Friday, April 28, 2006


Jazzfest: Day 1

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is a feast for the body, mind and stomach. Now on its 37th year, Jazzfest as it's commonly known, remains the premiere music festival in the country, often duplicated but never rivaled. That's both a geographical phenomenon and a tribute to founder and executive producer Quint Davis.

This year's Jazzfest, of course, has had to deal with unique problems due to Hurricane Katrina. The Racetrack Fairgrounds, where it's held, was underwater in September, with the grandstand receiving the most damage. However, Jazzfest takes place on the infield of the racetrack, and the ground today was firm and didn't smell, as some had worried. The festival and New Orleans' Department of Sanitation have been working overtime to clean debris from the neighborhood surrounding the venue. They did a pretty good job.

Despite all of this, it was the same old Jazzfest to me - an amazing conglomeration of musical styles (jazz, blues, cajun and zydeco) that sum up New Orleans and greater Louisiana. It's as distinct as a bowl of file gumbo.

I first attended Jazzfest in 1985 and covered it for Rolling Stone. The event had started 15 years earlier, but was still relatively unknown nationally. I covered it again in 1986, this time for USA Today. I returned in 1990 and 1996 in my capacity as a High Times editor. Jazzfest is pretty addictive. People attend year after year. That's easy (or "big easy") for locals, but out-of-towners tend to make it an annual pilgramage after going just once. They have to come back for more.

It took me 10 years to make my fifth Jazzfest, and now I have to wonder where I'd been all these years. At Jazzfest, there's music on eight stages from 11 am to 7 pm for six days over two weekends - the last one of April and first of May. The minute you enter the racetrack, sounds come rushing at you from various directions and fabulous food aromas assault your senses. Basically, you sample music and food all day, moving from stage to stage and food stall to food stall. Two stages boast big-name bands and artists, while the rest are for local favorites only. For me, Day 1 started with a $5 bowl of Crawfish Monica (creamy sauce with crawfish over rotini pasta) and music from J.Monque'D Blues Band. The lead singer set the emotional tone for the day when he dedicated the set "to all those people who didn't make it [during Katrina] and to all the first responders."

Here's the rest of my day, musically and culinarily:

Lionel Ferbos & the Palm Court Jazz Band
Dixieland jazz; people dancing around with umbrellas; very trad.

The James Rivers Movement
Pop-jazz; versions of the Meters' "Hey Pockey Way" and Santana's "Europa"; entertaining.

Gratin Louisienne combination plate
Seafood gratin, artichoke/spinach medley and sweet potato pone; $8; off the hook.

The Bester Family
Gospel-tent highlight; some family members wear pale-green suits, and the music is funky and spiritual; drummer can't be older than eight; started feelin' the spirit during a lengthy "Down by the Riverside."

Pinettes Brass Band
All-women, which is awesome; caught the end of their set; very raw.

Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots
Zydeco big-band featuring Sunpie on accordian, two washboard players (one was in his early teens) and horns; "Bunny Bread" took the cake at 4:20; today's discovery.

Dark chocolate-covered strawberrys
Sumptuous dessert; six large strawberrys for $4; decadent.

Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience
Arrived just in time for a laid-back "Iko Iko"; solid.

Ole Skool Brass Band parade
Second of the day's second-line marches; too much fun.

Bob Dylan
Today's headliner seemed off his game; extremely thin, just playing keyboard and as gravelly vocally as ever, Dylan took until the end of the set ("Like a Rolling Stone," "Across the Watchtower") to hit stride; mildly disappointing.

Dr. John
New Orleans' "Night Tripper" broke out "Guilded Splinters" from his trick bag, but mostly aimed to please with standards; smokin' latin jam ended the set at 7:04 pm.

There's plenty more music all over town tonight. I plan to go see the North Mississippi All-Stars at Tipitina's and maybe even try to get some rest.

I wish there were better news to report about Dylan since I've got tickets to see him here in Orlando in a little over a week (with Merle Haggard as the opening act). Even if Dylan's lost a foot or two off his fastball, I'm still eager to see him in person, something I've never done before.
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