The New Orleans Fair Grounds plays host once a year to a 7 days festival spread over two weekends (because you need a break after long days in the sun, feet tired from dancing and bellies swollen with food and beer after the first three days just to recover for the following four) at the end of April, beginning of May. It is commonly referred to simply as “Jazz Fest” which, although easier on swollen-with-dehydration tongues than its full title, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it is considerably non-descript and misleading. For one thing, this year’s headliners included Christina Aguilera, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton, none of which I would classify as jazz musicians. And secondly, there is so much more to the festival than music. The food in and of itself is a reason to attend. But there are also numerous craft stalls that represent many talented local artists, and ‘villages’ at which you can learn about a variety of cultures including that of Native Americans.
Food obsessed that I am, some of my favourite festival bites include:
CRAWFISH BREAD – This is always my first stop of the day, my festival brunch. It is a bread roll, not unlike a Panini, of which the center has been stuffed with a melted cheesy crawfish filling.
CRAWFISH MONICA – a cheesy tomato crawfish fusilli pasta dish, that is unique to the Festival.
ALIGATOR PIE – it’s a bit like a sausage roll but with alligator meat rather than pig meat. I thought it was quite simply inarguably delicious but I have been advised it can be an ‘acquired taste’.
COCHON DE LAIT PO BOY – this is a sandwich with pulled pork slow cooked in milk and there is no other way to describe it than heavenly.
MANGO FREEZE – this is essentially like mango sorbet, but trust me, on a hot day when beer just doesn’t get cold enough to satisfyingly quench the thirst of your throat dry and aching from singing/screaming so much, this is nothing short of ambrosia.
Jazz Fest Necessities:
Each day runs from 11am to about 8pm, with no re-entry available unless you purchase a week long pass. The weather can be quite unpredictable, even within a single day, so it’s important to come prepared for rain and shine – suntan lotion, hat, and rain poncho. I would definitely recommend covered and supportive shoes; the easiest route to walk between stages is on the sandy horse racing track that circles around the grounds, which rules out heels if they weren’t already disqualified based purely on the length of the day. As for sandals, they may seem a better option on a hot day but the place can get crowded and the paths aren’t always even so toes may get trodden on or stubbed. I would also suggest bringing a camp chair – it’s a long day to be on your feet, and if there is any rain the ground gets muddy very quickly. It is quite common for groups to set up a ‘camp’ with their chairs by one stage and then come and go throughout the day; surprising as it may seem, especially in a city so rife with crime as New Orleans, chairs are not stolen or moved. Sometimes a chair may be ‘borrowed’ for a rest, but quickly relinquished on return of the owner with a friendly exchange of smiles.
Some of my personal highlights of the musical line up this year (bearing in mind that I only managed to attend both Saturdays and Sundays) included: The Mavericks, Keb Mo, Ron Hotstream & The F-Holes, North Mississippi Allstars, Voices of Peter Claver, The Revivalists, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Glen David Andrews, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and Trombone Shorty.
There are 10 stages on which musicians perform, so there is always something going on, and often you find yourself running the length of the race track to check out two groups scheduled for the same sets. Generally I recommend wandering aimlessly around and stopping when a good sound catches your attention, because this way you can discover a great band you may have never heard of before, rather than be distracted with known favorite bands who probably play locally regularly. That being said, there were three gigs on my personal timetable for which I watched the entire set without considering the possibility of doing anything else. One of them was, as you by now know, my much loved Glen David Andrews. Although I am fortunate enough to get to see him pretty much any week I want to, he always puts on such a brilliant show that I cannot tear myself away, and at Jazz Fest his show is a great way to get energized and excited for a fun-filled day ahead. Of the other two, one is local, but neither play in town regularly which was my excuse for giving them such undivided attention and adoration. They were: Keb Mo and Trombone Shorty – very different artists, but both incredibly captivating. Keb Mo has recently released a new album, Blues Americana, and he played some of the new tracks amongst some of his better known songs. In the age of Pandora Radio and Spotify, I rarely purchase a CD anymore, but I had no hesitation in instantly putting in an order for Blues Americana on Amazon. He really has a voice that makes my knees weak, and an irresistible smile inducing humour.
Say ‘New Orleans’ and most people think ‘Mardi Gras’, but ‘Jazz Fest’ really encompasses the beauty of this city: the camaraderie of people who share a love of good music and good food, the delicious smells and flavours of true southern home cooked comfort food, and of course music that is unrivalled.
P.S. – Got to share in a pretty special moment this year. Sam of Big Sam’s Funky Nation brought his girlfriend out on stage for the crowd to sing happy birthday to her, and after declaring what a wonderful woman she, he proposed. She cried and of course said yes. Congratulations to both!