Review & Photos | Jazz Fest | New Orleans | First Weekend

Words by: Carly Shields
Images by: Adam McCullough

Jazz Fest :: Weekend One :: 4.25.14 - 4.27.14 :: New Orleans Fairgrounds :: New Orleans, LA

Check out Carly's review below Adam's gallery!

In its 45th year, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival once again brought out the biggest and best of jazz, blues, gospel, rock, swing, and more to the stages of the Crescent City. As one of the most artist-filled festivals in operation, spanning two weekends with endless music in between them, the NOLA Jazz & Heritage Foundation also features the best foods, crafts and historical displays of any event representing the city that built it. This isn’t just a major tourist attraction, but more a community celebration of everything that New Orleans is.

NOLA is a hot and humid place, even in April, and Jazzfest has inevitably gotten rain for as long as people can remember. While the crowd could have used a break from the heat, this year’s first weekend was spared wet weather of any kind, and the fans responded by coming out in droves. The neighborhoods around the racetrack fairgrounds in Esplanade Ridge are a slice of life in this disparate yet passionate city: bands on the streets, friends and families talking on stoops, cooling themselves with fans, dancing to any sound of music they hear. This is not just because of the festival, though it may have been elaborated with excitement for the annual celebration, and was unstoppable as the weekend went on. Gates opened at 11 a.m. every day, but the party started hours earlier.

On the first day of the festival, Chris Thomas King of O Brother, Where Art Thou? performed in the Blues Tent and set a comfortable tone with his soulful originals and a well-received “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Honey Island Swamp Band played great southern rock- zydeco tunes that got the crowd up and dancing while John Popper of Blues Traveler joined Shamarr Allen and the Underdogs on the Congo Square Stage for a “Run Around” cover during their trumpet-infused, hip-hop set. The Infamous Stringdusters performed in the early afternoon when the sun was at its hottest on the Fais Do-Do Stage, and everyone was kicking up dirt not only for their bluegrass originals but also covers of “Deep Elem Blues” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” On Friday evening, Carlos Santana headlined the massive Acura Stage with his original band lineup and his wife, Cindy Blackman Santana, sitting in on drums for most of theset. Natalie Cressman of the Trey Anastasio Band was also a special guest for the set, playing alongside her father, Jeff Cressman, Santana’s trombonist. Public Enemy had a more impressive set than expected, with a live band as well as a DJ and the family of nostalgia hip-hop artists playing to an energetic crowd. The Avett Brothers were on the opposite side of the fairgrounds, at the Samsung Galaxy Stage, bringing the opening day of Jazzfest to a heavy hitting and explosive close.

Being that festivities generally end by 7 p.m. at the Fairgrounds, a huge part of the experience is the after-shows all over the city for all tastes and price ranges. A walk down Frenchman Street provided a free band in every bar. A visit to any of the famous venues throughout New Orleans might have cost $10 for a brass band who’s finally getting there, $50 for an all-star jam cruise on the Mississippi or $100 for a group who has their own 100-person Hall and practically wrote the definition of Jazz Bands. With such an array of amazing choices, making it to sleep at a “reasonable” hour seemed like an impossible task, and waking up to go back into the burning sun for more music even harder, but Jazzfest isn’t for the unseasoned festival-goer or easily overwhelmed. Waking up early, packing a sensible and compliant day bag, taking in the city’s other sights and getting as much out of the festival itself made for complete and unforgettable memories.

With a two-set Phish show to close Saturday, seeing many other bands that day proved challenging, but the New Orleans staple Kermit Ruffins was not to be missed, and did not disappoint. Like his weekly shows and performances in his venue, the set had an air of relaxation to it as the trumpeter refilled his band mates’ beers and laughed with friends on the stage. Favorites among his selections were covers of “Iko Iko” (originally a Mardi Gras Indian chant) and the theme song from the HBO series Treme, in which he is also an actor (playing himself). When the Vermonters finally took the Acura Stage, they seemed overwhelmed with joy to be there, and a funky “Moma Dance” shortly followed by “Wolfman’s Brother” showcased why they were invited back. Guitarist Trey Anastasio’s usually giddy face only glowed brighter as he introduced the jazzy “Lawn Boy” and “Party Time,” which the band was delighted to perform at Jazzfest. Over on the other main stage, Robert Plant was tearing it up for another crowd of passionate fans. People were thrilled with his setlist, which included classic Zeppelin songs, some of his new material, and extra bluesy, rockin’ jams from the Sensational Space Shifters.

Sunday was the most action-packed day, with so much food left to try and amazing bands overlapping each other starting at noon. The Jambalaya Cajun Band with special guest D.L. Menard kicked it off in the tents with some spiced up Hank Williams covers, while Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Horns brought fans back to the 1920’s with her amazing lounge-style vocals and swing dancers on stage with the band. Rebirth Brass Band was the most heavily supported act on a smaller stage, and their sound was undoubtedly too big for the space. From one NOLA superstar to another, John Boutte packed the Jazz Tent and pleased the crowds with his smooth stylings, reminiscent of Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte combined. Next door in the Blues Tent, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters were blowing out the plastic walls, flipping themselves around stage with the skill of a practiced gymnast. Back on the Samsung Stage, Galactic’s Maggie Koerner was mesmerizing the crowd with her genuine soul and though they’ve made a big name on their own, the added layer of a great vocalist really completes the group. Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s set was overflowing with fans and had the normally seated tent crowd on their feet and clapping. Finally, when Eric Clapton came on stage to bring the first weekend to an end, the overwhelming majority of festival attendees were squeezing through each other in an effort to find an inch of standing space, backed up in rows all the way on the actual “walking only” racetrack. With a mix of songs from his entire career, it was hard to even see when he switched from electric to acoustic because of the crowd commotion, but the “Layla” that followed was appreciated by many. Getting out of there was as difficult as getting in, but when the Clapton classics were faintly heard in the distance, New Birth Brass Band could be heard preaching love for New Orleans to the rest of the masses. One exit of the racetrack led people out past the Gospel Tent as local legend Craig Adams with his new choir Higher Dimensions of Praise blessed them all with glorious farewells.

As if there is not enough to love about the music and culture of Jazzfest, the food aspect is equally important. Watching people consume these delights for the first time is part of the community feeling that becomes the essence of Jazzfest. Beignets are the classic way to start, the powdered sugar pastry of the Big Easy, and Café du Monde is the place for them - thankfully the lines at the festival aren’t as bad as at the original coffee shop. Louise’s on the Tracks is another Jazzfest staple, though it’s not actually in the fairgrounds. Their special BBQ Shrimp Po’boy is widely recognized as the best, and the Gumbo doesn’t hurt either. Once in the grounds itself, there are several dishes that foodies will attend this event specifically for. The Cochon de Lait is a slow-roasted suckling pig Po’boy with coleslaw and a spicy aioli drizzle. Crawfish Monica is a dish only made for Jazzfest with crawfish tail meat in rotini pasta with a rich, creole, seafood wine rue. Alligator Pie and Po’boys are also wildly popular, and making their way into other festivals as well, with a richer taste than chicken, but not too unfamiliar and very satisfying. Other must-haves on the Jazzfest menu include broiled crawfish (for the full experience, ask a local how to eat these), spicy sausage Jambalaya, and softshell crab Po’boy with Louisiana Krystal Hot Sauce. The festival also allowed and sold soft coolers with ice and cases of beer. For the Louisiana brew-seeker, NOLA Brewery or Abita was the selection, and for the liquor fans, assorted frozen daiquiris were everywhere, including the NOLA Rum Punch. Wine, champagne, Rosemary Mint Iced Tea, fresh squeezed lemonade, mango slushy, and free tap water was also available.

It was a whirlwind, just as it seems, but for a music and food fan ready to take on an exciting, adventurous challenge, there seems to be no better option than New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Not only are the supporters of this event paying respect to a huge variety of music and artists, but they’re also giving back to a community that needs as many people helping as it can. The disparity in the city is eye opening, and can’t be blamed on a natural disaster anymore. It needs the eyes of 400,000+ people per year coming to enjoy its incredibly unique gifts and falling in love with a place that’s in love with music.

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[Published on: 4/30/14]

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