Getting Full & Getting Down: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

 

Although it took some resented jabs and regretful proclamations over time, I came to realize that I was a Music Snob.

In the years since, I’ve tried to tone down my game to a role that is more comfortable and hopefully more palatable: Music Nerd

Now remove "music" and insert "food."  On top of these two characteristics, factor in the city of New Orleans – not only a family destination of my childhood, but also the hometown or residence of many like-minded friends from both college experiences, between, and thence.

Given this context, it is very easy to say that I love, and several of my body parts lust, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  On more than one occasion after a drink or nine, I’ve claimed my three favorite events in a calendar year are Christmas, Jazz Fest, and the Ole Miss / LSU game.

But I am one among many.  The last weekend of April and the first weekend of May invite scores of thousands in a local and international cult to step onto a horse track in Mid City, get full, and get down. 

If food and music were synthetic fibers, Jazz Fest would be one of those sleeping bags you can zip over your head with your face poking out.

 

FRIDAY–Brass For Your Ass, and a Rosemint Tea

Several months ago Mike sent me an email.  It was not to inform me that he and Nikki were getting a new place.  Rather, it was to inform me that he and Nikki were getting a new place within walking distance of the Fairgrounds.  After all, the subject was ”fest digs.” I was a little late arriving in town, but in pulling onto the beautiful Mid City boulevard, I found the spot-saving trashcan Nikki had graciously placed.

After unloading my sundries in toto, I quickly packed a small backpack for the afternoon:

#1) Poncho:  I’m not necessarily one for meteorological bunions or corns, but the best way to ensure sunny weather is to bring a poncho.

#2) Rugged waterproof hiking shoes and some socks:  Flip-flops have become the festival’s footwear of choice.  And I love New Orleans; but that doesn’t mean I want direct pedal contact with the runoff from Esplanade Avenue, lest aforementioned poncho proves unreliable.

#3) Towel:  Why the hell not?  I’ve never caught myself saying, “Why did I bring this damn towel?”

#4) Sunscreen in a Ziploc bag:  I’ve shamefully left a Jazz Fest weekend early because of a maddening sunburn.  Never again.  And regarding the Ziploc, I’m a fan of most lanolin, ointments, and creams as long as they don’t redecorate the interior of the Samsonite.

#5) Straw Cowboy Hat:  In addition to said sunscreen, a wide-brimmed chapeau can prevent your ears, nose, and neck from resembling sushi-grade tuna. I came across mine in a truck stop having broken down near Senatobia, MS three years ago. I think it set me back a grand total of $10

#6) And of course, shades:  In line with most others’ experiences, I had a real-deal pair of Wayfarers in high school…for about a month.  This pair of Walgreen’s faux aviators has lasted about three years.

An additionally recommended item to take to the Fairgrounds is one of those chairs in a bag.  But since I wasn’t meeting up with a big group, I decided to invoke the "Bucky Principle."  A great aspect of Jazz Fest is the ability to sit in one place and experience six top-shelf local and national acts in a row.  But, what I learned from my friend Bucky is the joy of wandering. 

When roving the grounds, it’s invigorating to witness just how many people and musicians are having a ball simultaneously.  Not to mention, the disparate types of music and the way they are enjoyed.  Tapping a foot at the Jazz Tent equates jumping up and down at the Fais Do-Do Stage. Strolling around is an excellent way to discover new sounds, cultures, and traditions.

As I was walking in the gate, I realized Dr. John was about to start, but my stomach wouldn’t stop.  I took an immediate right and hit the bank of vendors next to the Jazz & Heritage Stage. 

I decided to reunite with an old friend.  “Could I get the combo, please?”  Hungry festival patrons can choose from dozens of culinary knockouts along two main stretches of booths, as well as, individual booths scattered throughout.  Most of them provide two or three creative portable versions of Louisiana cuisine, and most of them offer combos.  By the way, one of my favorite prefixes is ‘crawfish,’ so this might get a little redundant.

Jazz Fest 2007 began with a Crawfish Sack, an Oyster Patty, and Crawfish Beignets combo plate from Patton’s Caterers in Chalmette.  The Crawfish Sack is essentially etouffee wrapped in phyllo dough and deep-fried.  An Oyster Patty also starts with phyllo in the form of those baked hollow towers filled with oysters in a light cream sauce.  And Crawfish Beignets are the savory version of their sweet counterpart, with a mayonnaise and Zatarain’s mustard-based sauce.

To wash it down, I chose a large rosemint tea from Sunshine Concessions of Covington.  I wasted no time in jumping into the briar patch.

Two common questions asked at Jazz Fest are “Could you tell me what that is?” and “Where did you get that?”  I was not in the tea line for five seconds before receiving just such an inquiry.

Too impatient to traverse the Acura Stage crowd just yet, I chose to delve into the seafood triumvirate at the Jazz & Heritage Stage.  On stage was an all-drum combo, Percussion, Inc.  The selections I heard seemingly leaned towards an up-tempo Brazilian style of drumming.

With one plate conquered, I took a tip from Mike.  Traveling clockwise around the actual racetrack, I walked behind the Acura stage with the buses, catering tents, and plastic W.C.s to pop out on the other side. 

Turning the corner proved dramatic.  Acres of people stretched across the landscape peppered with dozens of the now famous beaconing flags.

Aside from letting people know where you are, the flags at the festival have become expressive instruments.  Some are store-bought official state or collegiate athletic flags.  Homemade flags can articulate civic pride or humor. 

And then there is the potpourri category.  Strange things can end up on the top of a telescoping pole at the Fairgrounds.  Such items include a blender, a paper mache likeness of Professor Longhair’s head, and my all time favorite – a toilet.

Although unsuccessful in finding the flag Mike described, I scored in seeing Dr. John slay two of his classics: “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Mama Roux.” Well, I say “see,” but I really just heard them.  From my vantage point, I had a hard time making sense of the jumbotron.  The Acura Stage is LARGE and the field in front of it can accommodate an enormous amount of people.  But, this is where they place the most famous and broad appealing acts, which seems to have a direct correlation as to why I spend so little time there.

(Whoops, I think that was a little bit of the snob coming out.)

I made my way back to the Jazz & Heritage Stage to check out a band I’d discovered last year, The Real Untouchables Brass Band.  Some of the better-known brass bands, while phenomenal musicians, might sometimes stray into entertainer mode.  I personally prefer straight brass band music that more closely resembles marching during Mardi Gras than halftime.  And the Real Untouchables foot this bill.

Having said that, I will now completely contradict myself.  Reason being, I next headed towards the Fais Do-Do stage for another highlight from last year, Bonerama.

These guys are four trombonists (notably including Mark Mullins) playing four-part harmonies along with a sousaphone for low end.  As if that isn’t zany enough, alongside originals, they cover the likes of Black Sabbath.  Case in point, the second song they played was a predictably nasty version of Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.”  What was that I was blabbering about straight brass band music?

From there I made a concerted effort to expand my horizons.  I saw the listing for The James Carter Organ Trio at the Jazz Tent.  I knew absolutely nothing about them beyond their name and time slot.  Since Michael [not Mike] is such a Hammond / Leslie enthusiast, I’ve developed an appreciation for large wooden boxes. 

So, you can imagine my perturbation as I approached to the sound of a synthesizer and a flute.  I had to double-check the on-stage sign to confirm the information on my schedule.  Although they did eventually switch to an organ and sax, the JCOT might have been a little smooth and modern for my tastes. But hey – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

However, my next episode in adventure paid off in spades.  Again going by listing alone, my curiosity couldn’t resist “Second Line til You Drop – The Music of Paul Barbarin [BAR-buh-ran]” at the smaller Economy Hall Tent. 

Led by Michael White, the performance served as an interactive documentary.  Readings from a prepared bio interspersed sublime, gen-u-wine, rip-snortin, clarinet and banjo jazz. 

Dancing proved inevitable. 

At the lead of orange decked parasol bobbers, the crowd second-lined around the tent with zero inhibition.  Sometimes watching middle-aged people letting it all hang out can result in chills of embarrassment (e.g. banana daiquiri fueled enthusiasm over Jimmy Buffett).  But these husbands and wives, from young parents up to retirement age, high stepping to half-century old compositions contributed to a whale of a New Orleans moment.

I did go catch a little bit of Soulive at the Congo Square Stage.  When I came into these Noreasters they were as fierce as any organ trio.  Since then, some corners have been rounded, and I’ve yet to completely warm-up to the four-man version with vocals.  The solos definitely smoked, though.

But I couldn’t resist.  I had to have some more Paul Barbarin music.  So, I marched back to the Economy Hall Tent for another heaping portion of ageless 504 revelry.  Thank goodness I did, since the final blowout clued me in that Mr. Barbarin’s signature is the bona fide classic “Bourbon Street Parade.”

I didn’t want it to end, but alas the clock struck seven.  In an effort to avoid the main gate bottleneck, I took the exit less traveled to Mystery Street.  And those who chose this westward route were rewarded with a beautiful sunset to close the first Day of Jazz Fest 2007.

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SATURDAY–What, the Fricke?

 

Since I had every intention to eat several times this day, I once again lead off with Jazz Fest’s coveted culinary goodness. The night before I’d asked Mike & Nikki what they knew about a food booth I’d seen by the Fais Do-Do stage in the Folk Village area. It only took about 5 seconds of convincing. Through the gate, I bee-lined for the United Houma Nation’s booth based out of Golden Meadow. “Could I get a Shrimp & Sausage and some bread, please?” The shrimp and sausage variety of Macque Choux combines the obvious with whole kernel corn is a thin spicy sauce eaten out of a bowl. I accompanied this with deep fried slightly sweet bread roughly the size of a 45.

Given the portability of these two delights, I headed in the direction of the Acura Stage for Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentleman. The new policy introducing a chair-free zone around the front perimeter of the Acura Stage, along with the early time of the day, allowed me to waltz right up to in front of the soundboard, where it was populated but yet to be subway crowded. It was not too hot, a breeze was blowing, and the sound was crystal clear [*drool*]. Cleary, who would be later seen at his day job alongside Bonnie Raitt, was genuinely fired-up running through such city staples as Fess’ “Tipitina” and The Meters’ “People Say.” This was going to be a good day.

Since my tank still had some room in it, I strolled back over to the row of food vendors facing away from the Acura Stage. I went with one of Shelly’s favorites, Crawfish Strudel, and one of my favorites, White Chocolate Bread Pudding – both from Coffee Cottage in River Ridge. The Strudel is an etouffee concoction combined with cheese and baked in a buttery pastry shell. For the past couple of years, there’s been a standing over/under as to just many Shelly will consume over the fortnight. And the warm White Chocolate sauce for the Bread Pudding is plated using an industrial heated dispenser normally seen applying cheese to nachos. In my weaker moments, I’ve considered handing the Coffee Cottage employee-at-hand a fifty, lying on the ground, and barking, “You keep pumping that damn thing until I pass out!”

To enjoy these luscious offerings, I began gleefully sauntering towards the reliable Jazz & Heritage Stage. But negotiating this set of booths can be difficult due to lines of people intersecting a natural walkway. Sure enough, there was a fair share of excuse me, pardon me, don’t worry about, no problem, etc.; all very polite.

 But then a tall, gangly, dark-haired guy and I completely collide. When I turn around to acknowledge the gaffe, I realize that David Fricke is walking away from me. The Rolling Stone Senior Editor is a member of an elusively elite corner of the intelligentsia. He is a rock pundit. Not a critic, a pundit. Fricke, Anthony DeCurtis, Greil Marcus and the like, serve as the Rock & Roll equivalent of George Will, David Gergen, and David Broder. One day I should be so lucky to have make-up artists quickly rush off as a red light illuminates. “DeMatt, tell us about Ratt’s third album.” “Well you see, Dancing Undercover was a bit of a departure for the quintet…”

Anyway, back at the Jazz & Heritage Stage I investigated the Mahogany Brass Band. They too were too traditional to my liking [*cough*]. But at one point between songs, the bandleader began thanking his band mates by explaining how much he loved them. Then he thanked his wife and an itemized list of relatives and in-laws. Just when I started to think he was going a bit overboard, “ …because last night was the first night my wife and I slept in our house since The Storm!” The crowd erupted into an emotional roar of joy, optimism, and camaraderie.

Energized by this New Orleans moment, I hit the concrete area again for The Burnside Exploration at the Blues Tent.  As a Mississippian, a one-time resident of Oxford, and a music nerd, I take the Marshall County Sound (Hill Country Blues) very seriously.  You can’t overstate the importance of it’s unearthing, but you can shake your ass to it for hours.  Recently the Exploration had evolved from a guitar-drums-bass trio into a four-piece with three guitars.  Although retaining Cedric and Garry Burnside, I just might have seen this new lineup in their infancy.  Well now a few months down the road, they seemed to have found their footing.  Still within earshot of the Gospel Tent, I could hear a rumbling in the distance.  People crowded the three available sides of the Blues Tent, and more were coming.  I overheard several people wondering, “Wow, who is that?”  The three-guitar attack filled the temporary hangar with some of the fullest and nastiest backbone-slipping grooves conceivable.  Of course, Garry’s 8×10 Ampeg bass cabinet likely played a part.  Dancers filled the perimeter and aisles, and the seated rose after every conclusion. Some New Orleans pride followed by Mississippi pride put me on cloud nine.

Once again I succumbed to an uncanny band name. That’s right, back to the Economy Hall Tent for The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra. The what? Just work with me. Picture 20 seated musicians (and an occasional crooner), all in Navy dress-whites, playing the type of music the War of the Worlds broadcast “interrupted.” The wackiness ended with their name and costumes. The music was tight.

The Fais Do-Do stage next offered a different kind of New Orleans pride. The New Orleans Klezmer Allstars combine clarinet, stand-up bass, fiddle, drums, sax, and guitar to play traditional Middle-Eastern music at 90 MPH. For the last half of the set, fest-goers formed two dancing circles that only lacked a bride and groom. Oh, but that wasn’t enough. Guitarist Jonathan Freilich egged patrons on with, “You’ve paid a lot of money to not let yourself go!” Hi-larious and wildly impressive these guys are.

Too bad nobody in New Orleans knows how to play the damn piano. Anyway, around the corner from the Fais Do-Do is a path to the front of the Gentilly Stage. There I caught a few numbers from the only blind photographer I’m familiar with, Henry Butler. Surrounded by gunslingers, he rhumbaed though Fess’ “Early” and boogied through Billy Preston’s “Will it Go Round in Circles.”

Retracing my steps back through the Fais-Do-Do area, I took an opportunity to hit the lesser-known, thus more efficiently accessed Mango Freeze booth. WWOZ community-supported radio out of New Orleans might be the best radio station in the country. Whether on the internet, or just past Hammond on I-55, those cats never disappoint. They also come through every year at Jazz Fest with the famous Mango Freeze. I’m not quite sure what a freeze is. It’s firmer than an Icee and softer than sorbet. Regardless, it does the trick when I want something refreshing. Is the water line out of control? Grab a Mango Freeze. Plus, when else during the year can you have one?

While turning my tongue bright orange, I hooked up with Kelly and John who were just now making it out to the fairgrounds; delayed by the ambivalent and ultimately uninterested. We all had the same idea, Mose Allison Trio at the Jazz Tent. Mose is no spring chicken. His delivery may be light, and his tempos may be a little slower, but he’s still out there cranking them out.

The three of us were also in agreement over the next choice, the Rebirth Brass Band at the Congo Square. That stage books some great acts. But when it gets overcrowded, you get pushed up against the inward facing craft booths, thus cutting off pedestrian arteries. In addition to battling with people walking through our spot, it took about 30 minutes to hear the drums through the PA. Brass band music with no rhythm has the same appeal as cheese and pepperoni without the crust. There’s just enough missing.

In revisiting the paved Tents area, we attempted to catch the end of Richie Haven’s set at the Blues Tent. We walked right up to the closing refrains of “Freedom,” the song he so famously improved as a time-filler to conclude his Woodstock opening performance. Not a sole remained seated or silent. Fortunately he did return for a powerful, mainly a cappella encore. Havens clearly still strikes a meaningful chord.

While Kelly fooded it up, John and I strolled next door to the Jazz Tent for the Pharaoh Sanders Quartet. On the way I cracked, “tune in to see how long his goatee will be.” But the joke was on me. Currently he sports a traditional mustache-bereft beard in favor of his longtime chin-dangling growth. But more importantly, as a latter day member of Coltrane’s quintet, he aptly surprised us by an opening 20-minute version of “My Favorite Things.” Absolutely sublime.

Kelly rejoined us later in the set suggesting sweet sounds emanated from the Blues Tent, where local slinger Sonny Landreth was presiding. Kelly and John went there while I took quick advantage of last call at the food booths. I came back with Crawfish Bread from Panorama Foods in Marksville and Fried Eggplant with Crawfish Sauce from Love at First Bite of New Orleans. Crawfish Bread – also available as Shrimp Bread and Sausage Jalapeno Bread – is about the size of 3 CD cases stacked on top of each other stuffed with cheese, green onions, and mudbugs. For the eggplant, LaFB sliced them thin, dredged them in cornmeal, deep fried them, and covered them when a dark red, heat fueled sauce. This offering not only went well with Sonny’s high-flying Acadian precision, but also perfectly tied a bow on the second day of Jazz Fest.

 

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SUNDAY–Big Chief, Bonnie & Crawfish Bisque

 

Although a little slow in making it to the Fairgrounds, I managed to make it the Acura Stage for an extended, rousing rendition of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s signature tune, “Ain’t Got No Home.” The older I get, the more I appreciate New Orleans’ R&B frontmen of the 50’s and 60’s. Today, classics from legends such as Frogman, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, and Lloyd Price get me just as fired-up as when I first discovered 504 funk and crab shack piano.

But it would not be long before I strapped on the feed bag. Baquet’s Li’l Dizzy’s Café of New Orleans greeting my day with Trout Baquet and Crawfish Bisque. They baked or broiled the trout and then topped it with lump crabmeat and butter. The thick bisque served over converted rice not only resembled cooked shells in color, but also contained a few for good measure. This served as an excellent lead-up to one my personal highlights of the weekend.

Thankfully due to Blue Note Records’ Rare Groove reissue series during the mid-90s, I was introduced to Hammond organ wizard, Dr. Lonnie Smith. You could easily say I was amped to savor this marvel and his now trademark turban. Accompanied by drums and guitar, and bolstered by two Leslies, the good doctor simmered through cherished versions Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” and Gene Ammons “Ca’ Purange (Jungle Soul.” With so much going on at the festival, this would be the only set I would see from start to finish. And that was no accident.

Still eager to consume more, I took another page from Mike’s book. He’d raved about Pecan Catfish Meunière from C.P.G. catering out of Mandeville. I made it a combo by adding a Crab Cake w/ Smoked Tomato & Jalapeno Tartar. The catfish had been rubbed with spices and topped with a thin but spicy sauce containing chopped pecans. The deep fried crab cake’s crust concealed a moist inside that was perfectly complimented by the strong light-pink tartar sauce. After gleefully snarfing these down to a blacksmith demonstration, I stayed on the nutty theme. For my walk to the Lagniappe Stage I grabbed some Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream topped with crushed pecans from The Ice Cream Man of Slidell.

The Lagniappe Stage is a curious oasis located in the center courtyard of the racetracks’ grandstand. It splits time between celebrity interviews and intimate musical acts. But I was there on a mission to see one the Jazz Fests’ largest presence. A mild mannered art teacher by day, Bobby Lounge occasionally makes his way around or out of McComb, Mississippi to tell barrelhouse piano tales of lewdness, gossip, and the paranormal. With the passing of Jerry Clower in the late 90s, Bobby has emerged as the Magnolia State’s resident comedian. Once again, I beamed with civic pride.

It was during this hilarious string of blush-worthy musical one-liners; Shelly and McComb-native Jay spotted me across the crowd. After Nurse Gina Pontevecchio wheeled Bobby off in his prop iron lung, Jay, Shelly, and I briefly exchanged food tips. Having filled each other with new culinary knowledge, we parted ways. They were headed to Gillian Welch, and I was on my way to see the Queen of New Orleans R&B, Irma Thomas. As with her male equivalents, I have developed a soft spot for the city’s soul siren.

But just as I leave one set of friends, I run into Pete & Finney and their two children, fresh from the ice cream stand. Since we were going to the same place, I followed them back to the Gentilly Stage. They had set up camp with Dave’s family, as well as Joey and Bonnie’s. With Ms. Thomas’s beautiful set concluded, Pete, Dave, and I commence to talk some serious shop regarding the Saints: The draft, the receiver corps, John Carney’s love letter to the city, what went wrong in the NFC Championship, the secondary, and the fact that guard and tackle are two different positions (c’mon, Pete).

From one belle to another, the Gentilly Stage closed with Bonnie Raitt. Her musical relationship with New Orleans expands over 30 years, and her comfort in the surroundings reflected her love. Backed by a crack band of undeniable pros, Ms. Raitt ripped through some burners while switching among a Strat, a piano, and an acoustic. But in the middle of all that, one could hear a pin drop during her famous take on John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.”

However, I did have one more slot circled on my schedule. Jay and I packed up and made one last pass at the Jazz & Heritage Stage for Mardi Gras Indian stalwart Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. With a revolving door of musicians, it’s always interesting to hear new versions of 100-year-old staples such as “Sew, Sew, Sew.”

After joined by Shelly, the three of us were patient to wait out the bottle necked exits. That is, until Mike sent me text message. It seems the time-tested horse-themed Liuzza’s Lounge & Grill was hosting an outdoor, post-Fest performance of The New Mastersounds. The instrumental funk revivalists had set up on an adjacent duplex porch, flanked by a pair of their native Union Jack. And as a street full of revelers juked to the nasty backbeats, the sun set on the first weekend of Jazz Fest 2007.

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