke Joint Stage. She was the faerie I’d expected to find in that beautiful cocoon of shade trees. With a voice like a 1930’s nightingale and eyes like a Keane painting, her blend of French lyrics and American songs (and vice versa) transported me to a kinder gentler place without getting sappy. It seemed just as likely that birds and mice would dress her as that someone would hand me a mason jar of moonshine. Proud of her Cajun heritage, she mixes their sounds with folk, jazz and blues. Playing guitar since 12, she attended New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), alma mater to Harry Connick Jr. and Trombone Shorty, among others. Having received a CODOFIL scholarship to study on France, she lost her home and several friends and family members during Katrina. Though France may have become her second home, I’m so glad the storm didn’t wash her away. And her band, particularly the saxophone player, were the perfect accompaniment.
In direct contrast to the floral femininity of Miss Quintana, Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers featured a brash woman with a female version of a Buddy Holly-like look and a voice that moved from aggressive punk to raspy ballads with tongue trills at the end. Aurora Nealand, a California native, also plays saxophone with the Panorama Jazz Band among others. She led the band of Dangers from a hard driving version of Gene Vincent’s Cat Man into a darling duet of the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do Is Dream then into a version of Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) as dramatic and unpredictable as the Tarantino movie it evokes. It was the groups’ first concert and I predict many more.
As with most of the bands, I wasn’t sure who was who but immediately recognized Brian Coogan on keyboards, having just seen him play with Lillian Boutte on day 1 of French Quarter Fest. I’ve seen him play with enough bands to lose count starting last year with Good Enough for Good Times at Wednesday on the Square.
Another treat was the refreshing and yummy watermelon agua fresca as well as strawberry sorbet made with Ponchatoula strawberries, the finest in the world. The taste was so powerful and pure, I had multiple mouthgasms.
I walked around a bit to check out the commerce offerings. There were sun dappled patios everywhere with people sipping cocktails or sampling dishes made with locally grown ingredients. There were posters and T-shirts, CD’s and wheatgrass but my favorite vendor was a young girl with the soul of an artist and the sales savvy of a car dealer. Offering everything from manicures and “Sharpie tattoos” to face painting, her best offerings were her paintings of people. With large rectangular heads and polarized black-dot eyes, they were as fascinating as they were simple, pared down and playful. Even the children here can humble me with their talents.
As the yard became more crowded, the idea of finding a spot in the cozy tree stand became less appealing and I began to stay put for the Main Stage, choosing instead to visit with my out of town guests from L.A. The day attracted tie-dyed tots, women in sundresses, a wheelchair-bound man with a respirator, a Helen Mirren-like woman and Treme star Steve Zahn.
The Palmetto Bug Stompers took the stage next and were an instant favorite. A more traditional jazz band, they were as familiar as a Paw Paw’s lap yet still fun and funky. People crowded the lawn in front of the stage and began dancing almost immediately.
Afterward, the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus filled the Main Stage, and I do mean filled. With 5 musicians, including Washboard Chaz, and 9 chorus members, there was barely room for the instruments but that didn’t stop them from adding a fiddler midway through the set. Billed as a “party band,” their tunes had an Irish drinking song meets sea shanty quality to them. All they needed were frothy schooners of ale. The chorus featured members of other great bands including Happy Talk among others.
As the sun was setting and the after-work folks began to pour in, we left, forgoing perennials King James and the Special Men, Schatzy and The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars and made our way to the French Quarter to refuel in time for Jazz Fest to start again the next day.