It’s easy to love any city in the bright sunshine of spring, but falling in love with a city in the pouring rain? Now there’s a testament to someplace truly special. Despite torrential thunderstorms that canceled the headliners of the second Saturday of 2016’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest, the character of the Crescent city shone through, and the city partied on, unphased.
Though I’ve only had the pleasure of observing New Orleans for about five days to date– not nearly enough– I’ve noticed that the city and its inhabitants seem to delight and excel in a Dionysian sense of deliberate chaos, a trait that extends to the annual “Fess,” an event that draws well over 400,000 music lovers. I tend to be a very anal festival attendee, making exhaustive lists and planning out routes to hop from stage to stage for maximum artist exposure. At Jazz Fest, this is laughably impossible. The 15 minute walk between the two largest stages, positioned on either side of the sprawling, 145-acre race track, alone guarantees that you have at least one very tough choice to make– between the headlining acts of the day. More often than not, sets overlap by no more than 10 minutes, and though the sets are long (headliners get a full two hours), extricating yourself from the horde to make it to the next big show proves a considerable difficulty, especially since you’re all but guaranteed to be distracted by a whiff of Ya Ka Mein or jambalaya.
No more than two hours into our first day, I realized that plenty of attendees seemed perfectly content to wander around in a blissful, drunk state of confusion. And considering that organizers don’t even distribute free programs (though you could create a schedule on the Festival’s newly launched app), I think that’s the idea. After all, how else would you stumble up random acts of festival, from food demonstrations by New Orleans top restaurateurs to second lines made up of half naked revelers or Mardi Gras Indians, decked out in full, beaded and feathered regalia. Wandering by the book tent one day, we even saw Elvis Costello signing his book a mere 50 feet from us.
Thunderstorms came in bursts on Thursday, the first day of the second weekend, but didn’t last long. We dove head first into the food lineup, receiving an impassioned lesson on proper crawfish eating technique from a handful of New Orleanians who took us for novices as first crack. The Fais Do-Do Stage was a fun place to hang out and dance to zydeco, as we did with reckless abandon to the sounds of Lil’ Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers. Gary Clark Jr. drew a massive crowd, and blew us away at the Acura Stage with his virtuosic guitar and incredibly sexy stage presence.
The emcee introduced Tedeschi Trucks, also on the Acura Stage, as “the next great American band,” and when the 12 piece band that runs the gamut from blues and rock to soul took the stage, no one in the audience disagreed with him. The crowd freaked out when guest stars Jimmy Vaughn and Billy Gibbons (in a studded leather jacket) joined the group for ZZ-Top hits and a tribute to B.B. King. They rounded out our first day at Jazz Fest with two amazing, sing-along worthy covers– the Beatles “With A Little Help From My Friends” and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” We even managed to catch a bit of Elvis Costello before the day was out, and the seminal New-Waver performed songs like “Watching the Detectives” with the same wit and vigor as I can imagine he did in the 1980s.
Thankfully for those who shelled out for tickets, the only setback to Friday was too much sun, nothing that some liberal application of sunscreen every hour on the hour couldn’t fix. Soon we found ourselves dancing at the Fais Do-Do Stage once again, this time to the gritty, funky rock of the Honey Island Swamp Band. We danced our way over to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the Acura Stage, where I, for the first time, saw someone play two trumpets at once. Sufficiently impressed, we bopped our way back across the grounds to find that the Revivalists had already drawn a huge early-afternoon crowd with their chilled out, jam heavy brand of soul and funk, with a hint of reggae.
Though I suppose this runs contrary to the sense of local discovery that the festival prides itself on, my highlight of the weekend was Paul Simon’s Friday night set. Though I heard a few grumbles about the conspicuously missing “Graceland,” any fan would have left more than satisfied. Not only did he play many of the tracks from Graceland, including “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” and “Call Me Al,” he also dug deep into his repertoire, closing out the night with an unexpected second encore, standing alone onstage and serenading the rapt crowd with “Sound Of Silence.” He dedicated his set to Allen Toussaint, wearing a pin of his image, as Costello had the night before.
My intrepid and patient (equally important qualities for the event) fest going partner noted that rain aside, Thursday and Friday were more enjoyable in part because the workweek considerably cut down on crowds. Though it’s admirable that the fest doesn’t want to turn anyone away, and day of ticket sales are common, it leads to some pretty incredible overcrowding, meaning you might just have to wait a little bit longer than you want for that third helping of crawfish Monica.
Saturday started out with clouds but high spirits, as entrepreneurs lined the streets leading to the entrance gates, selling their various wares, from Jell-O shots to (unofficial) Jazz Fest t-shirts. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band delighted us with a set of their famous New Orleans jazz, and sitting in our recently acquired folding chairs, jamming to a spirited cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” with ponchos on and beers in hand, we didn’t mind when it started to rain. As we made our way to Dr. John, the rain picked up and the racetrack began its rapid conversion into a mudpit. But taking our cue from other brave souls, we stuck it out, laughing as we jammed along to the never-more-appropriate, “Right Place, Wrong Time.” With the rain coming down in hard sheets, we ran for the blues tent… Along with about 10,000 others. Tossing a trash can out of the way, we wiggled our way under cover, just in time for Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen to kick off their set. If anyone could make us forget that we were steamy, soaking sardines, it was Cleary, a New Orleans staple who exudes soul; he calmed us with his hot piano.
Awakening to thunderstorms on Sunday, our spirit weakened considerably, as we flashed backed to wading through submerged fields and wandering like lost souls on Gentilly Boulevard until the 7x Uber surcharge dropped. As penance (and in an attempt to convince soggy customers to return), Saturday tickets were accepted as entrance to Sunday’s show. The offer, only casually mentioned on social media, didn’t do those of us who already had tickets much good– further proof that locals and those in the know but at the gate– but at least it was something. As we donned our still dripping shoes and awaited our Uber, I couldn’t help but remind my partner of that famous quote—that the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results…
Thankfully the downpour lessened to a steady drizzle, but we only lasted through a couple of sets, including the legendary Neil Young and his band, Promise of the Real, who treated us to some bizarre, anti-Montasanto themed performance art and inscrutably insisted on performing with the stage lights off. Mavis Staples lit up the dreary day (it didn’t hurt that her set was in the Blues Tent) with her powerhouse vocals and soothing words on peace and love.
Though I am still drying off, and my tried-and-true converse didn’t make it out of Louisiana, I can say with certainty that the things I regret from my whirlwind weekend are only the things I did not get a chance to hear, see and taste- the site of jambalaya piled in heaps next to fried chicken has popped up in my dreams over the past few nights, and I keep wondering if we should have tried to catch the tail end of Snarky Puppy’s set… but these are fine problems to have. Because in New Orleans, everything is offered to you in glorious, hedonistic bounty; the people are friendly, the beer is plentiful, the music is swinging, and all you need is a burning desire to have a great time. Well, and, a good pair of rain boots…