A Texican in New Orleans: Lessons Learned from Jazz Fest
Photos by Craig Hlavaty
This past weekend was the last for this year's edition of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which started way back on April 27. The festival runs over two weekends, usually Thursday through Sunday. Obviously, since it is a uniquely Nawlins institution going back to 1970, it's not a festival that can be re-created just anywhere. Also, with that age comes experience.
My job means that I get to cover tons of festivals. Huge tentpoles like Free Press Summer Fest, Vans Warped Tour, Austin City Limits Music Festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Houston International Festival, Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the new electronica-geared Identity Festival are some of my favorites. I would still like to see Chaos In Tejas in Austin, and finally hit up some of those crazy British countryside deals like Glastonbury and Reading.
Forgive my lateness, but Jazz Fest was a whole new animal to me, but I think I will be visiting this one more in the future.
You Don't Always Have to Cater to the Youth Vote: Not every festival has to include a token electronic or dubstep act. Jazz Fest relied on sturdy marquee acts like Tom Petty, the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles to draw in the mainstream. The younger big-name acts like Bon Iver, Feist, Givers and Florence + The Machine are hip enough to draw in the youth, but not weird enough to make Mom and Dad go home sick.
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Plus, injecting influential acts like Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint means that you can still educate. Even Bruce Hornsby knows that people under 30 only know him as the dude that was sampled by Tupac.
Everyone, everyone, loves Gary Clark Jr., though. He can play in front of college-age stoners, preppies and investment bankers and make them all shimmy.
Great, Cheap Regional Foods Rule: Obviously no other festival in the world can legitimately get away with having crawfish bread, jambalaya, fried chicken and beignets on the menu, and having it not be a bastardization. But Jazz Fest can, and they do it without breaking your wallet in half. I even saw Vietnamese food there, which to me is the second official food of Houston.
Sound Quality Matters: I could be blocks and blocks away from the horse track and still hear whoever was on the Gentilly stage great. On the way out on Friday, I discovered Rodrigo y Gabriela, but it was too late to come back in and watch. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to think of a stage I visited this weekend that had bad sound.
Plenty of Shade and Room to Roam Is Good: True, we are just waltzing into what promises to be another oppressive summer, but Jazz Fest wasn't terribly hot to deal with. You could find some respite in the tents, tons of cool drinks -- alcoholic and not -- and there were plenty of arts and crafts booths to duck into.
Have Relaxed Beer Rules: Folks could buy cases of beers if they wanted to, which they carried in either bags or coolers. There wasn't much of an intrusion at the front gates, either, which means you could smuggle in other fun stuff, too, like liquor and...you know. My bag was opened and peeked in for two seconds and I was sent on my way.
Shorter Hours, Fewer Bands: If you can see the main-stage headliner you want to see and leave before the sun starts going down, that's a win in anyone's book. The fest's two big stages, the Acura and the Gentilly, had their headliners go on by 3 or 5 p.m. each day. Sunday afternoon, the Foo Fighters were done with their two-hour set by 5 p.m., and the Eagles put all the oldsters and winos to bed on Saturday by 7 p.m.
Saturday was pretty rough with the thousands and thousands of fans camped out to hear the Eagles, which made movement near that stage an unholy bitch, but once you left the vicinity you could walk comfortably. Seriously, old Eagles fans are kind of ornery, too. Look, Don Henley won't look any better from 350 yards than he does at 400 yards.
Tents Are a Lifesaver: A handful of large tents geared towards heavy hitters in gospel, jazz and the blues came equipped with fans, seats, a/c and misting units to spritz the crowd with. Some would call this coddling your crowd, but for the gospel artists it added a church-pew vibe to the proceedings. One could space out in front of Herbie Hancock for an hour and not worry about sunblock. I spent a good hour in a gospel tent with Mavis Staples and had the time of my life.
Sell Recordings of Select Sets: This isn't a new deal at all, but it is fun to see. The festival sells recordings of some select acts that you can buy or order online later. Obviously you won't find full sets from the Boss and Petty -- that's a big profit leader, bub -- but the jammier and rootsier acts will sell their stuff, since they allow taping as it is.
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