It was supposed to be a stormy May Day, but only 3 light sprinkles passed over the 8th annual Chaz Fest. The brain child of members of The Tin Men (and Alex McMurray’s wife), the festival was born of a reaction to being rejected by Jazz Fest. Though now many of the bands have played Jazz Fest, Chaz Fest remains the backyard party it has always been. Held at the Truck Farm, an artists haven, the 2 stages (one in the yard and one in the woods) rotate so that the music is nonstop – 14 bands in under 10 hours.
The grounds are free spirited and a bit “flower power” with food and beverage booths featuring gluten-free and organic options, a fancy cocktail bar tucked into a covered corner (The Chaz Bahhh), a CD and t-shirt shop in a dilapidated breezeway and plenty of artisan booths selling everything from bright and beautiful hats to body art and hair braids. My favorite artist there is Kaia Martin-Paternoster, a 13 year old industrious enough to offer glitter tattoos and nail art in addition to her whimsical “dudes and dudettes” paintings. We own her 2011 “Washboard Chaz” and I bought her ballerina last year at Bon Castor as a gift. I was tempted by the 610 Stomper painting but left empty handed.
Opening the show was the punk-rockabilly band, The Stacks. They did an ode to Green Onions that was inspired. We started eating right away with a Crawfish Bread ($6) and a combo of Beans and Rice and Spicy Asian Peanut Slaw ($6) then washed it down with a delicious Watermelon Aqua Fresca ($3-$4) and an Ice Box Cookie ($3). The Glorioskis opened the second stage (called The Hard Liquor Stage) with voices like nightingales and sweet melodic tunes. Singer Debbie Davis is in at least 5 bands that I know of and the city still can’t get enough of her.
Los Po-Boy-Citos got the early crowd on their feet with Latin-inspired songs that never left their NOLA roots. The blending of their spicy beats with We Got That Fiyo showed how many flavors the gumbo of this city can blend. Greg Schatz began playing on the wooded stage but I mostly stayed in the yard to watch children playing in the hay that had been strewn to combat potential mud. One of my favorite things about Chaz Fest is the obvious sense of community. (It’s the only public gathering in NOLA I can think of where people throw away their trash and can their butts). It reminds me of my own childhood in the 70’s when the world felt safer and we all climbed trees.
Chaz Fest manages to cram nearly as many musical genres into their day as Jazz Fest offers including rap/hip hop. Truth Universal was next to take the Main Stage and they totally delivered on the promise of their name. With beats as diverse as Pink Floyd and Commodores, Truth Universal spit super-smart social commentary. Evelyn Champagne blended it all together with her dulcet oooh’s and aaaah’s. By then, the yard was getting packed and everyone was bopping.
While The Geraniums played the Hard Liquor Stage in the magical woods that you could swear houses faeries, we ate refreshing Watermelon & Shrimp Salad ($6) and a Beef Brisket Sandwich ($7) – topped with slaw, of course, from The Joint.
The biggest crowd of the day was during TBC Brass Band. They played a nice mix of originals and original takes on covers. The crowd danced and jumped and sang call and responses. I hadn’t seen trumpeter Eric Gordon, Jr. since he played with Glen David Andrews and Amanda Shaw at that most amazing French Quarter Fest show I’ve seen so it was nice to see his smiling face again.
The cutest food booth went by the name of Flaco’s and was run out the back window of the house. Three kids manned the booth and dutifully wrote orders before passing them through the window and onto the chef. Our Caribbean Grilled Roasted Chicken with Greens and Couscous ($6) was terrific. The TinTypes finished on the Hard Liquor Stage and The Tin Men literally owned the Main Stage. The trio consists of Alex McMurray, Matt Perrine and the eponymous Washboard Chaz, the creators of the festival. We all sang along and swayed to an original song, “If you can’t make it here, you better not leave” and McMurray joked, “It’s like the Piano Man,” referring to our recent Kumbaya moment with Billy Joel at Jazz Fest.
The band stayed where they were as the 20+ members of The Valparaiso Men’s Chorus filled the stage to bursting. Singing along to their pirate tunes, you could picture Jean Lafitte swinging a pint around at the Blacksmith’s Shop back in 1770 while swashbucklers belted drunkenly. Now, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (the oldest bar in the U.S.) plays things like Lynard Skynard, but the spirit felt alive at Chaz Fest.
Night was falling and twinkly lights laced the trees around Lonesome Leash, a one man band. His stage may have been fairly empty, but the sound was full. Then it was time for David Pirner of Soul Asylum to take the Main Stage with a band they called “Everything but the Snare.” Though I didn’t get his name, the guitarist had a talent for getting his electric to wail hauntingly. The songs were mostly macabre with lyrics about funerals and hookers, but were beautiful nonetheless. The crowd went a bit bananas when Pirner sang his Grammy winning tune Runaway Train.
There were still 2 acts left to take the stage when we finally called it a day but all good things must come to an end and it was a “school night.” I look forward to the lunacy that is Jazz Fest’s second weekend but Chaz fest offers the essence of Jazz Fest without the crowds and lines. I can’t wait to slather on sunblock, grab an umbrella and head down to next year’s day of lesser known music, tasty but healthy food and children in face paint climbing trees while Bohemian Bywater residents relax on the lawn taking it all in.