It must have been around five a.m. Monday morning when this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival finally wheezed to a close. Out on Frenchmen Street, the last of the red-eyed revelers stumbled out of theaters, clubs, and bars that, for this long weekend at least, had been a second home. Ears ringing, dark circles around our eyes, grins permanently frozen in place, we all knew it was over but were reluctant to leave. Most us would be heading home later in the day, returning to places less musical, less colorful, less full of life. So we lingered there in half-circles, sharing cigarettes and stories, doing everything we could to keep the high of music, food, and community alive, even just for a couple more minutes.
New Orleans Jazz Fest is unique in that every other festival tries to mimic it in some way, but none succeed. The last decade has seen the rise of the uber-festival, massive multi-day events, most of which occur out in the desert or on some campground. Festival organizers chase the precious 18-29 demographic with the latest in buzz bands, super groups, and EDM-tents. Festival grounds are crowded with “experiences” hosted by corporate sponsors. Entire events are engineered by marketers to suck money out of attendees with over-priced food and alcohol.
Jazz Fest certainly isn’t free and has versions of the aforementioned, but in New Orleans it’s executed with heart. The niche tents are genuine stages celebrating musical genres, like the Gospel, Blues, and Jazz Tents filling the festival’s south end. There are food and beverage vendors, but at Jazz Fest, prices are reasonable … and the food is out of this world (I recommend a roast beef and gravy po-boy chased by a frozen daiquiri). Corporate sponsors definitely have their place there, but are comparatively unobtrusive, resigned to sponsoring stages or the occasional giveaway. In this age of the corporate super festival, Jazz Fest remains iconic and sui generis in its insistence on actually celebrating music.
And the music, oh the music. It’s a cliché to say the air in New Orleans is alive with music, but it’s never more true than during Jazz Fest. On the festival grounds, there are at least a dozen stages and tents. One can find music coming from literally every direction: jazz, blues, R&B, rock, country, bluegrass, zydeco … and the list goes on. If you don’t like one band, just walk a couple yards in another direction, and there will be another group playing their hearts out.
The most distinctive differentiator is the sense of community. Jazz Fest doesn’t bank on bringing in the trendiest acts, and their headliners skew populist, but tried-and-true. As a result, the crowd is as diverse as the music represented: young and old, hip and square, all share common space on the festival ground. In my four days of racing from one end of the ground to the other, I saw no fights, no confrontations, and not even any (truly) excessive drunkeness.
What truly elevates Jazz Fest into another stratosphere is how the city of New Orleans becomes a stage in itself. At night, the whole city comes alive. All the classic venues on Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street are packed to the rafters, and every music hall, dive bar, or other house of ill repute has a version of an aftershow that keeps the party going until five in the morning or later. One doesn’t even need to go into a venue, as street musicians and wandering brass bands will pop up for impromptu performances.
The only danger of Jazz Fest is overdoing it. The temptation is to spend long days dancing and singing in the hot New Orleans sun, and late nights drinking and carousing in the city’s great bars until sunrise. This was my first time in New Orleans, so I took it as my journalistic duty to see, taste, and touch as much of New Orleans as I could. Fueled by soul food, frozen daiquiris, and sheer force of will, I took in between 12-16 hours of music for four days in a row. I learned a lot about music, New Orleans, and the limits of human endurance. A couple days later, the ringing in my ears has finally subsided and I’ve gotten more than three hours of sleep. With a clear mind, what follows are the 10 best things I heard or saw over four insane days in the Crescent City.
— Kristofer Lenz
I was skeptical of No Doubt’s place as a festival headliner. Sure, they’re obviously popular enough to deserve the spot, but personally, I have never been a fan and they haven’t seemed particularly relevant in quite awhile. I consider myself lucky to have been able to experience their show from the photo pit, as I was witness to a relatively intimate performance from one of the greatest stars in the world. I still go back and forth wondering whether a celebrity like Gwen Stefani exudes charismatic aura because she’s famous, or whether she became famous because of the charisma. Either way, when she took the stage, all eyes were glued on her. She looked wonderful and put on an energetic, engaging performance. There was no hint of diva drama. She was earnest, in synch with her band, and seemed to really enjoy performing. That energy was simply contagious.
Unlike some other festivals, the Jazz Fest organizers brazenly put headliner after headliner against each other. Friday night ended with the one-two-three punch of No Doubt, Chicago, and R&B master Anthony Hamilton, the latter of which had me scurrying over to Congo Square. As expected, I was justly rewarded by one of the strongest sets I experienced all weekend. Hamilton has been around a minute and his veteran savvy tricks show. He works the crowd and his band with ease and his vocals and on-stage persona are on point. He swung liberally between soulful R&B, funk bangers, and gospel-infused singalongs, embodying everything Jazz Fest is about in one slick set.
The sense of community at Jazz Fest is best embodied by the parades that march through the grounds throughout the day. These local New Orleans outfits put on their second-line finest and offer a slice of New Orleans street party enthusiasm. Without fail, the parades attract groups of onlookers happy to gather around and join the fun. Whether Mardi Gras Indians or Social Clubs, they offered a visual and aural delight.
I imagine if Jesus ever returns, he’ll be pretty chill as well. Rising country star Sturgill Simpson did not seem plussed at all by the fans repeatedly calling him “Country Jesus” and telling him “You’re saving country music.” Sturgill simply smiled and went about his business, performing an exceptionally solid set of contemporary country with deep respect for the classic traditions of the genre’s past.
Oh Big Freedia … where to begin? Let’s just say, she lived up to all expectations. The original Bounce Superstar, Big Freedia’s set was a sonic and visual assault (in the best way possible). The bass was loud, her vocals were breathless, and her dancers were … just everything. Big Freedia 4 lyfe.
There were a number of acts set to provide the dad rock vibes. I’m sure Chicago was lovely and Elton John was, reportedly, excellent. But his one-song photography limitation and the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at a festival sent me packing after shooting. But Steve Winwood, a rogue icon of the classic rock world, put on a killer set on Sunday. His light but funky work on the Hammond was a perfect fit for the Jazz Fest vibe. His set was packed with classic tunes dating from his Spencer Davis Group days, up through Blind Faith, and into his solo career. The crowd might have swayed middle age and caucasian, but everyone was rockin’.
New Orleans Jazzzzzzzz: John Boutte, Kermit Ruffins, et al.
The Jazz Fest lineup was, naturally, flush with talent intrinsically connected to the Crescent City itself. The best sets I caught were from journeyman jazz vocalist John Boutte, who is one charming motherfucker I might add. And New Orleans product Kermit Ruffins, who performed an intimate tribute to Louis Armstrong in one of the smaller tents. Both men were exceptional performers, lighting up the crowd with authentic New Orleans jazz, respectful of tradition but infused with contemporary life.