A Day in the Life of a Jazz Fest Rookie

Friday, April 27, 2012

We bounced across the Causeway, the 25 or so mile bridge that connects the North and South Shores of Lake Pontchartrain, with a metronomic da-dum, da-dum, da-dum — a 65 mph click track.  It was a beautiful morning, and the sun danced on the choppy tidal pool like a million small fires.  It was too nice for air-conditioning, and the open windows brought the brackish breeze whistling through the cabin of our car.  We were on our way to Jazz Fest, WWOZ on the radio, and I had one of those stupid ear to ear grins that you get when you are thrilled beyond words.

Neither Rylan nor I had ever been to Jazz Fest before, which is kind of amazing considering she grew up here.  As for me, it was just another example my late-bloomership.  I kind of sucked at life until I hit my late 30’s, and then I stopped trying so hard and let it come to me (which is pretty good advice if you find yourself struggling at anything).  As we were unceremoniously dumped off the Causeway into Metaire, I started to think about how we were going to manage the weekend; so many things to do and see and eat it becomes overwhelming — and anyone who knows me knows I hate to be without a plan.

We followed the road on to I-10 and then onto 610 towards Slidell, following signs for Canal Boulevard, and once off the Interstate, for Jazz Fest Parking.  We rolled along Marconi Drive into Marconi Meadows and the large grass field cordoned off for parking, and were directed into a “space” by the yellow-vested attendants in big, floppy hats who were prepared for the withering heat.  And that is one of the first things you realize upon exiting your car — it is going to be hot, and there’s not much in the way of shade anywhere.  That we were prepared for, however, as we had plenty of water in tow, hats, and enough sunscreen slathered on to leave a considerable sized oil-slick in Bayou Saint John.

From the parking lot in Marconi Meadows, we would be shuttled on school buses right inside the gates to Jazz Fest, and the efficiency with which this operation was set up was surprisingly good.  We were able to buy Rylan an admission ticket (I have a WWOZ Brass Pass) and two round trip shuttle tickets at this satellite location and walk right off the bus and into the Fest.  I will admit I had low expectations in this regard, but I have since learned that Louisiana (and especially New Orleans) does parties, parades, and festivals better and more efficiently than any other city I can think of.  In a matter of minutes we were on a big yellow school bus, knees pressed awkwardly into the seat in front of us, and having a decidedly retro moment as we were whisked towards the iron gates of Jazz Fest.  Along the way we passed locals with big ice chests of water, beer, and soda for sale, as well as homemade plywood and poster board signs scrawled with “Jazz Fest Parking here,” indicating their front lawns and driveways were available — free market capitalism at its best.  Jazz Fest was here, and everyone was getting into the act, even those that most likely wouldn’t see a single act (for all its greatness, Jazz Fest is cost prohibitive, and unfortunately out of reach for many).

We de-bused right outside the Grandstand and quickly made our way onto the sand oval that surrounds the bulk of what is Jazz Fest.  For those of you who have never been, the Fest is held on the Racetrack and Fairgrounds, with the track’s oval circumscribing the main stages and forming a pedestrian and vehicular pathway.  Behind the track, towards the Grandstand, are where the majority of the Tents are located:  Jazz, Blues, Gospel, and the WWOZ hospitality tent, which would prove to be a lifesaver, with its fresh fruit, cold water, misting fans, and clean-ish Port-O-John’s.

The first impression I had as we walked over one of the many orange plywood bridges (which, by the way are numbered and an easy place to meet up with people) that link the oval to the grassy interior of the racetrack was:  how can you possibly see/do everything?  The answer:  You can’t.  And therein lies the rub of Jazz Fest — it is all about making choices and managing your time and money.  So if you are not good at any of the aforementioned, or get weirded out in large crowds, this is probably not the place for you.  However, if you are a “roll with it” type of person who can accept that you can only do so much, and instead view the Fest kind of like a giant buffet table where you can sample many things but not everything, you will probably find Jazz Fest exhilarating.

Since neither of us had ever been before, I viewed Day 1 as Jazz Fest Orientation Day.  I wanted to hear and taste and see as much as possible without worrying too much about catching specific acts.  In this regard, I must admit, technology helped hugely; the Jazz Fest app for iPhone and Android lets you see who is playing where, create schedules, provides an interactive map, food locations, and basically makes it more enjoyable all the way around.  Armed with smart phones and an emergency battery, we were ready to take on the day, but first, we needed to find food.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say you could go to Jazz Fest for the food alone without being disappointed.  It is far and away the best food I’ve ever had at any festival anywhere in its breadth, depth, uniqueness, and quality.  We started off with Crawfish Bread, the iconic stromboli/calzone like classic, sans red sauce, that is a staple come “Festival Season.”  While my Sicilian grandmother would probably be horrified with the thought of seafood and cheese together, for me, Crawfish Bread hit all the right notes.  Gooey with cheese, and butter laden, it was a decadent and totally new to me treat: like a crawfish white pizza rolled over on itself.  I could have easily subsisted on Crawfish Bread alone, but before the day was through, I had compounded my poundage with other classics such as Crawfish Monica (a spicy cream-sauce and crawfish pasta), Shrimp Spring Rolls, Yakamein (a uniquely New Orleans noodle dish that really deserves a footnote), Fried Chicken, and Cracklin’.  And this is another Jazz Fest Tip: unless you want to sit down, try to get food that’s easy to hold in one hand and eat with the other; it allows you the mobility to feast and fest simultaneously.

Crawfish bread in hand, we wandered the grounds until the familiar, powerful, strains of New Orleans brass cut through the thick, wet cardboard, air:  The Young Pinstripe Brass Band was holding court on the Jazz and Heritage Stage.  Brass bands are the lifeblood of New Orleans music, from the streets to the bandstands, the offspring of high school marching bands, muscular funk groups, and traditional jazz combos, and Young Pinstripe is among the best.  Driven by a ceaseless “Tommy-Gun” snare and pounding bass drum, the horns, an arrangement of tubas, trombones, trumpets, and saxophones, dance with each other in intricate arrangements, similar to the second line dancers that typically parade behind them.  In fact, the last time I had seen YPS was Mardi Gras day, when we second-lined with Krewe of JULU, and it was honestly a little odd seeing them on a stage, but we danced hard anyway.  There is something about this music that gets in your blood, and it is impossible not to dance to it.

Working up quite the brass-shaking thirst, Rylan and I decided to see what beverage options were available, and quickly availed ourselves to the daiquiri tent.  In Louisiana parlance, a daiquiri is one of any number of intensely alcoholic frozen slushy-type drinks. The term daiquiri is used similarly to how “Coke” is used in certain locales to signify any soft drink.  We decided on Margarita “daiquiris” which delivered the perfect combination of brain-freeze, back-freeze, and refreshment.  More importantly, Margaritas are one of the few types of “daiquiris” you can switch up with beer and not feel sick.  I don’t know why this is, but it is irrefutable, and I’d suggest that if you take anything away from this post, you remember this.

One of the joys of Jazz Fest is the ability to experience a myriad of musicians, especially relative unknowns or up and comers, such as Kim Carson and the Enablers, who were playing on the Grandstand’s Lagniappe Stage.  With a voice that was reminiscent of Mary Chapin-Carpenter and the look of rockabilly Debby Harry, Carson commanded the stage and her band, the Enablers, twanged capably behind.  We were able to sit right up front and really appreciate music, as the stage-side seats were sadly only half-full.  When you consider the effort that it takes to travel, in many cases, a really long way to play a really short set, you realize two things:  Every single musician that plays at Jazz Fest is incredibly talented, and all have paid some serious dues.

We continued around the festival in much the same way for the remainder of the day, catching great act after great act and stuffing our faces in between beers and daiquiris at every opportunity.  In the WWOZ/Zatarain’s Jazz Tent, we got to experience the vocal stylings of Leah Chase, the daughter of the renowned New Orleans’ chef of the same name.  All I can say is she sings exactly like her mother cooks, with a ridiculous amount of heart and soul.  Watching her onstage, after meeting her mother a few months earlier, was almost surreal, as the resemblance is so strong, and she had the crowd eating out of her hand, just like the master chef.

Maybe it was the subliminal power of the name Leah Chase, but at some point I remember hitting the fried chicken stand for a final lap around the festival.  We started over at the Fais Do Do Stage where the Texas Tornados were doing their thing, which is unlike anyone else’s.  Earlier in the day we had the opportunity to see our friend, author Tom Piazza, interview them on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, and I was curious to see them play.  I have to admit that although I’d heard the name, I was ignorant to the music of  Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez, Augie Meyers, and Doug Sahm (who is now played by his son, Shawn Sahm).  Needless to say, I was duly impressed by the good-natured, eminently danceable Tejano music and the energetic men who played it; they have been around and through it all, and from the weathered wisdom of Flaco’s accordion to the carnivalesque calliope of Augie’s Vox keyboard, the music was straight ahead and honest and fun, and perfectly bookended by the last act we saw…

After staying for about half of the Tornadoes set, we made our way to the Acura Stage, where the Beach Boys were reuniting for their 50th Anniversary Tour.  It is almost inconceivable to think of a rock and roll band reuniting for after 50 years — hell, it is inconceivable to think that there’d be any members left — but as we approached the stage, I could hear the familiar chorus of “Don’t Worry Baby” floating over the crowd like the beach balls batted by the audience.  The Beach Boys weren’t messing around, and they brought hit after Brian Wilson penned hit, one song better than they next in what can only be deemed an incredible catalogue.  While the Beach Boys themselves may belong to a specific era, their music belongs to the ages.  All of the sudden I was 10 years old again and listening to Best of the Beach Boys, the first music I ever asked my parents to buy for me, on cassette, long before I owned Pet Sounds on LP.  Standing on the grass on the outskirts of the stage, a soft breeze blowing on a relentlessly gorgeous day, it was the first time in weeks that Rylan and I were able to totally relax; I’ll never forget exactly how that moment felt…

The sun was again on my left as we floated over Pontchartrain, slowly being consumed by the now purple water, a brilliant cookie sinking into the melting ice cream of the lake.  I was now both browned and buzzed, and in a complete state of bliss.  I was also no longer a Jazz Fest virgin… I had tasted the fruit, and attained the knowledge, and honestly, I had savored every bite…

2 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Jazz Fest Rookie

  1. what a wonderful post. being from New Orleans i forget that other people around the states don’t live the way we do. each weekend there are so many choices you become a master at planning each step. i’m able to make 4 parades, have 3 different meals & ice ice cream to top it off. i have my talents. 🙂
    thank you for reminding me just how lucky we are to live in the wonderful city i call home.

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