It's Monday, April 29, the day before I leave for Fest, and I'm suddenly not feeling well. Dizzy, lethargic, no appetite, and a 101.2 fever. Well, it'll take more than that to keep me away from Fest. I'm pounding the Echinacea, vitamin C, and aspirin, and trying to stay hydrated. Tuesday morning the fever is gone, but an upset stomach remains. Nonetheless, it's off to the airport.
I arrived in New Orleans late Tuesday morning. I checked into my hotel and immediately headed to the Louisiana Music Factory to check out the In Store performances. I walk in the door, and Mofro's laying down the funk, and Beatle Bob is right up front dancing. I'm in New Orleans now! That set is followed by one from James Andrews & Trombone Shorty, who immediately make my mental list of acts to check out at the Fairgrounds. Then it's a bus ride down Magazine Street to Audubon Park, to connect with online friends at the Pet de Kat Krewe crawfish boil. (Note - although tasty, it turns out that Cajun boiled crawfish are not the best treatment for an upset stomach).
Tuesday night, it's a ferry ride across the river to the Old Point Bar, for Anders Osborne, with Juice opening. The Old Point is a great neighborhood bar in Algiers. Though less than a mile from the French Quarter as the crow flies, it seems a world away from the bustle of tourist New Orleans. I decide I like Juice, even though I don't care for the lead singer's voice. Anders is great, funkier and less bluesy than what I've heard from him before. The ferry stops at midnight, so it's a cab ride home.
Wednesday, we catch more In Stores at LMF, including great sets from Papa Grows Funk and Los Hombres Calientes. This is the first time I've arrived early enough in the week for the In Stores. What a great way to see music! The same guys who play the Fest for crowds of thousands or tens of thousands are playing for dozens, or at most a couple of hundred, close up and for free.
Next comes another great free show, Marcia Ball playing a late afternoon show in Lafayette Square, part of the Wednesdays in the Square series. Two solid hour-long sets as the sun sets and the temperature (finally) begins to cool off. Then we're off to Irma Thomas' own club, the Lion's Den. I've seen Irma several times at Jazzfest. Seeing her at her own club is supposed to be one of those signature New Orleans musical experiences; this year, I have enough time to finally do it.
The cab ride up Gravier Street is an experience in and of itself. As we get closer, looking for the club, the buildings we pass seem like crack house; tear down; crack house; crack house with neon. Aha! That must be it. Inside, there's a front bar, that seems like where the locals hang, and a back area with a small stage and about 40 folding chairs. Irma's famous red beans and rice buffet is set up, but I only nibble, as the stomach isn't quite right yet. (Could this be the year I return from New Orleans weighing less?) Once the show starts, Irma's in pretty good voice, though she does seem a little tired. For most of the set, she takes requests, but the majority of those are for her standards. Only once was she stumped enough to have to refer to her lyric book: "Wow, I haven't sung that in about two and a half years".
Unexpected Celebrity Encounter: As we arrive at the Lion's Den, there's a huge white umbrella blocking the door. A photographer is taking some portraits of Irma Thomas. Later, before the show starts, just as I returning from the mens room, I see a lady take my stool at the bar. Normally, I'm a gentleman about such things, and maybe use it as an opportunity to start a conversation; but this night, I'm feeling ill, and it's been a long day, so politely as I can, I tell her that it was my seat, and she moves on. Then Irma starts her show. Early on, she wants to thank the young woman who was taking photos for a new photo book on Women of Music, by the name of Annie Leibovitz. Well, holy cow, sure enough, it's the woman who had my seat. That's Annie Leibovitz? She took cover photos for Rolling Stone! She took that famous picture of John and Yoko! And then she took my seat!
The show ends around 1:00, and the night is still young. We're off to see The Dirty Dozen, so we cab it to the Mermaid Lounge, which impressed the cabby: "A real locals' spot. I've been driving here for years, and only just recently discovered that place myself". The Mermaid was full, so we hung out outside until room opened up inside for the 2nd set. We lasted till about 3:30, then back to the hotel.
Nine bands in two days, and my Jazz Fest hasn't even started yet!
At Fest at last. Started by catching the end of Clancy Lewis at the Lagniappe Stage, some good delta country blues to get Fest started. Then, off to the Fais Do Do for some Cajun music and to meet the gang from the Jazzfest chat board. After that, I did a fair amount of wandering - I think Charmaine Neville was the only set I saw start to finish all day. Nothing really wowed me, but Delbert got the Blues Tent crowd going for the second half of his set.
I did get my first impressions of the new Blues Tent. The entrances tended to get crowded and blocked, especially on the side towards the Gospel Tent, but if you went around, the space inside was decent. I'm glad it wasn't all folding chairs, but still too many folks sitting and too few dancing. Hot as heck inside, but it was a hot day, even by Fest standards. I did like the photos hanging in the tent. I still prefer the old HOB Stage, but the tent was not as bad as I'd feared.
Still not feeling well, but I did eat a small jambalaya and a crabmeat po boy. Neither one was a very good choice, given how I felt, but the bathrooms in the Grandstand are clean and air conditioned. And the port-o-lets were in good shape that day, clean and properly supplied.
Cab line at Esplanade to get home - 12 minutes.
We took it easy Thursday night. We cleaned up, then had drinks in the hotel bar, and a late dinner (nothing special) on Royal Street. Then some Blackjack at Harrah's (have to pay for Jazz Fest somehow, right?), in the end winning enough to pay for a couple of dinners but not the hotel. We were in bed by 2:00 a.m., early for a Fest night.
I'd been preaching on the Jazzfest board about the virtues of travelling light and wandering, and the drawbacks of camping out in one place. But I still wasn't feeling 100%, and most of the acts that I wanted to see were on the Sprint Stage. So I ignored my own advice, went to Walgreen's before the Fest, and bought some blankets. In the past, I've joined others in their encampments, but on this day, I set one up myself - the first ever Camp Swag. We got a nice spot at Sprint, backed up against the fence by the lake. Grassy, an ocean breeze off the water to help mitigate the heat, and a fence to lean against and to keep the riffraff from trampling us. If the sound was less than ideal, well, no spot is perfect, right?
I liked Leo Nocentelli enough to make a mental note to consider his night gig, if I lasted that late. But Ingrid Lucia was a true highlight. I'd heard her on WWOZ, but this was my first time seeing her live. A wonderful and unique voice (I've heard her compared to Billie Holiday). Her guests included Bonerama and the Shim Sham dancers. Not a typical Economy Hall dixieland set, which made the set seem that much more special.
Dirty Dozen and Karl Denson were both good, but both needed to be louder, at least from my vantage point at Camp Swag by the Lake.
On the plus side, the half shrimp po boy I had for lunch sat okay, as did the couscous with lamb, so when the pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo I had at 6:00 didn't cause any problems, I declared myself finally healthy. Thank God. And still two days of Fest to catch up on all the food I'd missed.
Cab line at Gentilly to get home - 25 minutes.
One of my krewe has a buddy who lives in the Quarter, a really neat place with its own courtyard near St Philip and Dauphine. We headed there for drinks, then made it to dinner around 11:00. After eating, we headed over to the Shim Sham Club to see what was up with the Leo Nocentelli gig there. It was billed as the Generation Gap Band, the first ever collaboration of a stellar group of New Orleans veterans. Besides Leo (of the meters), it was Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio (of Galactic) and eclectic keyboard master Henry Butler. We found out that tickets were $25, some still available, on sale after 1:00 a.m., and the show was slated for 2:30, which of course, in New Orleans, means 3:00 or later. I was only able to talk one of my krewe (now numbering eight) into it, so we split up. My buddy and I paid the cover at 1:00, got wristbands for admission, and then headed to Harrah's to kill 90 minutes before the scheduled start time. After winning enough to pay for my Fairgrounds tickets, we went back to Shim Sham. The show started promptly at 2:59, and wow. I mean WOW. Bold, italics and capitalized. That quartet laid down an hour and a half long funk groove, covering lots of New Orleans standards (Hey Pocky Way, Iko Iko, Big Chief) as great as I've ever heard them done. The sound was pretty bad, with bass reverberating off the metal walls, but still the best set I'd seen on this trip, including the in stores, the clubs, and the Fest. Bedtime: 5:00 a.m.
Meanwhile, the rest of my krewe ended up Lafitte's. From what they say, longtime piano bar singer Johnny Gordon is not looking well.
Camp Swag had worked out well on Friday, so we replicated it on Saturday, choosing a nearby spot, still against the fence, but slightly further back for hopefully better sound. I hung at Sprint for the end of Theresa and Zigaboo, then took a walk to the Blues Tent for Raful, before returning to camp for the Maggies.
Theresa and Zigaboo were both pretty good, as was the cochon de lait po boy I had between sets. I thought Raful (the paterfamilias) would be playing, so Raful Jr. was unexpected. The kid's not bad, but he's not his Dad, or even his brother Kenny. Not yet, anyway. Surprise of the day, as I wandered back from Raful Jr., was Bill Miller on the stage at the Native American Village. Apparently, there must be a little known tribe of East Texas style singer/songwriters acoustic guitarists with WASP names. Whatever his lineage may be, he sings well. I always enjoy the Wild Magnolias, but they do seem to sound better in a club than in the vast outdoors of the Fairgrounds.
When they finished, we packed up camp and headed into the Acura crowds, to find a spot for Buffett. It was about 4:00, and it was pretty crowded with Parrotheads, though nowhere near as bad as the Dave Matthews debacle last year. Amazingly, we found my buddy's friend, who had his own camp set up, and equally amazing, there was room next to him for us to annex. A pretty good spot, way in the back, with easy access to walkways, beer, and port-o-lets. Not as loud as I'd like, but again, you can't have everything. We caught last half of LBOG (fun). Then I fought my way through the crowds for a large Crawfish Monica, and got back in plenty of time before Jimmy started. I don't usually expect too much from the big name headliners, but I saw Buffett at the Fest in 1998, and that was among my favorite Buffett shows, so I had high hopes. But this time around, Jimmy's set was average. Still fun, but just not his best.
Heading to the cab stand on Esplanade, we somehow stumble onto an empty cab on Grand Route St. John.& Sauvage St. Cab wait - 0 minutes.
Again we split up, with three of us looking for music and the others opting to hang out and eat late. Checking Neen's Grids, I'm surprised to see that the Karl Denson and Robert Randolph show is not sold out, or at least, wasn't when I printed the grids. So we hiked up Canal to the State Palace. Sure enough, not sold out, and folks are selling their extra $28 tickets out front for $20. Unfortunately, the show has just started, and there's no re-entry, so it's not looking good for dinner. Between sets, we find the snack bar on the 2nd floor, and two hot dogs and a bag of Fritos later, I decide that the Convention Center cafeteria has new competition for the title of "Worst Meal in New Orleans". But that's about the only bad thing I can say about the evening.
The State Palace is a beautiful old theater, with ample dance and standing room up front, and theater seats in the back. Plus a balcony with seats and great sight lines. If it had been sold out, it probably would have felt cramped, but on this night, the balcony was largely empty, so there was plenty of room to stretch out when I was too tired to dance. There's also a nice rooftop bar to hang out at between sets. But best of all, after several nights of seeing shows in small clubs, this place actually had acoustics. The sound quality was a welcome change. But enough about the venue.
I'd heard Robert Randolph only on The Word, my favorite CD of 2001. We walked in to the amazing sweet sound of pedal steel guitar, and an hour later, there was a new leader for Swag's Best Set of Jazzfest 2002. And Karl Denson (Swag's Best Set of Jazzfest 2001) was still to come. Karl's first set, which included Robert Randolph sitting in for the first two songs, was better than his Fairgrounds show, though perhaps not up to my memories of his 2002 set at Howling Wolf. But his second set blew the roof off. Absolutely mesmerizing. Friday night's Generation Gap show had clearly been the best show of the trip, and now this night was head and shoulders above that one. My buddy declared the whole evening to be the best concert he's ever seen. I'm not sure exactly where I rank it, but it's probably in my lifetime top five.
We wander the Quarter for a little while, then it's off to bed by 3:00 a.m.
I've heard some folks go to New Orleans at Jazz Fest primarily for the evening club shows, and arrive at the Fairgrounds late or even skip it altogether. And I've always thought that they were missing the best stuff. Now, after three fun but not especially memorable days at Fest, and after several unbelievable night shows, including the two previous evenings, I began to wonder if maybe those folks were right.
Then came Sunday.
The best day I've had at Jazz Fest in several years.
Heading out to Fest, I decided that maybe I'd been forsaking the music for comfort, so I ditched my blankets, I left my trusty tiny folding stool at the hotel, and once at the Fairgrounds, I even ditched my friends. Now, I was alone, unencumbered, and free to wander to wherever the music moved me, determined not to settle for any spots where the sound wasn't loud enough, where the mix wasn't balanced enough, or where the performers weren't inspired enough. I was also determined to spend more time at the smaller stages and tents.
Realizing that I hadn't been into the Gospel Tent since Thursday, that was my first destination. Octavia Denise and the 5 Stars of Praise immediately began to restore my faith. The next stop on my Tent tour was Pat Cohen in the Blues Tent. Done right, the blues can be every bit as uplifting as gospel. Then it was time for a big stage detour, as I wanted to catch Papa Grows Funk one more time. Now, some bands seem uninspired when playing at the Fest, whether it's the afternoon time, the heat, or the crowds that may be unfamiliar with their music, who knows? Others seem to thrive. And I can report that Papa Grows Funk is definitely in the latter category. Best set I saw at the Fairgrounds, 2002.
But what would Fest be without schedule conflicts? There's a reason they say to "judge Fest not by the quality of what you saw, but by the quality of what you had to miss". In my case, I had to pull myself away from PGF to head to the Folk Heritage Stage for the Jazz Fest Lore panel, including the Pet de Kat Krewe. This was pretty entertaining in its own way, with the stage shared by Beatle Bob, PDKK's Big Chief Pony Dancer and his lovely and talented companion, Economy Hall's "Second Line" Eddie, and the (more than a little wacky) fellows who sacrifice watermelons at the Fais Do Do stage. Most of the discussion was folks explaining what they love about Fest and how it affects them in different but personal ways. As a bonus, the 45 minutes I spent in the air conditioned Grandstand left me feeling quite refreshed.
Once it finished, I bolted for Fais Do Do to catch what I could of zydeco sweetheart Rosie Ledet. As usual, she didn't disappoint. Then, wanting to know what the buzz was about, back to the Sprint stage to check out The Dudes. Then it was time to reconnect, at least briefly, with my krewe, so off to meet them by the Miller Beer sponsors tent, for which I'd been given passes including free beer. We checked out Phil Lesh & Friends first. I felt pretty indifferent toward them, but did notice that the crowd was not as big as I would have expected for Dead Day (Lesh following Ratdog). The Miller Tent also disappointed, as they had run out of beer (!) before we arrived. My friends and I again split ways, as I needed to continue my Tent tour.
Walking through Heritage Square towards the Blues Tent for "Wolfman" Washington, I had one of those Where Else But Jazzfest moments: what I'm hearing is coming from Congo Square - The Baha Men. That's all I hear until I get closer to the Gospel Tent, when "Who Let The Dogs Out" suddenly gives way to Aaron Neville's falsetto covering "Bridge Over Troubled Waters".
Wolfman was good, as was John Mooney, and I managed another 20 minutes in the Gospel Tent between their sets. As Mooney played, I suddenly realized that somehow, I had yet to set foot inside the Jazz tent. Well, what better way to rectify that than with Nicholas Payton. So I closed out Fest there, deciding that the critics weren't off base when they describe Payton as one of the heirs to Satchmo.
My only real disappointment this day was not finding time to get to Economy Hall. But still, what a day!
Heading again to the cab stand on Esplanade, at Grand Route St. John.& Dupre St., this time we find a swamp tour bus looking for passengers to downtown. Cab wait - 0 minutes. Living right.
We unwind one last time over drinks at the hotel bar. Then it's a cab ride up St Charles to Uptown, for dinner at Jacque-Imos. About an hour wait for the table, and another hour for our entrees to come, but worth the wait. Easily the best meal of the trip. Our entrees - duck breast, stuffed redfish, filet - are all wonderful, and the appetizer is easily the best Shrimp & Alligator Sausage Cheesecake found anywhere. (Okay, I admit the competition for best shrimp & alligator sausage cheesecake is probably pretty thin, but Jacque-Imo's version would be tough to top).
It's well past midnight when we finish, but Jacque-Imos is conveniently located next door to the Maple Leaf. John Mooney plays till after 2:00, then Rebirth Brass Band starts around 3:00. And unlike many other clubs that do a regular show and a late show during Jazz Fest, they don't clear out the club between sets, and they don't charge a separate cover. Mooney is excellent, especially for the several songs when he invites Sunpie Barnes up to play with him. And what better way to close out Jazz Fest, or any New Orleans trip, for that matter, than with Rebirth at the Maple Leaf? We leave sometime around 5:30 a.m.; the band is going strong and the place is still packed.
It's getting light out as we arrive back at the hotel around 6:00, in time for two hours sleep before getting up and heading to the airport.
Fifty one weeks till Fest 2003. I can't wait.
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