Lettin’ it ride in the Big Easy: Jazzfest 2010 recap, Part I: Pre-festival tuneups

There are a lot of great festivals out there vying for the dollars of music fans these days, proof positive that the market for great live music is as strong as ever. When you start comparing them, there are several factors to consider: the strength and diversity of the lineup, location, food and amenities, availability of late night entertainment, and finally overall value. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (better known as just Jazzfest) ranks highly in each category. As an MC said at the end of each day, “The best thing about Jazzfest is that when you leave here [the fairgrounds], you’re in New Orleans.” While the Jazzfest format may be similar to other major festivals, the fact that it takes place in New Orleans makes it as unique as the Crescent City.

“New Orleans is the opposite of America, and we must hold onto places that are the opposite of us. New Orleans is not fast or energetic or efficient, not a go-get-’em Calvinist well-ordered city. It’s slow, lazy, sleepy, sweaty, hot, wet, lazy and exotic,” wrote author Mark Childress in The New York Times shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

But rookies and amateur music fans beware – New Orleans and its many musical attractions are geared toward professional party animals. It’s all too easy to wear yourself out with one late night on the town, and if you’re not careful, it could drag you down for the rest of the weekend (or at least until you catch up on sleep.) The music at the fairgrounds ends at 7 pm each day, a bit early by general festival standards. But there’s a reason for that – when you’re walking out of the fairgrounds, your night is just beginning. There’s any number of evening shows going on all over town, of both the marquee and free varieties, followed by the late late shows that don’t even start until at least 2 am. This is something of a double-edged sword, since it means you’re going to spend more money on food, drinks and taxis than you have at any other festival. But when you’re in New Orleans for just a short time, you’ve gotta live it up. The food at the festival is simply amazing – from the po-boy sandwiches and gumbo to the crawfish monica (zesty macaroni and cheese with crawfish tails) and exotic desserts, you’re not going to beat these culinary offerings at any other festival. It’s only a shame that Miller Lite was allowed to corner the market on beer sales, meaning you couldn’t have a tasty local Abita ale with your local food. This should be changed. But the rest of Jazzfest has got a great thing going.

Iron Horse

Most of the bars stay open all night and you can drink on the streets, which means the fun doesn’t ever have to end on anyone else’s schedule. Drinking becomes almost like breathing, since you don’t need to worry about whether you’re staying or going to the next spot before you order that next drink. But when there are bands you want to see early the next day at the festival, then comes the conflict. Stay out having fun, or go back to home-base and try to get some sleep? Once you fall into the orbit of the night owls, it’s increasingly difficult to pull away from their nocturnal agenda. But if a night owl is what you are, then there’s no other festival that presents as much opportunity to spread your wings as Jazzfest. Sure, some other festivals have late late shows too, but not as many, not with such free-flowing booze and not with that “Nawlins” charm. There’s something special about New Orleans, and for serious music fans, Jazzfest is the best time of year to experience it.

Pre-festival: Wednesday, April 28

My accomplice and I drove from Austin to New Orleans on Wednesday, ready for four days of festival action. We were staying with some comrades in a house just a few blocks from the fairgrounds, rented through a team member that used to live in the neighborhood. We soon learned that staying in this nest of night owls would practically require flying in their nocturnal rhythm. So it was that we found ourselves on Frenchman Street after midnight, one of the city’s top musical hotbeds. The music welcomed us as soon as we got out of the taxi, as two competing horn sections blared their jazzy sounds at each other from opposing street corners while people danced in the streets.

Then it was on to Maison, where guitarist Eric Krasno was playing. Known for his funky acid jazz work with Soulive and Lettuce, Krasno has clearly built up quite a rep over the past decade as no less than Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes both sat in with him at the cozy club. Kreutzmann was in town for a gig with his new band 7 Walkers, who would be opening an evening show for Gov’t Mule on Friday. He played on several tunes and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, which was great to see from a rock legend in his 60s. Then Haynes sat in on a groovy arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” that was more Band of Gypsys-style, and which saw Haynes and Krasno trading licks in a smoking jam. Haynes followed this by singing a lively rendition of the Jerry Garcia Band standard, “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” Later, Krasno and his band threw down a super funky instrumental take on the Beatles’ “Get Back.” Krasno has a new album out and it seems like he’s primed for a big year.

It was a late night out, and well after 4 am by the time we returned home. The night owls who had been in town since the previous first weekend of the festival said this was the earliest they’d been home all week. Local radio station WWOZ played on our little stereo when we got home and all week, and we all quickly fell in love with this fabulous station. They play funky soul jams in the early part of the evening to get you going when you’re getting ready to go out, and ambient jazz when you get back in the wee hours to lull you off to sleep. The playlist covers everything from the oldest vintage jazz to the newest funky stylings.

Coming up next: Thursday, and the party officially begins.