What’s happening? Are you ready for me to finish up on Jazz Fest? I am ready to get it done so that I can move on to a couple of shows that I have checked out recently, as well as some other things of massive and world-shaking import.
Let me get my biases out right from the start: I don’t like huge shows that are packed with people. I’m generally not a festival guy. And I have a strong preference for clubs and intimate settings. Of course, those feelings are going to impact anything I say about Jazz Fest because it’s a bunch of huge shows, it’s packed with people, it is a festival, and the setting is far from intimate. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the experience and have some very pleasant memories of the event. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on Jazz Fest and the entire festival experience.
Jazz Fest has one strong thing going for it: it’s in New Orleans. Only Las Vegas matches this city as a party central venue. New Orleans has great southern hospitality, fantastic food, bacchanalia to make Bacchus blush, a still-lively and vibrant music scene, and a generally warm and favorable climate. I hadn’t been to the city since Katrina, and was happy to see that the parts that I visited were back and apparently thriving. However, it’s obvious that the city’s professional community is smaller than it was before (and it was small before), and that the city now relies on one basic industry, tourism. And like all cities, it has its warts. Crime is high, the city is rundown, it smells, it attracts hoards of drunken buffoons, and Bourbon Street is remarkably odd for a tourist destination. But all in all, not a bad place to spend a few days.
I like people (and I love BRP readers!). I just don’t enjoy them as much all at once. JF on Thursday has an enjoyable level of people. Not so on Friday/weekend days. There are A LOT of people there on those days, which means longer lines for everything (food, toilets, drinks) and crowded conditions for music-watching. Upside: good people watching. Upside: mainly 50 and 60 somethings who are buzzed but not drunk and disorderly. Downsides are obvious: lines, hassle, the occasional asshole (but less than I expected by far), and hard to get close to the music.
Headliners notwithstanding, there is a big emphasis on local talent. Lots of bands hail from New Orleans, and bring with it its signature sounds – zydeco, Cajun, R&B, blues and lots and lots of horns. That’s all cool by me. The headliners are different and are designed to bring in the crowds, so you might have rockers, funksters or whatevers. Note that the crowds for the headliners are huge and make the music watching a challenge and not nearly as enjoyable as you would prefer. Many of the other acts bring decent-sized crowds, but not so large as to make it miserable. And the earlier they play, the smaller the crowd. We had some great music-watching, but I wouldn’t go there to see the headliners unless you are dropping some serious coin for the VIP tickets.
Getting There and Back
You can’t walk there from downtown. So it’s cabs, Ubers, private cars, buses or bikes. Cabs are semi-reasonable at a fixed price of $7 per person, but if you have more people, Uber is cheaper. The bus is the cheapest of all – and we had a great bus experience the one time that we rode it. We did everything but bikes, which appear to be the best option. Recognize that when the day ends, EVERYONE is looking for a ride back to town, and that means loooooooooong lines. All in all, not the most pleasant experience.
If you aren’t tired by the end of the day, there is a lot of tag-along music in the city that takes place after JF shuts down. Of course, the Quarter has its share of party bands, and they are fun, but plenty of acts are playing all over the city. It will add to the expense of your trip, for sure, but if there is someone you want to see, this might be the better option.
One of my problems with the entire festival scene is the limited set. Most bands at JF get an hour. Now, if you paid to see an act at your local club and they only played an hour, you probably paid $10 or 15 and they only have one album out. But if they are a veteran act and only play an hour, you are either getting the “greatest hits” show or a slice that leaves out many of your favorites. Sure, you get to see the band, but you don’t “see” them in the same way as if they were the headliner at your local scene.
A daily general admission ticket is $65, and you get to see probably 5 or 6 acts (you can “see” more, but only for a few songs, which isn’t really “seeing” them, know what I mean?). It’s a pretty good deal given the number of national acts that roll through, but again, it’s hard to see those acts in a truly good way. You can spring for standing-room at the front of each stage, but the price differential is huge. And if you are the 1%, you can sit in covered bleachers, but they aren’t so close to the stage, and it’s even more expensive. We went the daily route, which is also important given the vagaries of the weather. Oh, and there is other stuff going on at JF. There are parades of locals dressed in Mardi Gras regalia, crafts, kids tents, etc. It’s not just music, but I would only go to it because of the music.
Mud and Weather
JF is outside and susceptible to the vagaries of weather. The Gulf Coast is rainy, hot and humid. We got some glorious days, but also some rain the day before. And since the festival is held in the infield of a horse race track, there is mud and to contend with. And some of that stuff that looks like mud? It ain’t mud. Boots are the fashion on muddy days. And bring sunscreen because it can be hot and sunny on the bayou. I can’t imagine going there and hanging out in the pouring rain, or when it’s 95 and humid. But since BRP was in town, the weather cooperated, haha.
Now, this is a huge “thumbs up” for JF. Great local food (soft-shell po boys, Andouille and crawfish sausages, gumbo, jambalaya, pork and cole slaw po boys, etc) and all reasonably priced. I’m big on value and hate getting ripped off (Camden alert!), and JF delivered big-time here. Bring cash – no cards allowed – but there are convenient portable ATMs around. Alcohol and beverages aren’t as good a value, but it’s not $14 per beer, either. All in all, this is a highlight.
Bring Your Gear
You need to bring a chair of some sort (or spring for the VIP tickets, which are truly for the rich – something like $1500 compared to $65). A lot of people bring blankets, tarps or something similar, but remember that you might be putting that stuff down into wet goo/poo. We were lucky enough to have a place to camp out thanks to our buddies. They knew some San Diegans who are regulars and who have the tarps, chairs, baby pool with water/ice, and flagpole and flag so that you can find them. Nothing like rolling out the red carpet for BRP! It’s a pain to travel with chairs, but if you don’t bring some, you are not going to be happy. And oh yeah, don’t forget the boots, and a bag to bring them home in.
Venue Size, Acoustics and Stages
Expect to do some walking. The stages are pretty far apart (which they need to be given that the music is amplified and for crowd control purposes) and oftentimes, you want to see one band at a far stage, then come back to see another band, then back again. That can lead to some poking around, hitting the head, grabbing a cold beverage, etc, and not seeing the bands. The stages are all good, elevated enough for those in the back, and the big ones have the video screens that make your live music experience just like being at home watching it on TV except the guy next to you smells bad and you’re standing in mud and horse dung. The acoustics are generally good but sound waves are waves, and if the wind blows, so do the waves. Like all outside shows, the music sometimes falters because of the weather conditions.
Port-a-potties galore. JF does a good job of making sure they are ‘fresh’ every day, but they still generally stink and have no place to wash your hands. One solution is not to pee on your hands. Expect lines, too. One person told us about how they met some cool people the year before as three of them packed into a port-a-potty while dodging a rainstorm. I don’t know about you, but getting wet didn’t seem like a bad alternative.
The Festival Experience
Like I said before, I’m not really a festival guy. JF is probably the best one out there for the middle-aged as you don’t have many drunken 20 somethings around, but it’s still suffers from the basic maladies: crowds, lines, weather, lack of music intimacy, etc. Sure, they get a lot of big acts, but often they play at the same time (you can’t see them all, but it’s a crowd management tried and true), and JF spreads out over two weekends, so you might not pick the right day anyway. There is also travel and hotel to consider, and New Orleans is moderate in expense, so the entire experience is going to set you back thousands. If you took that same cash and used it to go see local shows, you are likely to be better off.
But festivals also introduce you to acts that you don’t know, and allow you to sample from the many groups that come through. And the people watching is fun. Would I go again? Maybe, but not next year. We went with good friends who like to do their own thing and weren’t up our butt the entire time (and vice versa) and that worked out great, too. Going with a JF veteran, like we did, is also a good idea as there is always some learning the ropes that helps to maximize the experience. Conclusion: we had a good time; I’m glad I did it; I may do it again in a few years, but if I never do it again that is cool, too.
Rock on – back next time with a heavy review for you.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.