Though we have festivals all year round, the Mac Daddy is probably the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. All the other festivals are free so the $60 a day price tag keeps many locals away but Jazz Fest draws music lovers and bands from all over the country, even the world. We got there early and ate before the line for fest favorite Crawfish Monica ($7) from Kajun Kettle Foods got ridiculously long. The Prejean’s Restaurant Pheasant, Quail and Andouille Gumbo ($6) was delicious.
We wandered past some of the artisan booths and through the teepees and Native American displays including a mural being painted on site. I never found the manpowered merry-go-round but I did get to see Mr. Okra parked next to his Dr. Bob-painted truck, a tiny tot at his knee, selling his vegetables as he has forever.
When I got to the Jazz and Heritage Stage for the Real Untouchables Brass Band, I spotted another Jazz Fest perennial – fly swatter guy. Fly swatter guy dances maniacally with any number of fly swatters tucked into his pants. I have no idea what the swatters are for or what fuels his wacky moves, I only know that he’s as much a part of the Jazz Fest experience as a Strawberry Lemonade from Cafe Reconcile.
We caught the Dumaine St. Social Aid and Pleasure Club (S&P) second line, with their elaborately ruffled sashes and plumed fans, just as Big Chief Walter Cook and the Creole Wild West took the stage. The Creole Wild West is the oldest (1885) and largest of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. My favorite Mardi Gras Indian song is Indian Red so I was delighted when they used it to bring each Indian onto the stage, verse by verse until finally, “I’ve got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation. Wild, wild creation. He won’t bow down, down on the ground. Oh how I love to hear him call my Indian Red.” I can’t even express how deeply that song reaches into my soul. (If you’d like a taste of what we experienced, here’s someone’s video of the Congo Nation’s “coming out the door” ceremony to the same song).
Next on the giant Acura Stage was Voice of the Wetlands Allstars, a supergroup made of some of the city’s best musicians, many of whom have their own bands, coming together to save the wetlands. The band includes Cyril Neville, Tab Benoit, George Porter, Jr., Johnny Sansone, Michael Doucet, Johnny Vidacovich and Anders Osborne who just won the 2013 Big Easy Music Awards for Entertainer of the Year (taking the baton from Tab Benoit) and Best Male Performer. Drummer, educator and drum designer Stanton Moore and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux sat in for a few songs as well. The group can literally play anything and often does, floating from blues to rock to Cajun Zydeco.
When you go to Jazz Fest with a group, you sometimes end up seeing things you wouldn’t have chosen like 50+ year veteran Deacon John. His gospel tunes were timeless but his jazz brought the older people in our group back to high school, when Deacon John would play for their dances. (My father sometimes reminisces about Chuck Berry playing at his Baton Rouge high school).
We grabbed a Cochon de Lait Po-boy from Love at First Bite then headed to the Congo Square Stage for 2012 Grammy Award winners, Rebirth Brass Band. They were joined onstage by a fancy-suited S&P dancer and a young lady in a Wonder Woman t-shirt and socks kicking her heels up. The packed crowd standing around the stage didn’t know when to put their hands up or what the call-and-responses were, but they went with it and had a great time. Though it was odd sharing the experience with people who didn’t know the rhythm of the show, it wasn’t long ago that I was one of those people. Maybe that’s the best thing about Jazz Fest, that so many people taste our culture for the first time there. That said, most people go to the Fest for the headliners.
The last act of the day for us was Billy Joel. He almost never does shows anymore so it was a privilege to see him before he tucks himself away again. That said, I spent the 80’s interested in Led Zeppelin and Run DMC so Joel wasn’t my obsession. That said, the jam-packed field in front of the Acura Stage spilled over the walkways and beyond with music lovers from their 20’s to their 70’s singing along to many of his tunes. At some point, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined the others onstage and the crowd went fairly bananas.
I’m old enough to remember holding up lighters instead of cell phone cameras but Billy Joel is old enough to have written songs long before half the audience was born, so it was nice to see the father and son next to us in matching tropical Fest shirts singing together. The big “Kumbaya moment” for me was when Joel strapped on his harmonica and sang Piano Man. The audience sang every word while swaying to and fro, some with their arms around each other.
As we left the festival, we passed a few street bands and a teenage boy playing ragtime on an electric keyboard on the sidewalk in front of his house. Waiting in line for the bus, we met a group of people from Minnesota to Norway who’ve been attending the Fest for up to 40 years. Super impressive since Jazz Fest is 44 years old. Maybe that’s the best thing about Jazz Fest, the music and culture lovers it loyally brings the city from all over. The bus dropped us off in front of Armstrong Park so we hit Dreamy Weenies for a Satchmo Dog smothered in red beans and rice.
Often, the best thing about Jazz Fest is the dozens of shows all over the city after the stages shut down. Having just interviewed Glen David Andrews this week, we decided to end our night at his birthday party at the Old U.S. Mint. The extraordinary musicians on the stage were matched by the many who came to see the show including Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jr., Rebirth’s Derrick Tabb and Gaynielle Neville.
The show was amazing with second line napkins passed among the crowd to be waved while DancingMan504 led the way for those less familiar with the tradition. Andrews almost always comes out into the crowd, but this time he joined us on the dance floor several times. It’s hard not to be affected by the power of his gravelly voice when he’s standing inches from you. It’s like his soul spills out onto you. He played his trombone like he was trying to reach to the rafters, reminding me what a unique showman he is. We danced on weary legs, sang song after song and ate cake. A great end to a terrific day of music.
It was a great day of music and celebration. We have a greeting around here this time of year, “Happy Jazz Fest.” Indeed.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t permitted to bring my good camera so the further I was from the stage, the crappier the photos got.