Day 1 / Thursday, April 23

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This is the report on trip number four, our third NOLA marathon: seven days of Jazz Fest plus the three Daze Between and some bonus time on the Monday after. This was our best trip yet. Our lives are relaxed, we know where to stay and how to pack. We no longer feel like visitors, more like part-time residents. We know where everything is and how everything works, especially when it comes to Jazz Fest. We know where to eat, what to do, and what to avoid. So the entire trip was easy, and this in spite of some bad weather for the first few days. We know how to handle that, too. And we also know how to take it easy, meaning we fit some down time in on top of the music. That said, we got a lot of music in, too. This was the fourth trip of a lifetime, and we can imagine many more.

You can check out the complete photo record of this trip on the New Orleans 2015 page of this website, including separate pages with the embedded videos from Vimeo. This year I upgraded the photography with a new Canon PowerShot 710, so the pictures and videos are greatly improved. While the usual caveat that the videos are not so much for viewing as listening still applies in some cases, you will find they are a whole lot better than those in years past. 

So ... onward. On Day 1, Thursday, April 23,
we were taken to Dulles Airport early in the morning by our wonderful daughter, who dropped us off on her way to work as a substitute teacher. We had booked the early afternoon nonstop flight to New Orleans on United Airlines, the one we had used in in 2013 and 2014, but that flight somehow got rescheduled to arrive in New Orleans much later in the afternoon. That didn't fit our plans at all. Our good friend (and from now on travel advisor) Ricky said we shouldn't settle for that flight and, besides, we should always take the earliest flight available because the airplane will almost always be at the airport from the previous day. United made that change for us, and we were on our way without delay in the a.m.

The flight departed right on time in perfect weather. Once again we arrived at the Gulf Coast near Mobile, Alabama, and continued along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This year, however, we headed south to approach the airport before we arrived at Lake Ponchartrain, so there was no day-before view from above of Jazz Fest. Still, the wetlands of southern Louisiana are fascinating to see from the air. We landed at Louis Armstrong Airport right on time, a little after 10 a.m. local time. 

At the airport we grabbed the now-traditional post-flight snack at the Smoothie King in the United concourse. I had a yogurt d-lite smoothie and Laurie had a frozen yogurt twist in a cup. 

Once again we took the Airport Shuttle to get downtown. The shuttle driver was a trainee, and we (and the more experienced driver who was guiding her) had a lot of fun with her as she meandered around the Central Business and Warehouse Districts dropping people off at their various hotels. We discovered that there are some very narrow alleys in downtown New Orleans, and sometimes cars and trucks parked in them make them even narrower! 

The shuttle delivered us to the Staybridge Suites at the corner of Poydras Street and Tchoupitoulas Street. If you still have not learned how to pronounce it, first of all what is taking you so long? This is the third year for heaven's sake. Secondly, it's CHOP-a-TOO-lus. 

Who or what the heck was Tchoupitoulas, anyway? Well, the name comes from the Chapitoulas tribe, whose name translates to "River People." They inhabited the area around New Orleans dating back to the 1500’s. The French established plantations along the river in their territory in the 1700’s, and one of them was called Tchoupitoulas, named after the original residents. How kind of them. Today the plantation is known as Cedar Grove and is used as a wedding, party, and reception facility. 

We knew full well that we were going to be arriving at the Staybridge well before check-in time, but we also knew that the nice people at the front desk would stash our baggage in a secure room. Thus we had plenty of time to roam around, get a proper lunch, purchase our shuttle bus tickets for Jazz Fest, and get some provisions for our suite.

First we went to the Sheraton New Orleans for the bus tickets. Sheraton is a major sponsor of Jazz Fest, and their name and hospitality suite are closely tied to our favorite stage at Jazz Fest, that being Fais Do Do. 

This year the Sheraton opened up an empty storefront in their building at the corner of Canal Street and Camp, with access from both the lobby and Canal Street, for the purpose of selling Jazz Fest tickets and merchandise. The local music emporium, the Louisiana Music Factory, also had set up a temporary shop in that space, so the place was alive with music and people. 

Buying the tickets for the Gray Line's Jazz Fest Express was quick and easy, and we saved a whole lot of money because the service charge there was ... $0! Next year that may be the answer for the Jazz Fest tickets as well because TicketMaster charges its customers almost $15 in "service" fees per ticket, and if you're doing all of Jazz Fest (seven tickets for each of us) that's a whole lot of money.

While we were in the Sheraton, the Staybridge sent us a text saying our room was ready. Wow, was that quick! So we changed plans and walked up to the CVS on Canal Street and then to the Brother's Food Mart on Carondelet Street on the way back to the hotel to pick up some drinks and snacks, plus a few things that we didn't feel like packing or buying in those ridiculous small containers that are required for carry-on luggage these days. 

Our room was an actual studio suite this year, but to be honest it didn't seem that much smaller than the one-bedroom suite we've had the past two years. This year's room was on the third floor, overlooking the hotel entrance, with its flags floating dreamily in the breeze at our feet. It had a great view of the intersection of Tchoupitoulas and Poydras Streets and looked out toward the Mississippi River and the Crescent City Connection bridge on the right and the World Trade Center, Harrah's casino, and Hotel Le Meridien (formerly the W) to the left.

After we got settled in the hotel, we headed over to the French Quarter to see who was playing music on Royal Street and at Jackson Square and, most importantly, to grab some lunch. We hadn't walked very far before a pretty intense rain shower began. We had seen the potential for this on the radar (always check frequently in New Orleans), so we had our umbrella with us. 

The combination of rain and hunger brought us to a place we discovered a couple of years ago on our last morning in New Orleans when we had an afternoon flight, that being the Royal House Oyster Bar. We sat at a cozy table around the corner from the bar with a great view out the front door of the rainy intersection of Royal Street and St. Louis, plus we could see people hurrying by the French doors next to us. The only thing weird about the setup was a couple of mirrors, one in front of me and one hanging above the door to the other room. It was a bit disorienting, especially after our Royal House Cajun Bloody Marys. Wow.

To eat we started with a dozen and a half chargrilled Louisiana oysters, which are topped with a Parmesan butter cheese filling and served bubbling hot in a way that as you look at it, it says 'it took you a whole year to get back here?'

For entrees Laurie had a Garden Salad: A medley of greens tossed with Mandarin oranges, mint, and red pepper flakes and topped with fried oysters. It's served with a peanut vinaigrette dressing. I went for the classic New Orleans: jambalaya. Chicken and andouille sausage were sautéed with peppers and onions, but at the Royal House it's served with a bunch of blackened shrimp.

I went for the classic New Orleans: jambalaya. Chicken and andouille sausage were sautéed with peppers and onions, but at the Royal House it's served with a bunch of blackened shrimp.

Royal House is a pretty good restaurant in a block that has a whole bunch of really good restaurants, and unfortunately it is priced accordingly. Regardless, it was good to be back. The first time we were there was on a warm, sunny, and dry late morning following a week of rain and unseasonably cool days. Today it was cloudy and rainy, with plenty of NOLA humidity. The place was comfortable in both cases.

By the time we finished, the rain had stopped and as we continued down Royal Street we encountered several small groups of musicians playing, and this year something quite different: the NOLA Opera Guy, who did a credible job, I guess, with some opera stuff that we of course had no idea what it was. We followed a guy dressed like one of the minions from the Despicable Me movies to Jackson Square. He was posing for photos for tips; we weren't, as we sat on a bench for a while to listen to the traditional jazz and brass bands there, punctuated by the chimes coming from the clock at St. Louis Cathedral. We were now officially back in the Big Easy.

As we headed back to the hotel to regroup for the evening, one of our last stops was one of those tourist-trap type stores along Decatur Street (actually it was pretty nice inside), where we bought a couple of rain ponchos to take with us to the festival tomorrow. Smart move. 

After a short rest, we headed back into the French Quarter. We stopped at the PJ's Coffee shop in the Royal St. Charles Hotel on St. Charles Avenue for a couple of iced coffees to sip on our way over to Armstrong Park

There, as in the last two years, we got our first on-stage music of the trip, courtesy of People United for Armstrong Park, the organization whose goal is revitalization of that great park in the Tremé neighborhood and restoration of the Municipal Auditorium that is in it. These concerts have a spring series and a fall series, each 10 weeks in length, and each show features two local artists along with food and craft vendors. It's a great way to get back into the Jazz Fest groove. Plus, the music is free! All you need to do is throw a donation into a barrel on your way in or out.

First up tonight were Kermit Ruffins and his grat band the Barbecue Swingers. We've encountered Kermit before, in 2012 at Jazz Fest (Day 5), in 2013 (Day 3) at Mid-City Lanes (the Rock 'n' Bowl), and at the Jazz in the Park Concert last year on Day 1 as well.

Always having a great time doing what he does, Kermit is outstanding on the trumpet, and his mix of New Orleans classics and newer material were perfect for the warm early evening. We were standing on an elevated plaza behind the statue of Louis Armstrong, and wherever Satchmo might be these days I'm sure he approves of Kermit's music and style.

Not so much a concert as a revue, Kermit's show was full of traditional New Orleans jazz with a modern twist. It featured singer Britney Chauntae and slide trombonist Haruka Kikuchi along with the Barbecue Swingers, who are great at keeping the music going while Kermit is doing his thing. They are Kevin Morris on bass, Derrick Freeman on drums, and Yoshitaka "Z2" Tsuji on the piano. Of course Kermit and the Swingers did the staple of any of their shows, the Soul Train style dance line down the middle of the crowd. He was having a bit of a time organizing it, but regardless, he was having fun with it. As Kermit always says (a lot, and why not), New Orleeeee-ans! We partaaaaaaaaaaay-in!

Here's a video of Kermit, the Barbecue Swingers, and Kikuchi doing the Tiger Rag. You can see why this performance was a great way to settle back into vibe. And here are some up close and personal songs recorded by one of my favorite music sites, Jam in the Van (what a concept): Marie, Ooh Child (yeah, the Five Stairsteps song, updated New Orleans hip-hop style), the Tremé theme, If You're a Viper, and Drop Me Off in New Orleans

On his likeness to Armstrong, Kermit says "That's someone who really, really led one of America's true art forms. He was really the cherry on top of New Orleans music. And now I see it being passed on to younger kids, and for me to have a role in that and to maybe do the things he did is so spiritual to me." Spiritual may just be a theme of this year's trip. This place and this music fits that word perfectly.

Next up were the Soul Rebels, a great modern brass band. We encountered these guys back on Day 2 in 2013, and you can read all about them there. They hadn't been on the stage for more than a couple of songs before we headed up into the crowd at the front of the stage. We know how to work it at Armstrong. There's a wide sidewalk in front of the stage, but if you stand a bit to the side, there's a curb. That enables short people like us to see better, and we like to see better!

The Soul Rebels have varied backgrounds, but the common thread is that they are well educated musicians who know their city well and have a great love of its musical traditions, albeit in a modern style. 

Lead trumpet player Marcus Hubbard grew up in East New Orleans but has been living in Houston since Katrina. He majored in music education at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Surprisingly, his first love is classical music. Beyond the Soul Rebels he does production work for some local hip-hop artists.

Erion Williams, who plays sax, grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward and has also played with the Stooges Brass Band and the Mahogany Brass Band (see 2013 Day 2). At St. Augustine High School, he was a member and drum major of the world famous Marching 100 band. He attended Xavier University of Louisiana and received numerous awards for his musical ability and knowledge on his way to a B.A. in Music Studies. 

Paul Robertson, the big guy on trombone, is from Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. He's been in Smitty Dee’s Brass Band, the Algiers Brass Band, and the Palmetto Bug Stompers, just to name a few. He's another graduate of Xavier.

Corey Peyton, the skinny guy on trombone, was raised in New Orleans and played in the marching band at Sarah T. Reed High School (since closed). He's played with brass bands such as the Kinfolk, Hot 8, and Rebirth. He fits his work with the Soul Rebels around his studies in music production at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

On sousaphone, Edward Lee Jr. was raised in New Orleans, graduated from St. Augustine High School, and attended Jackson State University in Mississippi. He is also a teacher for Roots of Music, an after-school program that teaches kids ages 9 to 14 music theory and standard marching band fundamentals.

Lumar Leblanc, on the snare drum, also was raised in New Orleans and attended St. Augustine High School. He graduated from Texas Southern University

Derrick Moss, on the bass drum, attended Eleanor McMain Secondary School, where he learned how to read and perform concert music. He also picked up drums and percussion and marched as the tenor drum section leader in the school band. At Southern University, he was drum major for the marching band and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Design. 

The Soul Rebels are a great band. Their chemistry and pesonality are incredible, and the way they have incroporated modern classic rock and heavy metal into the brass band genre is nothing short of inspired. My video is the only one that I can find of this performance, although a search of YouTube will find tons of others. By the way, the song that calls out "504" for a response from the audience is referring to the Area Code of New Orleans. They are very proud of "the 504." As they should be. 

We stayed to the end of this performance and sauntered our way out of Armstrong Park back into the French Quarter (check out the guy with the tricked-out bicycle who was in the area), because we still had one more thing to do tonight, and that was a proper dinner at one of our favorites, GW Fins seafood restaurant. We had a little more than an hour to fill before our reservation, so we walked down St. Peter Street past the ruckus of Bourbon Street to hang out in front of Preservation Hall for a spell, then we strolled in the peace and quiet of Royal Street. The time was not going by quickly, though, and we had been standing for a long time at Armstrong Park, so we just decided to hang out at the bar at GW Fins, where we could at least have a seat. Laurie had bourbon and soda while I had a Hopitoulas IPA from NOLA Brewing.

We went to the reception area at the appointed hour, 9:30 p.m., where we were told that our reservation was for 8:30 p.m. The walk and the time at the bar were enjoyable, but good grief. I prepare for this trip with all manner of notes and schedules, but no calendar reminders in my phone; I'm just not wired that way. Lesson learned. Fortunately they did find a table for us, in the front of the room with a nice view of the whole scene. Even at 9:30 this place was almost completely full. 

Fins is a large large, bustling restaurant, but our table was fairly peaceful. The wait staff was great. Like last year when we were there, our waiter was really knowledgeable and friendly (we like when waiters act like themselves), and the rest of the staff was so good you never had to ask or wait for anything. 

For an appetizer we got Fins' signature smoked sizzling oysters. The oysters are cold smoked, then dipped in drawn butter. Meanwhile, the shells are heated to 500 degrees. The cold oysters are dropped into the hot shells and brought to the table semi-raw and sizzling, the liquor bubbling. This is pretty close to a perfect dish.

I had a glass of Gascon Reserve Malbec. Laurie had water without ice (remember, there was bourbon earlier).

For the main course, Laurie had bar jack (a Gulf fish) and I had red snapper. The bar jack (on the left) was served with sweet potato spoonbread, maque choux, crispy okra, and corn butter. The snapper came with local long-grain rice, crawfish etouffee, and lobster butter. Both were excellent. This place takes seafood to an art form. By this time we were just plain old worn out after a long day of travel and walking, and we still needed to walk back to the Staybridge, so we passed on desert and coffee and headed back to our home away from home. 

As we said last year, Festing begins tomorrow, and we ... are ... ready!!!

© Jeff Mangold 2012