When I lived in New Orleans, the Jazz & Heritage Festival was one of many celebrations on the spring calendar, albeit one of the biggest; an appropriate bookend to a season that begins with Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras, meanders through St. Patrick’s Day, St. Joseph’s Day and Easter, and encompasses the French Quarter Festival and the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. Those New Orleanians, they do know how to party.
As a visitor now, sadly, I can only pick one. Because I ride in the Krewe of Muses, my annual trip usually takes place during Mardi Gras. This year, though, Don and I decided to do Jazzfest. We had both attended the monster concert separately (Don lived in Baton Rouge during the ‘90s, although we didn’t meet until we were both in Philadelphia), but had never Fested together.
I also missed Festing with my friend and former co-worker, Stephanie Grace. Now a political columnist for the Times-Picayune (which, given the level of political corruption in Louisiana, is very busy job), Steph and I started at the New Orleans paper within a month of each other. I don’t know how many hours we’ve logged at the Fairgrounds together, discovering new musicians and revisiting old favorites.
After being away for a few years, my Jazzfest routine felt a bit rusty. But it didn’t take long to get into the swing of things, and having Steph with me helped. Given that there’s still a long weekend of music ahead, we put together this list of our favorites over dinner at Maurepas, a new restaurant in the Bywater.
What Should You Bring to Jazz Fest?
You can carry in a liter of water, in bottles that haven’t been opened yet. Steph recommends freezing one bottle before you go, so it’s extra cold when you need it.
Save your water bottle when you’re done, and refill it at the water fountains at the Fairgrounds. If you’re out there all day, it’s important to stay hydrated.
It may be April, but the heat and humidity is already in full force by the time Jazzfest comes around. The sun can be brutal. Bring waterproof sunscreen with you, and reapply often. You’ll also need a hat. Take frequent breaks from the sun in the tents.
Another weather pattern that’s part of Louisiana life: Quick-moving downpours. Even if the rain is falling, the musicians will still be singing (unless there’s lightning), so you’ll want to be prepared. Steph recommends a cheap, fold-up poncho, as well as plastic bags to protect your phone and car keys.
An out-of-town friend once showed up for the Fest in high heels. Her feet were dying by the end of the day. You’ll be doing a lot of walking – not to mention dancing – so you’ll want to be comfortable. It’s best to wear shoes that you don’t mind getting dusty or muddy (see weather conditions above).
To Chair or Not to Chair?
Jazzfest attracts two types of music lovers: Those who roam around to the smaller tents, seeking out acts that aren’t as well known – and those who bring folding camp chairs and plant themselves in front of the Acura stage to see the big acts. I usually fall into the former category, but because we didn’t want to miss the Bruce Springsteen set, we did the latter on Sunday, taking advantage of Gary Robichaux’s prime real estate with great sight lines.
(Gary is the executive director of the ReNEW Charter Management Organization, which runs New Orleans charter schools, and he had a pass to get in early. Within minutes of the doors opening, the crowd swarmed into the Acura stage area to lay down their tarps, he said. It sounded like pioneers in a western land grab).
(Another aside: If you’re wondering why Bruce Springsteen is such a hot ticket in New Orleans, read Times-Picayune Music Critic Keith Spera’s review of The Boss’s 2006 Jazzfest set. I was there that day, and yes, I cried. I can’t imagine a concert that moving, ever again).
I always looked down on the chair people a bit. In my younger days, I loved roaming the Fest unencumbered. But now that I’m older and lazier, I really enjoyed kicking back in the camp chair on Sunday, particularly as anticipation for Springsteen kept growing. Don coveted the little chair umbrella that shaded a women in our group. Perhaps a compromise for us from now on will be one chair day, one non-chair day.
How much does Jazzfest cost?
Jazzfest is not cheap. Tickets have risen to $50 in advance (not including the steep Ticketmaster fees), and $65 at the gate. If you can only afford one or two dates, check the schedule when it comes out in the spring, usually February.
Another crucial date for Festers is when the “grids” – which detail who is playing where, when – come out. All the New Orleans print media, including the Times-Picayune, Gambit, and OffBeat, publish the grids during the Fest, or you build your own in advance on NOLA.com. Make sure each person in your group has a grid, otherwise, you’ll spend half your time passing it around.
If you’re a true Fest fanatic, the WWOZ Brass Pass might be a good investment. One of the best things about the $450 pass is that you can go in and out, which you can’t do if you have a regular ticket. You can also lend your Brass Pass to other people (only one person can use it per day, however). The Brass Pass also gives you access to the courtesy tents, which have free water, iced tea and coffee; fruit; and shade and misters. AND you’re supporting a great cause: New Orleans’ music. Steph has been buying one for years.
If you’ve come all this way, you’ll want to sample as much of the Fairgrounds food as possible. Split dishes with friends to get a wider variety (food ranges from $6 to $12). And while everyone lines up for the cochon de lait, crawfish Monica and soft shell crab po’boys, don’t ignore the ethnic dishes near Congo Square.
Other Jazz Fest Strategies
Don’t be afraid to split up. This weekend, Don couldn’t wait to see blues artist Corey Harris, while I wanted to see the tribute to Alex Chilton on a stage on the other side of the Fairgrounds. I’m glad I did; not only did I see Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum play, DJ Davis Rogan of Treme fame (the Steve Zahn character is based upon him) also sang a number. It’s OK if you want to see different musicians than your friends. Really.
Choose a meeting place at the end of the day. With so many people using their phones, the system can become overwhelmed, and texting can be delayed. And please don’t be that guy who shouts on his cell phone during a set. Everybody hates that guy.
Don’t ignore the Grandstand. Many people never make it to the small stage that’s housed within its courtyard. But in 2006, Steph and I stumbled upon Allen Touissant – who just happened to have River in Reverse collaborator Elvis Costello with him. Only a handful of people were there, making it seem like a private concert. (Another Grandstand bonus: Real bathrooms!)
Cooking demonstrations, which draw noted New Orleans chefs, are also held in the Grandstand. Two words: Free samples.
Use the track. On the weekends, the pathways through the infield clog up, with people elbowing their way to the next stage. Savvy Festers can circumvent the bottlenecks by walking along the outside to get to your destination.
Save some time to check out the crafts and art vendors at the Fest. Several of my favorite pieces in my home are from artists who I discovered during the event. If you decide to buy, most vendors will hold your purchase until the end of the day. Don’t like impulse purchases? I collect cards from the artists I think are the most interesting, and revisit their work online once I’m home.
I could go on and on. But what are your favorite Jazzfest tips? Leave them in the comments below.