Day 2 / Thursday, May 3


So the drill for Thursday through Sunday was get up, get ready to go, slather on sunblock, get our stuff together, get some coffee and a quick bite, get on a bus, and get to Jazz Fest before the music begins at 11 a.m. Today there was also the matter of picking up tickets and bus passes in a meeting room at the hotel. And, seeing how we were in a "high-end" Marriott, the only place for breakfast was the "high end" Shula’s Steakhouse. No ... thank you.

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However, we quickly found PJ’s Coffee, right next door to the hotel’s Canal Street entrance. Perfect. The place always had a line, but because most everybody was heading for the Jazz Fest shuttle buses, all were in a good mood. I was taken aback when, after I ordered my coffee, they matter-of-factly asked, "whole or skim?" Well, when in Rome, as they say, so I became a café au lait guy for the next few days. Laurie remained true to herself, and would throw the staff off balance by keeping it black. For food, I had a spinach and feta croissant, which I warmed in the microwave provided, and Laurie had a wheat bagel with egg and cheese, which came out of the kitchen with her name announced rather loudly. We enjoyed the food at a sunny (some would say hot) table outside on Canal Street. Here’s the scene:

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Picking up the tickets was a breeze, as was everything with the package that we got from CID Entertainment. Getting a package took a lot of the stress out of doing this for the first time. Then it was off to the line up for the shuttle buses in front of the Sheraton New Orleans hotel, a block down from the J.W. (Sheraton is a major sponsor of Jazz Fest; the sign at the top is from their lobby window on Canal Street.) It’s really impressive to see a line of buses, a mixture of tour buses and school buses, stretching at least two city blocks, with more arriving all the time. That kept the line moving right along; as one bus neared capacity, it left immediately, aided by police who would stop the traffic on Canal Street to let the bus make a U-turn to head up to the Fair Grounds Race Course.

That’s right, Jazz Fest, or more properly the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, is held at a horse race track. Not just any race track, of course, because this is New Orleans. It’s the oldest continuously operating track in the country. They’ve been racing at this location since 1852. Jazz Fest takes place a few weeks after the end of the racing season, which begins around Thanksgiving. The festival itself has been in existence since 1970, and the Fair Grounds have been used since 1972. The first two festivals were held in Congo Square, near the French Quarter in the Tremé section of New Orleans. 

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The Fair Grounds are located in the Mid-City section of New Orleans. This neighborhood, as well as the adjoining Gentilly neighborhood, was badly flooded in 2005. Plus the grandstand, as one of the taller structures around, had a lot of wind damage from the hurricane. Like the trip from the airport yesterday, the bus ride to the Fair Grounds passed many sobering reminders of what happened here and how much is left to be done. At the same time, it showed how much has been done, mostly by people in the neighborhoods acting on their own. Many examples of this were pointed out with pride by the host that was on the bus each day as we passed through those neighborhoods on the way to the festival. We also learned, as I’m sure everyone does, why Canal Street is so wide and that medians on the boulevards in New Orleans are called "neutral ground." Plus, go cups. We learned about go cups.

When we arrived, we found that, like the shuttle buses, Jazz Fest itself is extremely well organized. Again, when you are in a strange city and doing something this big for the first time, that is a major relief! After arriving in the area set aside for the buses, we followed a long walkway along the race track, long enough that it never got clogged up with people. We first passed some friendly traffic/pedestrian policemen, then some more friendly people at the ticket/will-call booth. Then we went through the friendly bag screening station, then through the friendly ticket scanners. We reached the entrance, where we had to cross the racetrack, and there were friendly people there to keep us from being run over by the service vehicles that use half of the track (the other half is for pedestrians). It is very easy to be friendly right back to all these people!

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Here’s a link to a PDF of the Fair Grounds layout for Jazz Fest. The two main stages are at either end, Acura at the left and Gentilly at the right, and the third big stage, Congo Square, is in the middle, up on the straightaway. The big tents for Jazz, Blues, and Gospel, are on the home stretch, to the left of the grandstand. There are two other outdoor stages, Fais Do Do, which has Cajun, Zydeco, and roots music, and Jazz and Heritage, which has brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and Latin music. The infield also has two smaller tents, one for the kids and one called Economy Hall, named after a club in Tremé that was home of the New Orleans Economy and Mutual Aid Association. It features traditional New Orleans jazz. Finally there are two stages in the grandstand: Lagniappe (pronounced LAN-yap, meaning a small gift) is for more intimate performances and the Music Heritage stage has interviews with various musicians. 

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Each of these venues has five or six, sometimes more, performances between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. That’s a lot of music to sort through! To assist, they publish what are known as "the cubes," a grid with the stages across the top and the time in half-hour increments down the side and the actual start and end time for each act in its own cube. This PDF shows the cubes for Thursday, with our markup. We did a lot of research beforehand, identifying the acts we were really interested in, but you have to leave a lot of room for spontaneity and improvisation. Plus you hear a lot of music while you are walking from one place to another, and you almost always stop for a few minutes to listen. The whole thing runs like clockwork; you can depend on the cubes!

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For example, we arrived around 11:30 on this morning and the music had already started. As we made our way onto the festival grounds, we were near the Gentilly Stage and could hear the sounds of Flow Tribe, who pepper costuming and showmanship into their brassed-up brand of funky rock. They sounded real good, so we paused for a few minutes to regroup and enjoy. Here they are doing Fiya on Esplanade.

We then headed over to the Grandstand, because we had read that there were air-conditioned indoor bathrooms there. What that writer didn’t say was that there would be long lines for them. While I waited for Laurie I watched a cooking demonstration, with somebody making Creole rice cakes. There are a lot of craft and cultural things going on a Jazz Fest beyond the music; foodwise, in addition to the indoor Food Heritage area in the Grandstand, the Cajun Cabin just outside features more rustic outdoor cooking demos. Local art and culture are on display and for sale at the Louisiana Folklife Village, the African Marketplace, and the Contemporary Crafts sections, and inside the Grandstand there are museum-like exhibits celebrating New Orleans traditions.

Since we were in the area, we decided to check out the tents. These are not tents in the traditional sense; they are really very large temporary buildings. They seat around 2,000 people and have "air-conditioning" in the form of mist coming out of tubes in the ceiling. And unlike the outdoor stages, they have chairs. That’s the up side. The down side is that for certain performers they can be mighty crowded.

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Day 2-6We first stopped at the Gospel Tent, to hear the "Singing Mustangs" gospel choir, 50 strong from Eleanor McMain Secondary School in New Orleans, singing their hearts out! 

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After a couple of songs, we moved next door to the Blues Tent to see the end of Kipori "Baby Wolf" Woods’ set. Although he’s a young man, Woods has the bluesy sensibilities of a seasoned veteran. The grandson of "Luscious" Lloyd Lambert, who played with Ray Charles, Little Richard and Danny Barker, Baby Wolf got his instruction from Ellis Marsalis, and the tradition of New Orleans jazz shows in his guitar playing and vocals, keeping electric blues alive. This video was recorded at the Louisiana Music Factory, an actual old-school indie record store in New Orleans. You should look them up on YouTube, as there is a treasure trove of videos of live New Orleans music to see and hear.

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Then we walked through the infield over to the Gentilly Stage. The attraction there was the funky rockin’ soul of New Orleans native Mia Borders. The viewing at the outdoor stages is divided into two areas, marked by a painted line that, believe it or not, everybody respects. There is the chair zone in the back, and the no-chair zone in the front, where you can stand or sit on the ground. Along the infield side of the stage is a paved walk that you can cruise along and see the act and decide if you want to move into the no-chair zone and find a spot from which to watch at length. We became very adept at this.

Borders and her five-man band play some casually high-quality music. She has in the last few years come into her own in her native New Orleans as a songwriter, singer, and frontperson, confident in all three roles. Love and lust are prominent in her lyrics. She confines herself to rhythm guitar, leaving the soloing to Takeshi Shimmura. This show was perfect for a hot early afternoon. We enjoyed the music and also got to see and appreciate some of the people that we would encounter throughout the weekend. It’s quite an eclectic crowd! 

This video is from the Louisiana Music Factory, and here are Mississippi Rising, U I Adore, and Stevie Wonders Living for the City from Jazz Fest. This video, taken from backstage at Gentilly, shows her take on George Michael's hit Faith. Watch her at the end work the famous pause in the song by going to her can of beer. Not once but twice! (There was a better video of this but unfortunately it was deleted. It was a very cool moment.)

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After Mia Borders it was time for some food. I’d read about some of the things we should definitely try at the four Jazz Fest food areas, and Papa Ninety’s boudin balls were near the top of the list. The official lunch, dinner, and snack of Acadianaboudin is a sausage made of pork, pork liver and maybe heart, cooked rice, and herbs. Here it is rolled into a meatball-sized ball and fried. Wow! So I had that. The flavor was amazing, very earthy. I also had shrimp and lump crab ravigote on a bed of lettuce. Laurie had crawfish remoulade on a bed of lettuce. Like everything else at Jazz Fest, the food areas are well organized, with the vendor and lines well marked at the top and menus with prices prominently displayed at the counter. And of course everybody is friendly! We enjoyed our lunch sitting in the shade on the bleachers in front of the Grandstand while taking in the scene.

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King 2Since we were back in that area, we hit the Blues Tent again to catch some of the Little Freddie King Blues Band show. King may dress like a dandy, but his blues are no nonsense. A Mississippi native, he rocks the Delta style with a New Orleans edge. This video is from the House of Blues in New Orleans last year.

Day 2-12Next we went back to the Gospel Tent for a couple of minutes with another high school choir, this one from the O. Perry Walker Charter High School, located across the river in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

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Now it was time to make our first visit to the Congo Square stage, where the Stooges Brass Band was laying it down. 


The brass band, of course, is a New Orleans tradition, but younger bands like the Stooges are mixing that tradition with funk, soul, and hip-hop, and the result is positively irresistible. Founded in 1996, the Stooges are undeniably one of the hardest working bands out of New Orleans, and their dedication to their craft has made an impact. In 2011, they were awarded the title of "Best Contemporary Brass Band" at the Big Easy Music Awards. This video shows them doing Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke.

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Day 2-14Time for more food. This time Laurie had crawfish bread from Panorama Foods. More like a crawfish calzone, the "bread" part is doughy and plenty greasy with oil from the cheese stuffed inside. The little nuggets of crawfish give it that unique and slightly spicy Cajun flavor that reminds you where you are with every bite.

I had one of Wanda Walker’s fantastic cochon de lait po'boys: warm shredded suckling pork with cold cabbage and a homemade horseradish sauce on french bread. It is to die for. 

Now, hydration is very important when you are out in the sun, walking and standing, dancing and walking, and did I mention walking? Fortunately there are plenty of beverage outlets around the grounds. We determined the optimal amount of water and beer so as to stay hydrated and happy.

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It’s a good thing we fueled up, because the music choices were going to be difficult from here on out, fast and furious, testing our decisionmaking ability and our capacity to get from one place to another. And this on the first day.

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We just had to see Ivan Neville and his two-bass band Dumstaphunk at the Gentilly Stage. It may not get any funkier than Put It in the Dumpster! But here’s Meanwhile, just for good measure. 

If you watch, pay special attention to the drummer, Nikki Glaspie, and lead guitarist Ian Neville. More great young New Orleans artists. Ian is Ivan’s cousin, the son of Art Neville. Ivan is the son of Aaron Neville. There are simply too many Nevilles in New Orleans to keep track of, but it’s all good! The bass men are Nick Daniels and Tony Hall.

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reginaDay 2-18We then rushed over to pay our first visit to the Jazz Tent, where Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread was going to be playing. Regina Carter is an extraordinary jazz violinist who combines a variety of styles beyond jazz into a musical voice that’s completely unique. Her Reverse Thread project explores modern and traditional African songs. "There is an immense amount of amazing music coming from all around the world, much of which is barely accessible," she says. "Reverse Thread gave me the opportunity to explore and celebrate a tiny portion of that music." Regina looked not just to the music, but also the accompanying sounds and nuances of everyday life from anthropological and sociological perspectives when crafting her new arrangements. Besides Carter, the band is made up of Yacouba Sissoko on kora (the West African harp traditionally played by village storytellers), Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums and percussion. Absolutely mesmerizing. Here is Artistya

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The final slot of the day at Congo Square was Esperanza Spalding, and we decided to pass up a couple potentially really good shows (Florence and the Machine and James Cotton, and if he hadn’t had to drop out, Eddie Vedder’s solo performance would have made it even more difficult), for this highly regarded young artist. We waited and waited for technical problems to be ironed out, and when she finally appeared and picked up her signature double bass, it couldn’t be heard. We felt that there was no point to listening to her make do with an electric bass, so we made a quick decision.

The wailing we heard from the direction of the Gentilly Stage convinced us that Florence was not for us, and Vedder was replaced by an acoustic set from Jimmy Buffett, not especially a favorite of ours (no offense, Parrotheads), so we hightailed it over to the Blues Tent to see James Cotton and his band. Most of the walk from Congo Square to the tents is in the vicinity of the Jazz and Heritage Stage, so we listened to and got waylaid for a few minutes by the Original Pinettes Brass Band, New Orleans’ only all-woman brass band. This video shows the scene at that stage.

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Day 2-20At 77, James Cotton can still play the blues harp. He and vocalist Darrell Nulisch are seated and go back and forth between vocals and harp like you wouldn’t believe (Unfortunately, Cotton doesn’t have much of a voice left). Tom Holland on guitar, Noel Neal on bass, and Jerry Porter on drums make up the rest of the band. I got a lot of lumps in my throat over these four days, and watching legends like James Cotton provided a lot of them. Here, Cotton and Darrell got their mojo workin’.

SpaldingThe last shows on all the stages are all timed to end at 7 p.m., but we had read that a lot of them don’t. So after Cotton’s show ended, we decided to walk through the infield on the way back to the buses to see what was happening. Esperanza Spalding was still playing, so we stuck around at Congo Square to hear that. Even with an electric bass you could tell that she is very talented. This video shows her doing Radio Song. We picked a spot toward the back of the viewing area, and Laurie noticed that standing right in front of us, taking in the show, were Regina Carter and Alvester Garnett.

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IguanasAs we began the walk to the exit a second time, local favorites the Iguanas were wrapping up their unique Tex-Mex roots music show on the Fais Do Do stage, so we got to hear even more bonus music

To catch the shuttle buses back downtown, we retraced our steps from the morning, except there was a solid line of people the whole way. The line moved pretty quickly, though, as the buses kept on rolling in, and those who weren’t wasted were in pretty good spirits. And why not? The weather had been perfect, a bit on the hot side, but passing clouds provided the occasional break; the food was beyond tasty; the beverages were plentiful and cold; and the music was unbelievable. And this was just day one of four!

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We got back to the hotel around 8:30 and regrouped. We tossed a few dinner ideas around and decided on Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar and Restaurant, a few blocks "upriver" from the hotel, meaning for our location, not in the French Quarter. And allow me to say how much a device like an iPhone with GPS built in is appreciated in a strange city, at night, when you are heading out. Lucy’s was pointed out by the shuttle bus driver last night, so we looked at the menu and figured, why not give it a shot? And it turned out to be pretty good. It was a bar with a restaurant, no question about it, but given our state of mind after a long day of sun and music, it was just the right combination of funky and fun. And of course they had my new favorite beer, Abita Amber, too. For food, Laurie had the shrimp and grits and I had the fish tacos, following the recommendation of the shuttle driver, because, why not? A walk back to the hotel ended an awesome Day 2.

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© Jeff Mangold 2012