Each year, my Jazzfest Pilgrimage gets longer. For several years, I used to fly in Thursday morning (or Friday, if doing 1st weekend), and fly home Sunday night. Then for a couple of years, I came in Wednesday night for one extra evening of nightlife. Last year, I went down Tuesday afternoon, to meet friends for a crawfish boil. And somehow, along the way, I started staying until Monday morning instead of Sunday night.
Job-free this year, vacation time wasn't an issue. And thanks to Priceline and Hotwire, amazing deals (below $100/night, including taxes) on downtown hotels were arranged. So it was, that I found myself flying down Sunday morning of the first weekend, with plans to stay all the way thru the Monday after the second weekend. One buddy is joining me for the whole trip, and two more are coming just Thursday to Sunday. It'll be five days at the Fairgrounds for me, plus three full days (daze) between. I hope I can handle it.
My Southwest flight is on time and uneventful. Flying down on Sunday, I notice far fewer folks bound for the Fest than usual. Instead, almost everyone is heading down for a couple of medical conventions. Oh well, it's a short flight. I meet my buddy, our hotel room at the Doubletree is ready for early check-in. This is my first ever Priceline room, and it's fine. A quick cab ride, and we're at the Fairgrounds by 1:00. For the first time in ages, I'm buying a full priced ticket at the gate (the extension to first weekend was a late decision, so no advance tickets until Thursday).
Germaine Bazzle is good, and the Jazz Tent is a great way to start. A quick bowl of jambalaya, then it's off to see Eddie Bo in the "new and improved" Blues Tent. The Tent is packed, but we manage to squeeze in on the right side. They've laid grass down over the concrete in the back half of the tent, but that area is filled with lawn chairs and blankets. So much for dancing room. Oh well, we maneuver through the tent and find a little standing room over on the left side, just inside the tent. They've also added misters inside the tent, a more universally welcome addition.
Then the first "grid lock" (wanting to be too many places at once) of 2003 hits; the result is 20 minutes of Jean Knight, 20 minutes of Rebirth, and most of Dr. John. For Dr. John, we run into several of the Pet De Kat Krewe, gathering to have a picture taken for next weekend's Times Picayune. When the photographer shows up, I join the others in dancing up a wild storm. In the end, I wasn't in the picture that got published, but the chosen shot of PDKK Chief Joe and Marisol is a great one.
We swing back to the Blues Tent for the end of Keb Mo, but it's worse than before, way too crowded to even think about getting in. There are speakers set up outside the Tent, but they're not loud enough. After 5 or 10 minutes, we give up and move on. Fest is too short to waste time not hearing someone.
I grab a cochon de lait po boy, and head to the Jazz Tent to stake out a spot for Ornette Coleman. Even 15 minutes before he's supposed to play, the Tent is mostly full, but I find a spot behind the stage on the right. Unfortunately, he starts 20 minutes late, and worse, what I hear isn't grabbing me. So it's back to the big stage to see Joe Cocker, who sounds good and looks even better. Considering that Joe looked awful 30 years ago, that's a pleasant surprise.
The first of several virgin New Orleans experiences for me this trip. Somehow, in all the years I've been coming to Jazzfest, I'd never been to the Rock 'N' Bowl. That changes tonight as we go to see Sonny Landreth, plus Tab Benoit playing with George Porter Jr. and Johnny Vidacovich, plus the Iguanas.
The Iguanas are okay, but we opt for Sonny, playing downstairs, good but too loud. Tab is upstairs later. I've seen him several times before, always playing mostly blues. But tonight, the blues has given way to funk. I guess that's what happens when George Porter is your bass player. Though our feet are too tired to bowl (after only one day - this could be trouble), having others bowling during the music adds to the fun. Only other downside, having skipped dinner before going there, I can report that the food served there (red beans & rice, jambalaya, gumbo, pizza) is pretty forgettable. Still, I like this place.
Monday would be the day that we took advantage of the free afternoon music in the Quarter. In addition to the three music stores offering in-store performances, this year marked the 1st annual Mo Fest, put on by the city, in Woldenberg Park by the River, to showcase local talent. That makes four venues, all within 3 or 4 blocks of each other.
I quickly come to a disturbing realization: I think the grid lock is worse than at the Fairgrounds. At Fest, most acts play an hour or more, and the start times are staggered, so you can often see 45 minutes of each of two acts playing at once. But at the In Stores and Mo Fest, everyone plays only about 40 minutes, and starts right on the hour, so it's hard to store-hop your way through the conflicts. Allen Toussaint or Theresa Andersson or Henry Butler? Jon Cleary or Papa Grows Funk or Bonerama? Dang it...
In the end, we opt for the Iguanas (LMF), Kermit Ruffins (Tower), Linnzi Zaorski (Mo Fest), Henry Butler (Tower), Bonerama (Virgin). Not bad for a Monday afternoon. Kermit and Henry were the highlights. Henry was actually a second choice; we tried to see Allen Toussaint at LMF, but the store was just too crowded to get in. I also decide the the Mo Fest is a fantastic addition. The venue is wonderful, outdoors, on the levee, with the River as a backdrop, and a steady breeze blowing in.
After visiting Felix's on Iberville for an oyster & shrimp po boy (disappointingly forgettable - maybe their raw stuff is better), we caught a few minutes of Gatemouth Brown at LMF, then it's time for the evening's festivities to begin...
Virgin experience number two: believe it or not, I've also never been to Tipitina's! I'd always picked my evenings based on the performers and not the venue, and though I'd been to Tip's FQ a couple of times, and even to Tip's Ruins, the original Uptown Tip's had eluded me. Tonight, an amazing all-star lineup was scheduled at the annual Instruments A Comin' benefit. Though the WWOZ Piano Night was tempting, the lineup at Tip's was just too good to pass up.
As we arrive, most of the crowd is outside on the street, where Leo Nocentelli and Walter "Wolfman" Washington are being inducted into the Tipitina's Hall of Fame. Not too many nightclubs are worthy of their own Halls of Fame. So that's pretty cool.
We head inside. It's somehow smaller than I'd expected, and pretty ordinary looking. Then the music started - for the rest of the evening, there would be nothing that could be described as commonplace. Though a couple of acts had played already, the first act we saw was the "Tipitina's Founders Band". Stanton Moore (of Galactic) on drums. George Porter Jr. (of the Meters) on bass. June Yamagishi (of Papa Grows Funk) on guitar. Two keyboard players - Dr John and Ivan Neville. Then add a horn section - four players from the Dirty Dozen. Holy cow, that's as deep a lineup of New Orleans legends as I'll probably ever see on one stage. Halfway through the first song, I commented to my buddy that even if that one song was all we heard all night, we still made the right choice on which gig to attend.
Luckily, they played more than one song, laying down one New Orleans standard after another. Then came Galactic. And the Radiators with Theresa Andersson. And the Lil Rascals. And Leo Nocentelli. And Wolfman Washington. Not bad for a Monday night... Between sets we hung outside on Napoleon Street, in the warm New Orleans evening air, and even scored some very tasty, free barbecue ribs, as the folks selling food packed it in for the night and gave away whatever was left. Got to love that Jazzfest Karma.
We slept late on Tuesday morning (since you have to pace yourself), getting up only because we were switching hotels. Our Hotwire room at the Sheraton was also ready for early check-in, and was also very nice, on a high floor with a great river view. Then we hopped the bus for the ride down Magazine Street to Audubon Park. Along the way, the bus passed a tailor shop with this sign (heh heh heh):
IN THE REAR
WHILE YOU WAIT
Audubon park was the site of a crawfish boil. We visited with old friends, and made new ones; we drank lots of beer; and we ate a lot of crawfish. 2003 turns out to be the best year in a while for the local mudbug harvest - the bugs were very tasty and ranged from large to huge.
My buddy had left early, having to get back to the hotel to get a little w*rk out of the way, before the Ponderosa Stomp. That left me to get to the Rock 'N' Bowl by myself. Standing out on Magazine Street at 5:30 p.m., with one arm held out uselessly as only occupied cabs drove by, and the other arm hitting redial for United Cab but getting only busy signals, I began to think I'd underestimated the difficulty of getting a taxi during rush hour. Luckily, some cascading good Karma would again set in.
A fellow in a beat up car pulled over, and asked where I was trying to get to. I told him the Rock 'N' Bowl, and he offered to drive me there for $5 in gas money. The vibe felt good, so I ignored my mothers advice about taking rides from strangers and got in. Here's the karma part: I'd stepped up and filled in for Neen to compile the Jazzfest Nightlife Grids this year. One of a few thank you's that I got for that effort was a t-shirt, sent by Zigaboo Modeliste's management. Since Zig was playing at the Stomp that night, I'd worn the shirt that day. Turns out, the fellow giving me the ride said he used to do sound for Zig's former bandmate Art Neville. He saw me standing there in my Zigaboo shirt, and that's why I got the ride. Well, that, and the fact he was running on fumes and had no cash. But the grids got me the shirt, the shirt got me the ride, and the ride got me to Rock 'N' Bowl in time to see the Rebirth Brass Band.
So how can you describe the Ponderosa Stomp? I can't think of another show or festival that it compares to. Legends of rock and blues and R&B, many of whom never (or rarely) tour anymore; not the superstar household names, but many of the folks who backed them; all together for three long and memorable nights. I know folks who travel to New Orleans for the Stomp, and never even go to Jazzfest. The night was scheduled to run from five p.m. till four am - if you're counting, that's 9 hours of nonstop music, more than a day at the fairgrounds. But with 16 acts playing 30-45 minute sets, on one stage with no time allotted for stage switchover, it soon was running a bit behind. The actual breaks were short, but I'll bet it was six in the morning before it all wrapped up, not that I lasted that long. There really wasn't a weak spot that I saw, but a few acts did stand out.
I've never seen anything like the Sun Ra Arkestra. They were introduced as "the original jam band", and that fits. Sun Ra is no longer with us, but the Arkestra goes on. Twenty players, most now seemingly well into their golden years, dressed in silver and gold and foil covered clothes, like bad Halloween spaceman costumes. All joining together, to make this wonderful, cacophonous, spectacular, jazzy sound. A few acts later, it's time for an unadvertised, unscheduled special guest: Robert Jr. Lockwood. The 88 year old "stepson" of blues god Robert Johnson is a blues legend himself. Watching him play an acoustic set, I was in awe.
These two sets were the best of the best, and along with others from Jimmy T-99 Nelson, Zogaboo Modeliste playing with Willie Tee, and a good part of Howlin' Wolf's band, there was no shortage of memorable moments from that night.
Normally, Wednesday would be another day full of in-store performances. But not this year. Two weeks earlier, New Orleans R&B and songwriting legend Earl King had passed. They decided to delay the funeral until the week between Jazzfest weekends, and send Earl off with a traditional New Orleans Jazz Funeral. This would be a rare experience for me as an out-of-towner. Clueless tourists often want to know when the next jazz funeral will be held, but of course, it's only when someone dies, and these days, an honor usually reserved for noted musicians.
The funeral services themselves were held in Gallier Hall. Arriving there, a good sized crowd was outside already. We went in - the main room was filled, but we could stand with the crowd in the hall and see a little of what was going on. With folks like Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, and Ernie K-Doe's widow eulogizing Earl, I wished I'd gotten there earlier to get inside. But there's something weird about watching a funeral service on tiptoes, so we went back outside to wait for the procession.
A horse drawn hearse, a half dozen white stretch limos, several brass bands, three or four groups of Mardi Gras Indians in full feathered costumes, and at least five thousand second-lining mourners, well wishers, fans, tourists, and gawkers. All stretched out for several blocks, as we walked and marched and danced through the streets of downtown, along the edge of the Quarter, finally dispersing at Louis Armstrong Park. There's no place else in the world to see something like that. The funeral music and march are fascinating, starting out with a mournful dirge as the casket is loaded onto the hearse, and then going through several stages and styles and moods, until you almost forget that this is a funeral march. I'll never forget that afternoon. Rest in peace, Earl.
See the funeral pictures here.
Wednesday evening was the free Marcia Ball concert in Lafayette Square, coincidently across the street from Gallier Hall, where the funeral started. Marcia was great, as always. Lots of my Fest friends had converged for this one, and a good time was had by all. Followed by dinner uptown at Jacques Imo's, and then time for the Big Blues Harmonica Show at the Delta Blues Grill. This was a challenge - no one seemed to know where the club was, heck, no one had even had heard of it. Waiters, bartenders, cabbies, telephone information: all were stumped. Finally, I found a copy of Offbeat, eventually found the club address listings, and we were off to Midtown.
This show was another good choice. Eight blues harp players, each playing in turn with mostly the same backing band, in a tiny club filled but not packed by several dozen avid blues harp fans. We missed the first couple, but the first six players were Louisiana locals whose lack of name recognition was certainly not due to any lack of talent. Number seven was Louisiana mainstay Johnny Sansone, and number eight was Kim Wilson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds), who is arguably one of the top five blues harmonica players in the world. All in an intimate venue, and all for, if I recall correctly, fifteen bucks.
Sunday, January 18, 2004: I can't believe that seven months have passed since Fest, the announcement of the 2004 performers is less than a month away, and I still haven't finished my 2003 diaries. In the interest of expedience, and quickly fading memories, I'll skip the day by day chronology of second weekend, and instead just post some thoughts that were (or are) foremost in my mind...
Failed Experiment Number One
The first year I came to Jazzfest, I was unfamiliar with most of the performers. So mostly I wandered, and stopped when I stumbled on something I liked. I had many great surprises that year. But now, I've been to so many Fests, that there aren't too many surprises. I can look at the daily cubes, and easily map out my whole day with favorites. But I resolved to recapture some of the lost spontaneity, and decided that for one day, I would go cube-free, with no set plans at all, and just see what my wandering would bring.
Well, mostly it brought me to the last five minutes of a lot of sets. Just bad timing, I guess, but it seems every stage I'd walk up to, I'd hear part of one song, and then, "Thank You, Goodbye". I need to rethink this plan for next year, I guess. Maybe bring empty cubes, with the stage times but not the performers' names...
Failed Experiment Number Two
I'd gotten into the habit of revisiting the same musical year after year, not only musically, but gastronomically as well. "Jambalaya, crawfish pie, pheasant gumbo" - it's not just the lyrics of a Hank Williams song, but it's the food booths that I visit year after year. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I never seemed to have time or room to try new stuff. And I knew there was lots of good dishes waiting for me. So just as I did one day cube free, I decided to do one day eating only foods I'd never had before.
Again, this was a good idea, with failed execution. I'd heard that the fried chicken at the Fest was some of the best anywhere, but it had always seemed too commonplace to bother. But now, with my new foods mission, this seemed to be an ideal time to try it. And, living up to its reputation, it was very, very good. The only issue was the portion size. A large breast plus a wing, served with a side of equally deserving potato salad. All very yummy, but I wasn't hungry again for until late afternoon.
As luck would have it, when my appetite came back, I happened to be in the Gospel tent. I'd never really gotten anything from the adjacent Heritage Square food area, except CDM beignets, of course. So I headed to the Gallagher's booth for some pecan catfish meuniere. The booth had 3 items - the catfish, crab cakes, and a merliton casserole - priced at $4 each, or 2 for $6, or all 3 for $7. Well, $12 worth of food for just $7 was too good a deal to pass up, so I ordered the triple combo. The catfish was excellent, the crab cakes very good. The merliton wasn't my favorite, but it was good enough that I did clean the plate. Overall, the $7 combo was the equivilent of a $20-30 meal in the Quarter, both in quality and (unfortunately for my experiment) quantity. I was full for the rest of the day. Though I enjoyed my new food journey, I had managed to sample only two food booths.
How Soon We Forget
Just a few months before Jazzfest 2003, 100 people died in the horrible fire at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island. New Orleans clubs often seem like fire traps, and I'd hoped that the recent tragedy would have some of them taking steps to improve the situation. But that did not seem to be the case. At both Tips Uptown and Tips FQ, alternate exits were blocked off by barricades separating the VIP section from the main audience. At Tips FQ and at the Delta Blues Grill, I also saw emergency doors that seemed to be locked shut. Remember, folks, safety first: always find all the exit doors when you first enter the club.
An Unfortunate Incident
After Fest on Sunday, we were hanging out at Liuzza's, when some <insert expletive> ripped off a street performer, snatching her bucket with hours of tip money in it and taking off. He bolted thru the crowd before anyone realized what was happening, lucky for him because we probably would have beaten the crap out of him for that. Lots of folks reached into their wallets to help ease her loss. That was reassuring to see, but it was still a tough thing to witness, and not the way you want Fest to end.
Several More Firsts
Although this was my 8th Jazzfest, to go along with 4 or 5 non-Fest visits, I did have several first-time experiences. Already mentioned:
And two more biggies:
Go to the Diary index.