I can’t believe I’ll be in New Orleans this weekend. I kept saying this to myself again and again in the days leading up to my departure from Chicago. This wasn’t exactly said in excitement, either – no, in fact, you could say it was laced with anxiety and stress. I’d be traveling alone to a city I’d never been to and what’s worse, I was sick with a diet version of the flu, and couldn’t stop sucking down vitamin D capsules and crackling open Sudafed packets. So, on Wednesday night, I paced around my apartment, muttering things to myself like some loon. Pretty sure I’m the only person who could ever worry about something as innocent and enthralling as New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
But that’s just how I deal with things; expect the punches, accept the hugs.
Admittedly, there’s a lot to fear about New Orleans if you’re an out-of-towner and your knowledge of the city is limited. For me, I’ve heard great things, but I’ve also heard horrible things. There’s never been any middle ground between the two, which might be why I sort of panicked prior to arrival. While my college roommate used to call it his “future home”, digressing on how it’s like being in another world with the most extraordinary people, music, and food, others in passing have called it the closest thing to a third-world country in America. These latter people weren’t very friendly (okay, you can call ’em yuppies), but, hey, anyone or anything can play on the nerves.
So, yeah, you could imagine this was an interesting trip.
Thursday, April 26th
5:48 a.m. - I’m still congested. Fuck.
5:55 a.m. – Shower. It’s too early in the morning for any real coherent thoughts. Instead, my attention is focused on a couple of stray tiles on my bathroom wall, and I make this weak mental reminder that I need to clean when I return. Seconds after this, I remember that I’ve yet to watch a single episode of Treme, and for some reason, my mind that’s half-asleep actually thinks this will be a detriment to my trip.
6:24 a.m. – Shortly after scanning my CTA card at the Red Line Station, I lose my balance swinging my bag over the turnstile and tumble down, as if I’m imitating Chevy Chase impersonating President Ford. It’s too early to be mortified, but also too early for anyone to ignore it. Oy.
7:35 a.m. – I’m the lucky winner who gets to be profiled by the TSA. The agent dusts around my computer, and I sort of smirk when he takes the time to look at all the stickers on it – especially the Dr. Dre one.
8:45 – 11:15 a.m. – I land in New Orleans before I can finish Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Dammit. I hope Dr. Jones gets the diary back.
11:43 a.m. – My cabbie takes some side streets to get downtown and offers me the lingo for ordering a po’boy. We both agree that “dressed” is the way to go. He also prefers the French Quarter Festival, which takes place in the second weekend of April, and is geared more to the locals. Who knew?
1:15 p.m. – The first thing I notice about New Orleans is its architecture. My hotel is located near the more tourist-friendly area surrounding the French Quarter, so I can’t stop snapping shots of the countless Creole-styled townhouses with their stained walls and wrap-around balconies. There’s a lot of history behind each door.
1:30 p.m. - I’m sweating bad. I can’t tell if it’s because I still feel shaky from the cold, or if it’s just the hot Louisiana sun. I’m also starving and dying for a po’boy. I double back to Canal Street and find my way over to this little hole-in-the-wall off Baronne Street called Cajun Mike’s. It’s a tiny sliver of a bar with a few video poker machines in the back, but the bartender’s cool and I immediately order a PBR, a pulled pork po’boy, and some sweet potato fries. “Dressed”, of course.
1:41 p.m. – I’m shocked to see an ashtray. It’s just been so long. Well, when in New Orleans, amirite?
1:55 p.m. – A couple nearby – some regulars – take a seat next to me, and there’s a discussion about a group of TSA workers who were arrested for passing through narcotics. I’m told they’ll get charged for life. I’m not sure if I believe this, but I can’t think too much about it because my thoughts are on this colossal sandwich of mine. Now, I’ve had a po’boy before – hell, I went to college in Tallahassee, FL (essentially “two doors down” in the scope of the universe) – and while there’s nothing extraordinary about it to make me feel like it’s authentic or something, it’s just good and it hits the spot. The sauce works, the pickles are crunchy, and the bread is sublime. In other words, perfect pub food.
1:56 p.m. – Okay, I’m feeling good about this place.
2:31 p.m. – Bourbon Street is notorious. It’s eight blocks of nonstop tourist attractions, loaded with everything from tacky, tasteless paraphernalia to popular, pricey seafood joints. I’ve always been told to stay away from it, and I’m not too interested in the sensationalized, super-charged bar experience it advertises, but I can’t help but check it out anyway. Two minutes down the street, I’m offered a wild time by some guy outside of Larry Flynt’s Hustler strip joint. Tempting, but no.
2:45 p.m. – I’ve come to the conclusion that the party never ends on Bourbon Street, or the French Quarter for that matter. The bars remain open, the strip joints rotate their girls, and the streets look like a party took a shit on them. Oh, by the way, you can’t round a corner without seeing beads on something, so don’t bother bringing them if you come.
3:27 p.m. – Years ago, Peaches Records & Tapes used to be in every large city across America. I know because it was the first record shop I ever visited. Sadly, the shop near me closed, as did the others – except one. There’s still one in New Orleans and I nearly have a heart attack when I walk by it. I decide to spend a good half hour inside, wandering through the countless vinyl and Record Store Day leftovers, and shop in this surreal shop-from-yesterday-but-today. I feel like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo when I see Michael Jackson’s Dangerous framed on the wall. That was one of the first personal purchases I can remember making.
4:22 p.m. – You wouldn’t know the city’s biggest festival was a day away, at least not from the ample crowd at Woldenberg Riverfront Park. Facing the Mississippi River, the park houses the Aquarium of the Americas, a few statues and art installments, and a good place to snap shots of boats, birds, and buildings. I take a seat, observe some other tourists playing around in the park, and then watch one of the riverboats sail off with my new friend, who happens to be a bird.
4:24 p.m. – I get this overwhelming feeling that I’m alone.
4:42 p.m. – While walking back to the hotel, I start thinking about this trip in general. Why am I here? What am I doing with myself? In all honesty, I’m probably the worst person to cover the festival – or even New Orleans, in general. I’ve never considered myself a huge fan of jazz; in fact, in college at Florida State University, I used to scoff at my friends who would obsess over Jazz Night at this off-campus, quasi-DIY bar. They would spend hours there, smoking and drinking and losing themselves in this community that always felt alien to me. Now, I’ve always respected the genre, I’ve just never tried to approach it. To me, it always felt so far removed from my understanding, and I long felt I wasn’t in any position to even try to absorb it. Oh, did I mention I’m also allergic to shellfish?
8:09 p.m. – After catching up on some work, I’m antsy and I want to dig deeper into New Orleans. I’ve tossed aside my stupid doubts from the afternoon, and I’ve come to the conclusion that discovery isn’t without its share of hurdles. Okay, so I originally booked this trip to see Brian Wilson join The Beach Boys for the first time in close to two decades, but in all honesty, I could have waited for their Chicago date. Because of this, I contend that there’s a deeper reasoning for me being here, and it’s to learn and to shatter any former barriers I’ve erected in the past, and that realization sparks something inside me.
9:02 p.m. – The French Quarter is pretty eerie to walk through at night. While I’m still disappointed I neglected to watch Treme, I’m ecstatic I haven’t seen Interview with a Vampire in about four years. It’s a long walk down Decatur to be thinking about vampires.
9:17 p.m. – I’m the sort of guy who likes to do research before trips; not to find tourist traps and similar ilk, but to bite into the real meat of a city. While all signs online pointed to Frenchman Street, I’m too intrigued in St. Claude, where two venues promise what could be a dizzying night. Every Thursday night, the Hi-Ho Lounge features music from local act The Stooges Brass Band, and tonight, the nearby punk club Siberia has a bill featuring Sleepy Sun and The Dirty Ghosts. Apples and oranges, sure, but there’s nothing that’s topping that.
9:24 p.m. – I’m starting to doubt my thoughts on skipping Frenchman Street, especially given the crowds, sounds, and local outdoor art markets. My college roommate was right, this is a different world.
9:34 p.m. – About 75% of the way there, while walking alone down Elysian Fields, I quickly remind myself that I’m just amicably strolling around with an expensive camera down poorly lit streets. I pick up the pace, light up a cigarette in hopes it gives me an edge (it doesn’t), and shag ass across the four-lane drag.
9:45 p.m. – It’s loud, very loud, and it’s also packed on St. Claude. Outside of the Hi-Ho Lounge, the Hot 8 Brass Band keep the corner warm with their gritty Southern-fried stew of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. No PA here, no amps, just brass. Having been around since the ’90s, the community is well attuned to their parade-style energy, but even without the background, there’s little doubt the scene wouldn’t involve the scattered dancing and singing. After all, I was.
10:11 p.m. – It’s a tight space within the Hi-Ho Lounge, but there’s hardly anyone inside yet. The Stooges Brass Band won’t go on for another 50 minutes, so I grab another PBR, watch the NFL Draft, and coincidentally meet a nice couple from the Midwest. They too explain they’re in a similar boat, and actually came for Saturday’s headliner, Tom Petty. We both agree that New Orleans, however, is the real character to this festival. Things are starting to feel oddly cozy.
10:58 p.m. – Two beers later, I turn around and discover the venue’s getting pretty, pretty, pretty crowded.
Sometime after 11 – One day I’ll credit the Stooges Brass Band for my shoddy attempt at learning the saxophone, but hey, at least I’ll have tried, right? For over an hour, the local legends – yes, they’re legends now, having worked on the scene since the mid’90s and being titled ”Best Contemporary Brass Band” at the Big Easy Music Awards last year – juiced the evolving crowd that inflated and deflated throughout their set. I particularly dug the fiftysomething veteran who dusted off his old dance floor moves from decades past. I didn’t catch the name of the vocalist who cut through the crowd several times, but I appreciated his flair for punky lyricism, specifically: “I kissed an uptown girl and I liked it/I fucked a downtown girl and I liked it.”
Sometime after 12 – I shake the saxophonist’s hand in hopes to get some of his magic. No, this actually happened.
Okay, it’s Friday morning – Stooges Brass Band instructs us to stay for the next act, but I’m too hungry to wait around. Stupid me, I opt out of the BBQ outside and instead decide to chow down on some garage-y punk and psychedelic rock at Siberia.
Maybe minutes after this – It’s an eight dollar cover at Siberia, a venue which reminds me of Chicago’s Hideout – in fact, I start wondering if I’m in Chicago, but only because I’m too tired to ground myself in reality at this point – and I decide to pay it. There’s maybe eight people inside, including the two bartenders, but it’s a promising enough scene to enjoy. I snap some shots of Dirty Ghosts, who are playing their closing song unfortunately, and I go for another beer. There’s a lot of energy in those last minutes, however, and I’m sort of bummed out I missed ’em.
A little bit after that – New York City’s White Hills sets up rather quickly and the trio’s sound soaks up the walls within seconds. Guitarist Dave W. knows how to wrench the sound out of a guitar, and the harmonies from female bassist Ego Sensation work well alongside his steel-plated vocals, but the pulsing distortion just shuts me down. I can’t even make it for Sleepy Sun. I decide it’s time to jump ship.
??? – The walk back to the hotel proves eventful. I buy some street art that’ll spook my girlfriend out from a guy named Christian Taylor, discuss photography and college life with a girl named Lily, and manage to order a pizza nearby. The city is still alive though and it has defeated me. But I’m awake enough to make it back to my hotel room, debate between HBO or TNT, and eat two slices of pizza. As an insomniac, and a four-year survivor of South by Southwest, I can’t say this has been the longest day of my life, but it feels like I’m stepping off a rollercoaster and my head has yet to come back down. I end the night laughing.
Friday, April 27th
10:15 a.m. – Ouch. My legs hurt.
12:00 p.m. – Since the festival grounds are a good few miles away from the downtown area, I pick up three day’s worth of shuttle tickets and hop aboard. Don’t ever rely on cabs at a music festival. Trust me, your life will be a lot easier if you remember that.
12:15 p.m. – There’s a line. It’s long. It’s hot out. Fuck, part 2.
12:50 p.m. – Because it’s set on the Fair Grounds Race Track – fun fact: the third-oldest racetrack in America – I immediately think of the old classic rock shows that used to swing by the Greyhound track in South Florida. To my dismay, NOLA’s Jazz Fest did not book Kansas.
12:52 p.m. – I decide to stop by the Gentilly Stage, where Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes are entertaining an ample, loyal crowd. Sketch works with an electric guitar and cello, which offers a spin on the traditional funk rock that’s been spoiled and soured as of late. “Let’s work off those calories we’re going to be putting in ourselves today,” he screams before launching into “Saucy Jack”, another funky rocker that apes solos from Neal Schon of Journey. Great vocals, one hell of a supporting brass section (it helps that he had a Bonerama member tagging along), but I can’t help but wonder where those keys went.
1:10 p.m. – People love to get their square-dancin’ on with Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie. Yee haw.
1:13 p.m. – Dee-1 considers himself a “One Man Army.” I only know this because he not only sings about it, but he’s also wearing a shirt that says the same thing. When I make it to his set at the Congo Square Stage, the New Orleans rapper is already going off on a free style about paid hip-hop artists and being free from the confines of what have you. There’s this forced sense of anti-establishment here, but when he starts speaking from the heart, as on “The One That Got Away”, he connects well. If he didn’t look young, he sure as hell did when he exclaimed, “Where my mom and dad at, don’t tell me they left already.”
1:16 p.m. – His parents wave to him.
1:28 p.m. – Regardless of my food allergies, I still can’t forgive myself for eating a falafel sandwich in New Orleans. But hey, you gotta eat something.
1:45 p.m. - African composer, dancer, and choreographer Seguenon Kone is now a renown resident of New Orleans and plays the balafon and djembe drums. His resume sparkles my eyes, so I decide to swing by the small Jazz & Heritage Stage, where his blend of rhythm and dance just conjures up spiritual magic. This is pure, unadulterated rhythm and dance, however, and his dance company LIvoire Spectacle only brings to life the African beats with a Cajun aftertaste. I’ve been spinning Paul Simon’s Graceland a bunch lately, so this felt like a nice history lesson, connecting the dots somewhat.
2:05 p.m. – Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove sonically meets the expectations. That is, if you’re hearing multi-layered, afro-caribbean funk with a ’70s swagger. If anything, Kirk’s full-body sousaphone is a beast to observe. It takes a bold man to hold one of those.
2:11 p.m. – On my way to Gomez, I catch wind of the Grammy-award winning zydeco artist Chubby Carrier, who flings out some danceable numbers with his Bayou Swamp Band. One of the guys is wearing a shirt that says “Legalize Happiness”, which sums up the mentality of the crowd in a nutshell. Ugh. No time for dancing, though, Dr. Jones.
2:20 p.m. – Not a lot of UK artists at Jazz Fest, at least not this weekend, so Gomez always felt a little like the odd man out on the lineup. Still, by the time I race over, they’re performing to a couple thousand at the Gentilly Stage, amassing one of the first big crowds of the weekend. Given their mutating sound – they dabble between indie rock, psychedelia, folks, and blues – the UK export works well at Jazz Fest, and with help from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, I can’t help but think they sound better in the bayou. Several fans sing along with an oldie like the rather fitting “Here Comes the Breeze”, but I just can’t shake the hammy lyrics. Instrumentally, though, it’s groovy.
3:17 p.m. – Oh yeah, The Beach Boys are performing tonight!
3:25 p.m. – Whoever books for the Congo Square Stage just does it right. Sound issues plague the band at first, but Seun Kuti and his Egypt 80 arrive in style and waste no time in releasing the party favors. Son of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, Seun actually borrows heavily from the late James Brown, shimmying across the stage with blind enthusiasm and a fury that’s purely gospel – well, when he’s not greasing his tracks with the saxophone. A cover of his father’s track “Zombie” starts off the set well, but it’s when he kicks into high gear with his own material off last year’s Brian Eno-approved From Africa With Fury: Rise that the crowd actually starts to swell. I also can’t get enough.
3:50 p.m. – Shiiiiit, I have a fetish with the saxophone, and I’m just not gonna shake it.
4:16 p.m. – Time keeps counting down to The Beach Boys. I start making my way towards the colossal Acura Stage, where Zebra is currently playing. Although they’re locals to the wetlands, their sound couldn’t stick out more. It’s ’70s progressive hard rock and it’s a little too spacey for the more organic fare throughout the festival. When they light up a string of Zeppelin covers (“Heartbreaker” sounds pretty dead-on, admittedly), I can’t help but think they once posed as Zoso, the touring Led Zep cover band that would perform monthly in Tallahassee. I only think of this because of the close proximity and the mere fact that Zebra’s singer also looks slightly like Jeff Daniels.
5:05 p.m. – Like a psychopath, I’m sitting in the photo pit for The Beach Boys 30 minutes before their scheduled set. Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” plays over the PA, and I start interpreting the lyrics literally, and then I think about Stephen King’s The Stand and spiral into even weirder thoughts. Shaking that off, I check my watch and then I start thinking about the Beach Boys reunion on the whole. Having read Brian Wilson’s autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice – a book which has since been pulled off the shelves due to inconsistencies stemming from his previous psychiatrist, who helped author the book with Brian – I’m fully aware of the songwriter’s troubles; however, if even 60% of that book is true, I myself would never want to be a part of this reunion.
Now, I’ve always championed them as America’s greatest band; the one true act to rival The Beatles. (Most people scoff at this, but go listen to Pet Sounds, last year’s The Smile Sessions, and/or “Surf’s Up”, “God Only Knows”, and “Good Vibrations” and then come up with an argument for another American act.) But there’s no doubt that the majority of their career is fraught with countless muck ups, namely their work in the ’80s and ’90s. Between “Kokomo” – a track I enjoy, but in the same way I enjoy REO Speedwagon, which is to say “sometimes” – and their wince-inducing appearances on Full House (groan) and Home Improvement (double groan), not to mention Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1, it’s difficult to champion their name sometimes.
So, I think a part of me feels like this reunion is a way to set that straight – maybe. Whereas Brian has carved out an exceptional solo career for himself, embracing the idea that he was the true genius behind the group, the other members have either pilfered the name around (Love, Bruce Johnston) or just done other things (Al Jardine, David Marks). Here’s why I think I’ve been so ecstatic about this reunion: Although Brian’s always going to be the talent, he needs the tools to get his ideas across. He could stack session after session musician around him (ha, he did), but it goes back to the original formula of the brothers Wilson, Love, Jardine, and, okay, Marks and Johnston, too. To hear that equation in-person, on-stage before it’s gone forever just felt necessary, at least to me, who was born around the time they started declining.
5:30 p.m. – Uncle Jesse, erm John Stamos, stops out, and despite having to shoot the set, I can’t help but laugh. I have no problems with Stamos, and I think he’s hilarious, but it’s just odd seeing him in the flesh – or at least this close. He’s the real-life equivalent of Dorian Gray. He goes on about how he’s still the president of The Beach Boys fan club, then discusses how they’ve always created “heart music”, and how there’s no band that captures the spirit of Americana like they do. Hey, now I have an ice breaker if we ever meet.
5:33 p.m. - It’s one hit after another. They open with “Do It Again”, follow it up with a medley of oldies (“Catch a Wave”, “Don’t Back Down”, “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfer Girl”), and hardly quit. Love remains the showman, Johnston continues to smile, but it’s Jardine’s vocals and Marks’ athletic guitar work that truly elevate the tracks on-stage. Then there’s Brian. I’ll get to him in a second, though.
5:55 p.m. – Stamos’d again. This time he’s performing drums on “Be True to Your School”. Before the track, Love makes a rather clever jab about sleeping with his mother. Pretty funny.
6:15 p.m. – While Brian’s been sedative the whole time, he comes alive when he’s singing, as he does on a deep cut like “Sail on, Sailor”. This sparks a Brian-led medley that continues with an on-target cut of “Heroes and Villains”, peaks with “God Only Knows”, and comes down for a landing with their latest single, “That’s Why God Made the Radio”.
6:31 p.m. – Yeah, the new single’s not that bad.
6:40 p.m. – Al Jardine just knocks the shit out of “Help Me Rhonda”. This is why the reunion is a must-see.
6:50 p.m. – Getting close to the end, guess it’s time for…
6:51 p.m. – Once, twice, three times a Stamos’d. “Bermuda, Bahamas…”
6:52 p.m. – I didn’t catch Brian’s expression around this time, but I’ve always winced at that Full House appearance where Michelle Tanner mutters “kokomo” and he replies, “I think we have a request.” I’m willing to bet that scene was awkward to shoot, and that Brian probably didn’t dig that moment, and I’m also willing to bet this was a moment he wasn’t enjoying, either.
6:55 p.m. – Is there anything better than the opening verse of “Good Vibrations”? No.
7:00 p.m. - Save for a happier Brian, I can’t say there’s anything missing from this reunion. They scattered the hits with the deeper stuff – although, I’d still like them to go deeper than “Sail on, Sailor” – and nobody missed a mark. Hell, Johnston managed to get people to clap. I walk away with a big ol’ grin. I even buy a fan-made poster.
7:06 p.m. – The never-ending line to the shuttles sparks memories of Titanic (1997).
7:14 p.m. – A couple from Toronto discusses the legalization of marijuana with an elderly man who bears a strong resemblance to the yet-to-be-made Dr. John bio pic starring Richard Attenborough.
7:26 p.m. – The still never-ending line to the shuttles sparks memories of Titanic 3-D (2012).
8:01 p.m. – Professionals like to “talk shop”, music fans love talking up past gigs. Almost everyone in line has one to tell, and seemingly every person shares it. I manage to meet a hip Los Angeles couple with the best stories of ’em all.
8:16 p.m. – Yes, Mr. Yorke, meeting people is easy.
9:27 p.m. – If you’re in New Orleans, you’re eating at Cochon. As a self-aware foodie, thanks to a girlfriend whose celebrity crushes involve Anthony Bourdain and Grant Achatz, I’m a sucker for fine-dining, but not of the snooty kind. I like my meals grounded in reality, without being too plain. I also love eating the genre of food I want, not some fair-share offshoot that’s loosely related. Cochon does all of that and doesn’t fool around with its Cajun stylings.
It’s packed when I get there, but as with most trendy restaurants, it’s easier to grab some space at the bar. I order a few high-end cocktails, dabble with slightly left-field appetizers (e.g. bacon-wrapped chicken gizzards), invest in the smoked beef brisket, and have a closed-door affair with the macaroni & cheese casserole. Later on,there’s a great discussion had with the bartender about how it feels like there’s no North and South in New Orleans, simply because of the curve around the river. I tell him that’s probably why this place feels like another world. I can’t tell if he hears me, though.
Sometime after 11 – You learn things every time you travel, especially in new places and during a first-time run at festivals. Although New Orleans never sleeps, you can’t stay up late, get up early, and plan to do it again the next night. Like a bum, I have a cigarette, return to my hotel room, and escape into some Kurt Russell movie on HBO. I’m destroyed, aching all over, but my stomach’s happy and my mind’s settled in. I think I’m starting to treat this room like an apartment.
Saturday, April 28th
11:00 a.m. – I want a muffuletta.
11:22 a.m. – Around the corner and a couple blocks down, I find another hole-in-the-wall pub, this one’s called Evelyn’s Place. Outside, it looks like a little cottage from Londontown, and inside it does, too, but there’s so much to look at it. There’s a wooden lion’s head at the door, a myriad collection of baseball hats in the rafters, and an endless supply of paper bills that line the restaurant’s walls, all from various parts of the world; some say things, others don’t. It’s also small inside Evelyn’s, but that’s part of its charm. When I step inside, there’s only two guys in the back eating sandwiches. Since it’s early and it’s a bar, I’m not too surprised. I look around, find the roughneck menu, order my muffuletta, and just relax.
11:27 a.m. – “My momma, the ol’ bitch, holds port in Orlando, FL,” someone tells this older man sitting at the door of the bar. I can’t help but be nosy and listen in. They toss the word “bitch” around nonstop, so I ask this guy, whose name is Frank, what they were discussing. He points to a little memorial of a woman named Evelyn, no surprise there, who was “the bitch” to everyone at the bar. She’s long passed,but the bar retains her name – it was originally called Stonehenge. So, clearly lots of character here.
11:33 a.m. – If you’re lost on the name, a muffuletta is a sandwich similar to a po’boy that includes marinated olive salad, capicola, salami, pepperoni, emmentaler, ham, and provolone. It’s a custom in New Orleans, and I just had to have one. Fortunately for me, it also comes with red beans and rice, a personal favorite, which also tastes fine. Again, nothing mind-blowing, but it’s reliable, hits the spot, and tastes like nothing else. This is how a good day starts.
12:06 p.m. – I’m not in any rush to get out to the festival today. It’s pool time, baby.
1:51 p.m. – Hard to ignore an aggressive act and that’s pretty much what attracts me to Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs over at the Gentrilly Stage. There’s a lot of modern alternative rock that scuffs up the underbelly of Allen’s tunes, but it’s his energetic rapport with the audience and his unconventional approach to brass – he plays trumpet – that brandishes him as different. When I arrive at his set, he’s just finishing up a slightly uplifting, if not frantic rocker that leads him into smashing his instrument into the ground. I’ve never seen a brass musician go all punk rock like that, but it was pretty sweet. Double points for crowd surfing, bringing out an all children’s brass section, and telling everyone to “jump out of their drawers.” Basically, he should be playing every festival, especially with a closing line like this: “I told y’all white people have rhythm.” Hilarious.
2:35 p.m. – I miss the majority of Cheikh LÃ´ of Senegal’s set at Congo Square, but from the snippets I catch, it appears I should invest some time in his work. Consider this my little reminder.
2:47 p.m. – The line for Strawberry Lemonade is far too long today, which actually upsets me more than it should. I just really wanted strawberries – and lemonade. Strawberry Lemonade.
2:51 p.m. – Instead, I opt for the Frozen Mango slushee thing; no idea why, either. I’ve hated mangos ever since I had a tree in my backyard growing up. They smashed all over my dock, then smelled up everything, and nearby ducks would try to eat them. Yeah, I wasted a few bucks on this one. #firstworldproblems
3:02 p.m. – There’s a Jazz Tent, a Blues Tent, and a Gospel Tent. Walter “Wolfman” Washington is performing in the Blues Tent, and when I get there, I’m automatically having flashbacks of a born-again Christian life I’ve never had before. It’s as if I’m in a Southern makeshift, outdoor church. Christ it’s creepy.
3:06 p.m. – Is that “The Chicken” by Jaco Pastorious, Mr. Wolfman? Too cool, but that goes without saying.
3:22 p.m. – With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers only an hour or two away, the Acura Stage gets crowded once more, though partly because there’s a whole lotta talent on-stage, too. Dubbed the Voice of the Wetland Allstars, Tab Benoit, Dr. John,
Cyril Neville, Anders Osborne, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Vidacovich, Johnny Sansone, and Waylon Thibodeaux are all crammed together for a late afternoon jam, which segues into just about every style New Orleans can offer. As the name infers, the nonprofit organization raises awareness for the loss of wetlands in southern Lousiana, and is led by Benoit himself.
3:26 p.m. – Having never seen Dr. John live, I’m sort of spooked at how calm and cool he actually is, and it’s all in those eyes. He hardly moves them and when he does, it’s when you’re not looking – almost like a gator, and that’s not a comparison strictly because he’s a resident in the swamp. Well, maybe it is, but still.
4:15 p.m. – “We still lose an acre every hour,” he instructs. “We lost one while playing this set.” Pretty creepy, but Benoit hardly keeps the spirits down, adding, “I trust us. I like us. I believe in us. Together, we make a great gumbo.” You can imagine which track Benoit would play next.
4:45 p.m. – I get a kick watching the sixtysomething men flirt with the thirtysomething women. There’s a part of me that’s happy for them, if only they weren’t doing this while their wives got them beer.
5:06 p.m. – One thing that’s become apparent is the diversity of the crowd at Jazz Fest, or the lack thereof. Considering New Orleans is so culturally rich, I half-expected the crowds to be similar, and in some ways they were (depending on the act, I guess), but man, there were a lot of golfers there.
5:10 p.m. – I tend to forget just how great of a songwriter Tom Petty can be, but I’m quickly reminded with the first four songs of his set: “Listen to Her Heart”, “You Wreck Me”, “Won’t Back Down”, and my personal all-time favorite “Here Comes My Girl”. Quite a stellar launch off, but Petty knows better and slims back the hits some. “We were so excited. For years and years we wanted to come to Jazz Fest,” Petty tells the crowd. “We’ve got a lot of songs to play for you.”
5:28 p.m. – “We’re watching Tom Petty!” someone nearby screams.
5:56 p.m. – Petty’s on fire with some back catalogue stuff, including non-Heartbreakers material like Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care” (don’t worry, Roy Orbison’s parts are sung to perfection by organist Scott Thurston), the very CCR-esque “Something Big”, and the acoustic strummer “Time to Move On”.
Photo by B&B Photography
6:11 p.m. – On second thought, some of the Mojo tracks drag on a little too long, and I still think the slowed down version of “Learning to Fly” is a little flat. That’s just me, though.
6:45 p.m. – Because I don’t want to stand in line for three hours tonight just for a ride, I start heading out, but can hear the sounds of “American Girl” in the background. Sort of a perfect way to hear it, come to think of it.
9:00 p.m. – I meet up with my newfound LA buddies again, and brave a seafood restaurant: The Bourbon House. We order some fried alligator for an appetizer, which I could have sworn I’ve had before, but can’t remember exactly when. I know I’ve had frog legs previously (they taste like chicken, but yeah, gross), though the taste or consistency of gator feels alien to me. Still, I sort of take pleasure in eating an animal I’m absolutely terrified. Turtle soup, on the other hand, that’s where I draw the line.
12:00 p.m. – Three hours later we’re done with dinner. Now, this sort of bonding isn’t a part of the festival, and granted, you could meet people anywhere, but I feel New Orleans – and even Jazz Fest, in general – warrants these sort of interactions. For one, the whole festival ends by seven o’clock each night and you’re then surrounded by an engaging nightlife, no matter where you are in the city. If you’re visiting, it would be foolish to retire early to a hotel room. In some respects, the nightlife is the festival, and the people within are a part of the experience.
12:45 a.m. – Time to hit up the Maison.
12:54 a.m. – The walk down Decatur doesn’t get any easier – or, any less creepier. I feel like someone’s always about to pop up around each corner and from within every doorstoop. Nope, just more street artists.
1:09 a.m. – It’s already pretty late by the time I reach the Maison, but it doesn’t matter. Frenchmen Street hardly shows any signs of slowing down. Artisans try and sell their pieces, there’s one girl who’s dressed a bride and god knows what she’s selling, one lanky teen has set up a bass amp and is playing rudimentary notes, couple other girls are sitting with typewriters and selling poetry, and in between are drunks or soon-to-be drunks. It smells like cigarettes, it’s sticky on the sidewalk, and noise is but a memory. It’s all just a clayball of chaos, but it’s entertaining.
1:15 a.m. – I’m here for Shamarr Allen, and although $15 dollars is steep for a late local gig like this, I’m not too bothered. Outside, I can hear him covering Coldplay’s “Paradise” on the trumpet, and by the time I get in, he’s knocking out trumpet-fied versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Rolling in the Deep”. He’s set to debut his video for the track “Typical Rock Star”.
1:56 a.m. – The projector breaks, then works, and then breaks again. They opt to perform “Typical Rock Star” instead, and it’s all around an awkward, slightly tense scene. What’s worse, the track itself is pretty weak in comparison to his other stellar work. Oh well.
2:11 a.m. – I start yawning, I start leaving.
2:38 a.m. – The walk back is, well, different. For the first time all weekend, the city sounds dead silent, and it’s intimidating.
Sunday, April 29th
2:12 p.m. – I’m told Jazz Fest doesn’t sell out. When I trek towards the Acura Stage, however, I start to wonder if they oversold the weekend. It’s almost impossible to walk anywhere. You’d think Bruce Springsteen was playi–ohhhhhh riiiiight.
2:17 p.m. – There’s a line for every water stand. The sun is the hottest it’s been all weekend. I’m already complaining.
2:33 p.m. – After yesterday’s rousing performance, I’m not exactly running to see Dr. John again. I’m of the variety that appreciates a first taste and doesn’t necessarily need to double-dip. Stupid me, though, as Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr. arrived to deliver a volley of his own hits. “Right Place, Wrong Time” is a jukebox staple and I can’t help but boogie a little on my own as he hammers it out. Shortly after this, it occurs to me that he’s responsible for “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive”, which I’ll always remember fondly as The Mighty Ducks montage song.
3:15 p.m. – No Dan Auerbach appearance, though the cuts off his latest LP, Locked Down, sound just as fierce. Something to take away from each of his performances is his manner of being. He’s stoic and rigid and appears to be this immovable force, and he may be considering he’s been shot and beaten repeatedly in his life, but within him is this spectral force that refuses to settle. It’s that weighty urgency that adds character to his songs and performances and it’s a surreal thing to witness live.
3:28 p.m. – I witness this: A woman is banging her tambourine along to Dr. John’s set and some downer of a guy tells her to stop. I start worrying there’s going to be a great tambourine riot. Instead, there’s just bickering between the two, which does nothing but bring the mood down.
3:36 p.m. – The ol’ Doc previews a new track he’s been working on by bringing out young rapper L.G. Meyer. In a Memphis Grizzlies jersey and some bright red Nike’s, the kid spits rhymes over Dr. John’s traditional funk. The crowd isn’t buying it, and neither am I. Towards the end, he attempts to emulate Vanilla Ice with a “Go, Dr, Go” chant. You could almost hear the collective groan from the adult crowd.
3:50 p.m. – I notice some guy wearing a Tunnel of Love tour shirt. I try and discuss with him the insanity of that tour, namely the ludicrous amusement park installments on stage and Springsteen’s gratuitous practice of pouring water down his pants, but he’s too much of a stiff to talk. A part of me thinks I just came off as an asshole to him; the other part of me, who likes to play celebrity doppelgÃ¤nger, is slightly convinced he’s Billy Joel.
4:01 p.m. – He isn’t Billy Joel.
4:33 p.m. – Hardly a cloud in the sky by the time Springsteen and the E Street Band roll through set opener “Badlands”. It’s a little odd seeing them in broad daylight, and the band picks up on this, too. After Nils Lofgren falls down early in the set, Springsteen exclaims, “We’re used to playing in the dark – seeing everything is fucking us up.”
4:47 p.m. – “Out in the Street” appears early. Very interesting.
4:52 p.m. – Almost 20 minutes in, it’s quite clear that New Orleans has been hungry to see this band again. Not only is the Acura Stage hosting the biggest crowd of the weekend, but the most enthusiastic one, too. Even during a newer cut like “Death to My Hometown”, thousands upon thousands of voices sing along in unison, as if it’s “She’s the One” or “Kitty’s Back”.
4:55 p.m. – “That show from 2006 stayed with me for a very long time,” Springsteen states, referring to when he appeared at Jazz Fest with the Seeger Sessions Band. “Thank you for giving us an opportunity to do what our band was built for.”
5:12 p.m. – Classic Bruce moment to take home: He digresses on something about stimulating spirits, but then randomly throws in a joke about stimulating the crowd’s sexual organs. “Just scream when that occurs,” he says cooly. “We’ll catch up with you later.” He can’t stop grinning, but neither can we.
5:23 p.m. - What would he do without those bridges into the crowd? It’s still funny how he treats the stage like a playground.
Photo by B&B Photography
5:35 p.m. – Springsteen makes it no secret that this setlist is tailored for New Orleans specifically. Or, it’s just a strange coincidence he decided to perform: “Death to My Hometown”, “My City in Ruins”, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, “Jack of All Trades”, and a jam with Dr. John on Chris Kenner’s “Something You Got”. Uhh, yeah.
5:36 p.m. – It’s around this time I start to lose interest, though. There’s nothing wrong with these tracks, but altogether, it’s too preachy. Here’s a city celebrating its heritage and its stronger suits and these songs are just downright depressing. I’m not looking for a greatest hits medley, or even these rare, deep cuts, but how about some variety, at least thematically? It just felt like overkill.
5:40 p.m. – There was also Al Green performing nearby, too.
5:42 p.m. – I don’t believe in god, but if there’s one person to convince me it’s The Reverend. I’ve never seen him live, so when he struts on stage singing “Take Me to the River”, I have this Fred Sanford moment. Soulful and smiling, Green tosses flowers to his nearby fans, who all dive at opposite ends to grab them – only a few get lucky.
5:48 p.m. – “Let’s Get Married” should be required listening for men everywhere. Everywhere.
5:55 p.m. – This is the way to end the weekend. Under the unforgiving Southern skies, Green shuffles about, sweating profusely in his thick black suit and from behind those trademark shades of his. “I’m here with you, you’re here with me, and we’re here with eachother.” The cheers just get louder, I can’t help but join them. “Let’s have a good time while we’re together.”
6:01 p.m. – Sorry Diamond Dave, Al Green’s “Pretty Woman” is just too sweet. That makes the festival two for two on Orbison takes over the weekend. Very nice.
6:09 p.m. – Hearing “Let’s Stay Together” live makes me feel a whole lot better for missing “Born to Run” later on. Green’s vocals haven’t aged at all and one might argue they’ve gathered a shiny film to it. It’s a moment like this that you just wish wouldn’t end, and when it does, you’re just in this blind stupor.
6:25 p.m. – On my way out, I catch Janelle Monáe for a quick minute or two. I’ve never seen her, though I’ve been a fan of hers since she guested on Outkast’s Idlewild. Apparently she covered Prince and the Jackson 5, but the only two cuts I get are “Cold War” into “Tightrope”, which is a pretty ballsy move considering they’re her biggest tracks. Someday, ma’am, someday.
6:52 p.m. – The end of every trip is hard. Unless you honest-to-god hated the place, it’s always bittersweet to leave. I play this torturous game in my head where I recount how many hours it’s been since the beginning of a particular event, or sometimes the end. It started years ago when I’d leave my long-distance girlfriend. I’d drive home and just count the hours since I had last seen her, touched her, hugged her, etc. They call that loss. I don’t feel that for New Orleans just yet, but there are snapshots that flash back and forth.
7:01 p.m. – I’m a big fan of parallels and keeping things thematic or cohesive. So, it’s no surprise that I grab a po’boy before I leave, bringing things full circle. This time, however, I stop not at some hole-in-the-wall, but an institution.
7:05 p.m. – Mother’s Restaurant has been around since 1938 and it looks like it. The exterior shows its age and the interior takes you back some years, thanks to its ’50s finishings.
7:15 p.m. – Since they pride themselves for their baked ham, I order up a po’boy with that, and a side of red beans and rice. I’ve had this meal before over the weekend, but I can’t get enough. Sure, too much of anything is a bad thing, but in New Orleans, I gotta be bad.
7:30 p.m. – I’ve ranted and raved about food for about four days now, and with the exception of Cochon and the alligator bites at The Bourbon House, nothing’s drilled through my mind. Mother’s hits the spot in every way a meal that costs just over 10 bucks can. They “dress” the sandwich to perfection, with due credit given to the choice of pickels, and the red beans and rice has an ideal consistency. Their homemade pepper sauce, available on every table inside, brings it all home, though. I couldn’t ask for a better last meal in New Orleans.
Shortly after – The walk to my hotel is slightly bittersweet because I know I’ll start writing this within the hour and then everything will really be over. I think back to how I worried so much the previous week, how I almost wanted to cancel the trip altogether, and how my anxiety almost got the best of me. Sadly, not much has changed. I’m still congested, riddled with worrying thoughts, and I’m already over-thinking the next thing down the line.
Just after that – It takes awhile for the sun to set during this time of the year, but I feel like the light lingers for a bit in New Orleans. It’s close to eight and there’s this teal haze over the city streets, where it’s not evening anymore but it’s also not quite night yet, either. It’s a weird middle ground, but it’s a pretty sight to take in. Since my hotel window has a decent city view, I stand there for a minute and just watch. I can’t believe I’ll be in Chicago tomorrow.
Photographer: Michael Roffman