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Published: 2002/05/21
by Jeff Waful

A JazzFest Diary

Jazz Fest sucks. Being in New Orleans during the Jazz and Heritage Festival is really rather boring. All the music sounds the same and it’s basically an excuse for venues to jack up their prices and get rich off of innocent tourists. Sure, on paper it looks like an all right time, but in reality Jazz Fest is nothing more than cheesy propaganda pure and simple. The food’s bland, the laws are too strict, the women are all ugly and the locals are rude. And where the hell is all this good music that everyone keeps talking about?

Okay, now that I have your attention, let’s try that opening paragraph again. My brain is still a bit disoriented

Jazz Fest is heaven on earth. It is a crazy time of year and there is really nothing like it. For those that have never been, imagine the diversity of a festival bill spread out across an entire city, with the added luxuries of hotel rooms, five-star restaurants, air conditioning, river boats and of course, a cheesy, yet dazzling casino. Then throw hundreds of bands into the mix and what you get is New Orleans during Jazz Fest. It is of course impossible to witness even 5% of the music that takes place during this 10-day event, which means everyone has a completely unique experience.

My journey begins on Saturday April 27.

10:56 p.m. I haven’t blinked in over a minute. I feel like I’m on the verge of my first epileptic seizure. Lighting director Chris Kuroda (Phish) has taken over the Orpheum Theater for the moment and is tickling the back of my retinas with a dozen strobing X Spots. Vida Blue is no longer visible, as the stage is hidden behind thick clouds of billowing fog. I pull my frosty $7 cocktail close to my cheek in an attempt to cool down. It’s like a sauna in here.

12:41 a.m. As the house lights come up, I quickly head towards the door. Outside it’s still close to 90 degrees and it smells like garbage. There isn’t much difference in the temperature as I step out into the bustling night life. I jog two blocks down the street and around the corner to the Saenger Theater. A small crowd of kids – some with fingers in the air, some holding signs inhibits the sidewalk in front of the venue. I enter the theater midway through String Cheese Incident’s second set and the place is absolutely rocking. I’m immediately struck by the elated vibe in the air. Everyone seems to be having the time of their life and there are more beautiful, dancing women than I have ever seen in one place. In contrast to Vida Blue, which was funky and entertaining yet still maturing as a unit, String Cheese is tight as a drum. Dilated pupils, sparkled cheeks, exposed midriffs and fairy wings greet me as I wander into the show. I feel like an outsider who’s just crashed the party. It is a disorienting feeling, walking into a concert already in progress. I’m usually rather anal about catching every note of music at a given show. This is simply not possible in The Big Easy. Better get used to it now.

2:18 a.m. Dave and I head down Bourbon Street and the stench of warm urine, cheap perfume and aging vomit fills the air. This place is exactly like all those “Girls Gone Wild” commercials. Drinking in public is not only legal, but actually encouraged. There is a weird mix of middle-aged tourists, local high school kids, college meatheads, town drunks and hippies. I’m not sure which category we fit into.

3: 47 a.m. The alcohol and caffeine in my system are beginning to battle it out. The alcohol seems to be winning and I contemplate more stimulants. The New Deal will take the stage in 90 minutes or so and we’re wondering if we should rally or head for bed. We opt for sleep. Wimps.

Sunday April 28

2:12 p.m. It’s way too hot out. I feel rather faint in the 95-degree heat. We’re told this is the hottest day in the history of the Jazz and Heritage Festival as we enter the fairgrounds. We’ve skipped breakfast and I’m in desperate search of a coffee and a bagel. I reluctantly settle for crawfish strudel and cafu lait, both of which are amazing. We move to the Acura Stage where Dr. John’s set has just begun. I’m still feeling rather weak from the heat and pounding hangover. The April sunshine is a bit too intense for a fair-skinned Northerner such as myself. Dr. John, who is severely overdressed in a suit, sounds funky and tight, but it’s hard for me to relate. I head for the Jazz Tent, which is rocking. My spirits are suddenly lifted as I take shelter and enjoy an oversized iced tea and a crawfish po’boy.

6:33 p.m. After a much-needed nap, it’s time for more food. We’re seated in the frigid, air-conditioned lounge of the Red Fish Grill on Bourbon Street. The Bloody Mary I’m sipping is zesty and stiff. Our waitress can’t stop asking questions about us, which takes me by surprise, but is a nice change from the Northeast. There is something to be said for southern hospitality.

8:11 p.m. There is a mad dash for the front row as the doors open at the Saenger. We’ve decided to catch the String Cheese show in its entirety tonight. While I’ve seen the band several times, their sound keeps changing, albeit subtly. The opener, “Round The Wheel,” elicits joyous screams from the capacity crowd. Although the song’s chorus is rather trite, the textural funk vamp that follows more than makes up for the lyrical shortcomings. The band’s strong point on this night is its ensemble jamming. As talented as each player is, drummer Michael Travis may get my vote for Most Valuable Player. Call me crazy. The sound is perfect, which is standard for the Cheese. The light show is elaborate and precise, although too many colors are used at once, which takes away from the drama of say, a simple wash of red.

11:53 p.m. Set breaks are generally hilarious and tonight is no exception. As I wait in the bathroom line, I douse my eyes with several drops of saline solution to combat the dried out contact lenses. A scrawny, dready kid taps me on the shoulder and nonchalantly asks, “Hey man, is that doses?” I answer him honestly, but wish I hadn’t. I don’t know why it is so funny to me. Maybe it’s because the kid was serious. Maybe it’s because the tone in his voice told me that he desperately wanted some. I can’t imagine someone else thinking that I would just suddenly ingest 20 or so drops of liquid acid in my eyes while waiting in line for the bathroom at set break. Are there people out there that really do this? 20 drops? That’s quite a puddle.

3:11 a.m. We hit the casino. I’m sure there are several amazing shows taking place around town right now, but it’s been a long day and we need something different, believe it or not. Sitting in the climate-controlled cavern sipping free cocktails is just fine with me at the moment. Everyone I’m with wins at least $50. I only play the slot machines and lose.

4:26 a.m. Bourbon Street is dead. We head for the hotel.

Monday April 29

10:00 a.m. I only slept for five hours or so, but I feel okay. I post the weekend’s news on and after an hour or so head out to grab some breakfast. I learn very quickly that coffee is not a high priority in New Orleans, at least on Canal Street. I walk for at least 20 blocks, determined to find a good cup of Joe. After 45 minutes or so, I finally stumble upon a coffee shop on Decatur Street with a sign that reads “Caffeine This Way.” There is a god. Everyone in this place seems to be a tourist from the Northeast, except for one local who is sitting in front of his laptop transcribing music. This, along with the coffee, brings my first smile of the day.

8:40 p.m. No one knows where Old Point Bar is. Three cab drivers in a row refuse to take us there. Finally someone agrees to drive us, and it’s far. For the first time since we arrived, we actually use the highway – and a large bridge. The cab fare is nearly $20 and we’re out in the middle of nowhere. When we reach the bar we realize it’s actually right across the river from New Orleans and there is a free ferry. We can almost see our hotel from here. We basically drove in a big circle. Note to self: next year, take the ferry.

9:23 p.m. Old Point Bar is a very chill place. The beer selection is by far the best we’ve encountered and I kick back a few Sierra Nevada’s as we wait for Garage A Trois to take the stage. I run into several people who live within a couple miles of my house in Boston and they’re all Jazz Fest veterans. “You took a cab here? Dude, there’s a free ferry.” Yeah, thanks.

11:07 p.m. Garage A Trois takes the stage one by one. It is a tiny, crowded room and Skerik tells us that each of the band members will take advantage of the intimacy by playing a short solo piece. This also serves as a clever way of sound-checking, as the stage was just wired minutes ago. The quartet, which also includes Stanton Moore, Charlie Hunter and Mike Dillion, plays a mellow, yet intriguing first set. The crowd is very respectful, at least where I stand. Stanton and Charlie spend most of the time smiling at each other as they trade musical ideas. It is infectious.

1:36 a.m. The body heat is unbearable. We decide to spend set break outside, where a makeshift bar is set up on the sidewalk. Across the street from the club is a levee, which is crowded with people, some of whom have listened to the whole show from there. It’s like having lawn seats at an amphitheater, except it’s free and there’s no security. The temperature has dropped about 20 degrees and it’s a pleasant evening on the banks of the Mississippi. Much revelry takes place atop our mighty mountain and when the band takes the stage for the second set, many including us opt to stay outside.

2:11 a.m. Someone decides to roll down the hill and dozens follow. I’m sure this happens every night (a hill across the street from a bar, you think?), but it still cracks me up. I feel like I’m about eight years old. Nearly everyone here is on vacation and a collective giggle washes over the hillside as the band orchestrates our fun.

Tuesday April 30

7:14 p.m. We’ve discovered that the casino has an all-you-can-eat buffet. It offers a wide variety of dishes and at $20, it’s a steal. I overindulge on a smorgasbord of Creole, Cajun and Chinese. My friends win more money, while I roll my eyes.

9:45 p.m. Boarding has begun on the Riverboat Cajun Queen, where Garage A Trois will perform shortly. I’m not sure if life gets much better than this. The riverboat experience is something that everyone must try at least once in his or her lifetime. Hats off to Superfly Productions for putting on these shows. The crowd it attracts is second to none. Everyone who is on the boat is here for the right reasons. These are the veteran music fans, the ones that planned months in advance and are prepared. It is an extremely friendly and festive bunch. And there’s going to be music on top of this?

11:16 p.m. Garage A Trois sounds like a different band tonight and I feel like we’ve made the right decision to see them two nights in a row. Whereas last night’s show consisted of mellower jazz numbers, tonight the group is throwing down the funk. It is a celebration. I bop around the boat, content on just checking out the scene. The soundboard mix is piped up to the deck, where many dance under the stars as the New Orleans skyline recedes into the distance.

12:39 a.m. During set break The Hot Eight Brass Band entertains the giddy crowd on the top deck. It’s classic New Orleans. People get very intoxicated on this booze cruise, but I don’t encounter any obnoxious drunks. Everyone seems content to simply enjoy the ride. It’s quite refreshing. My ongoing joke is to tell people that my friend got kicked out of the show and many people seem genuinely concerned. Then they remember we’re on a boat.

Wednesday May 1

4:22 p.m. Today is when things start to get interesting. A whole new crop of musicians and fans are arriving in town for the upcoming weekend. The hotel lobby is quite chaotic. I check out and head across town to the Garden District where my colleagues from Relix, Sage and Schwartz, are checking into the Ponchartrain Hotel. These are much nicer digs and I waste no time in testing out the bed. I’m in need of a nap, as tonight will be the first of many late nights with multiple shows. Thus far on the trip, I’ve been pacing myself, but now it’s time to get serious.

9:58 p.m. We return to the Cajun Queen for moe. It is a very different atmosphere tonight, although it is equally festive. There are quite a few tapers erecting mic stands in front of the massive sound board that has been brought in. It’s funny to see moe. cram all of its theater-sized production into a tiny room on a boat. Midway through the first set, the band plays “Nosuch River” amidst requests for “Ship of Fools,” “Big River” and “Down By the River” (okay, that one was me). The set concludes with a huge version of “Buster.”

12:01 a.m. Word gets around pretty quick on a boat. Out on the back deck during set break, guitarist Al Schnier is raving about Particle, who will be playing late tonight/tomorrow morning at some random bar called Jimmy’s. He says they’ve invited him to sit in, and given his recent side project Al.One, it seems like an appropriate collaboration. I’m also told that Warren Haynes will be stopping by the Howlin’ Wolf to play with Jerry Jospeh later tonight. The rest of our night is suddenly planned.

2:22 a.m. Someone claims that the Howlin’ Wolf is three blocks from the pier and we begin to walk. Suspicious, I hail a cab and ask for directions. When they get complicated, I tell him to just drive us there. It turns out it is quite a ways away. Shortly after we arrive, Warren and Dave Schools take the stage for “Chain Saw City.” The packed house is oozing with adrenaline as the band plows through a brief rendition of “Whole Lotta Love” and eventually a soothing “Cortez the Killer.”

4:34 a.m. We hail a cab en route to Jimmy’s. I’m very tired, but know that sleep is not an option. This place is out in the sticks, but there are plenty of people milling about when we arrive. The sky is beginning to lighten as we enter the bar. It’s set break and the dance floor is empty. I meet various west coasters who until now were mere email addresses.

5:16 a.m. A good-sized crowd sticks around for the second set. Schnier takes the stage for “Launch Pad” and plays keyboards. Particle’s sound is driving and somewhat trancy, but it’s impossible for me to dance at this point of the night, or morning or whatever the hell time it is. Topaz emerges out of nowhere and adds saxophone to the mix. I’m out of gas. Others are still ordering drinks at the bar.

7:47 a.m. Back at the hotel, I upload several digital photos and email them north to Budnick, who is most likely starting his day about now. I can’t wait to wake up in 2 hours and work. Nothing like burning the candle on both ends. My head hits the pillow and I’m out instantly.

Thursday May 2

10:02 a.m. I fall out of bed and stumble towards my laptop. Mustpostnews

2 p.m. I try to nap, but there is too much going on. Our hotel room is “Relix South” as Schwartz keeps saying each time he answers the phone. It seems that everyone is in town today and between our three cell phones and the room phone, the ringing is constant. Of course Sage and Schwartz have been in town less than 24 hours and are well rested and ready to party. I feed off their energy and realize I can sleep some other time.

3:32 p.m. I get the call that John Popper and Warren will be sitting in with moe. tonight. “Be ready for the photo op.”

4:00 p.m. Popper’s now out, but all of Gov’t Mule may take the stage, “so be prepared.”

4:11 p.m. I get another call. Expect special guests at the Galactic show tonight. “It’s gonna be crazy.”

7:32 p.m. The Orpheum Theater is rapidly filling. The word backstage is that Popper most-likely is not coming, but midway through the second set Gov’t Mule will take over and moe. will leave the stage. “Don’t tell anyone.”

8:31 p.m. The Saenger Theater is already packed with Galactic fans as Jack Johnson performs his opening set. An informant confirms that there will be several special guests in Galactic’s first set. “You don’t wanna miss it.”

10:13 p.m. A crowd is forming around the Relix promotional table in the Orpheum lobby as eager fans marvel at our free stuff: flashing “bling-blings” and lighters (complete with built-in bottle-opener).

10:24 p.m. Jeff Coffin, DJ Logic and Jack Johnson each join Galactic on stage at the Saenger, as I snap photos.

10:31 p.m. “It’s all like a big game,” Annabel says of my attempts to be at two shows at the same time.

11:18 p.m. The members of Gov’t Mule and moe. mingle about in the greenroom during set break at the Orpheum. It’s like a class reunion.

12:08 a.m. Warren Haynes takes the stage during “Opium.” He’s not exactly a rare special guest, but the crowd erupts when he emerges. Schools walks out next and Rob Derhak hands him his bass with a ceremonious “passing of the torch” gesture. Gradually moe. disappears and we’re suddenly at a Gov’t Mule show. I wonder about the people who were in the bathroom during all of this and returned to their seats to find a different band on stage. Mule tears through “Thorazine Shuffle” and the energy is off the map. The members of moe. sip beers on the side of the stage and watch their peers perform.

2:58 a.m. There is a line down the street outside the Maple Leaf as Robert Walter’s 20th Congress opens with “Back in Black.” I find the lovely Jordan and Jenny, who have just come from the airport. They drag me into the ridiculously crowded room where the band is playing. We attempt to dance up front, but there is barely enough room for me to lift my beverage to my mouth, let alone bust a move. The band is off the hook though, so I dance from the waist up.

4:01 a.m. The girls are heading to the Howlin’ Wolf for a private party, but I decide to retire for the evening. Tomorrow’s schedule is even more ridiculous and I want to be ready.

4:38 a.m. Schwartz and Sage are sound asleep, so I bring my laptop into the bathroom and upload the night’s pictures. My body is slowly adjusting to this schedule and every night becomes a bit easier. Although I was on the verge of passing out an hour ago, for some reason, I’m wide awake now and decide to write tomorrow’s news.

Friday May 3

7:47 p.m. Well, tonight’s the big night. I’ve had this date circled on the calendar for months. At three different theaters within a two block radius, Gov’t Mule, Les Claypool, Medeski Martin & Wood, Soulive and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are playing. There is no possible way I’ll see everything, so I decide to strategize. Gov’t Mule will have an insane amount of special guests, so after stopping by each of the other venues for a few minutes, I settle in at The State Palace for the main event.

11:19 p.m. I’m sure you’ve heard by now, but everyone and their brother sat in with the Mule tonight. Skerik, Logic, Herring, Claypool, the Deep Banana Horns, the list goes on and on. There was early speculation that there would be a Mule->Phil & Friends->Mule segue, similar to the moe. theatrics last night, but Phil’s plane is delayed getting in. The show is one of the best performances I’ve seen all week. Haynes is a machine.

2:25 a.m. Tears come to my eyes as Warren sings “Wild Horses” to close the show. Thousands of arms, raised in triumph, are silhouetted by the blinding white lights that shine on the crowd during the final chorus. What a show.

3:33 a.m. Tipitina’s is out of control. There are more people outside on the street then inside the club. The show has been sold out for weeks, but many mill about desperately trying to get in. The Disco Biscuits have just taken the stage. The band is on fire, especially Jon Gutwillig, who has come to play tonight. He is a man on a mission. The last time I saw the group, I was disappointed. Tonight, however I am moved by their tenacity. Schwartz and I do the “Bisco hop.”

6:17 a.m. Sunlight enters the building as the band plays on. I now notice that the club has several windows (many of my previous late-night show experiences had occurred at Wetlands Preserve in New York City, which had no windows). It gets lighter by the minute inside Tips and I forget what day it is.

7:09 a.m. The show is over and Marc Brownstein is throwing broccoli at the dressing room wall. No particular reason, but it’s funny as hell. It’s 7 a.m. and Brownstein’s throwing broccoli.

7:54 a.m. A large group of us stand dazed and confused outside the club. No one really has anything to say, so we just sort of stand there.

8:08 a.m. Best Cab Ride Ever. The driver is sitting by the curb, playing an acoustic guitar when I jump in the back seat. After a little small talk, he can tell that I’m dying to play the thing and hands it to me. It is way out of tune, but a few blocks later, I get it sounding pretty good to my ears anyway. We glide through the empty streets of the Garden District while I strum “Fluffhead.” It’s like a scene out of a movie. Everything moves in slow motion and I feel like a bird welcoming the day with a song at sunrise. The friendly cab driver is bobbing his head and whistling in harmony to my playing. The moment is poetic. It is the perfect ending to a legendary night. When our journey is complete, I give him a generous tip and tell him twice, “this was the best cab ride ever, thank you sir.”

8:29 a.m. I realize I’m starving and head into the plush hotel restaurant where a group of well-dressed businessmen are having some kind of important meeting. Here I am, drenched in sweat, disheveled and delirious, alone at the table next to them. I sit in silence, reading the newspaper. The whole thing is rather amusing to me and I hide my face behind the sports page. Hey, the Red Sox won again.

Saturday May 4

2:03 p.m. Housekeeping won’t stop bothering me. It’s 2 p.m. for crying out loud. A non-English speaking woman is pounding on the door. “Read the sign on the doorknob,” I yell in my sleep. “It says Do Not Disturb.”

5:14 p.m. I’m still in bed and can’t decide if I should go back to sleep or get up and eat. My whole concept of time has been completely transformed. I choose food.

9:50 p.m. The Blind Boys of Alabama really are blind, three of them anyway. The lead vocalist is being led through the crowd at the Saenger Theater and has been holding the same note for more than twenty seconds. Everyone in the venue is standing and cheering in disbelief. This gospel shit is contagious. If you plan on going to Bonnaroo, make sure to check these cats out.

11:13 p.m. Several scantily clad women from the Shim Sham Revue are dancing on the front of the stage, while Galactic wails in the background.

3:03 a.m. We return to Tipitina’s, this time for the North Mississippi All-stars. Pure rock and roll is a welcome change from the various blends of fusion I’ve encountered for most the week. Hendrix meets Zeppelin. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

3:34 a.m. Robert Randolph takes the stage for a few songs and we’re treated to 75% of The Word.

4:17 a.m. People are really letting loose tonight. I think everyone I’ve met this week is here. Several shots of tequila are shoved in my face within 5 minutes. How do you say no to that? It’s New Orleans.

6:28 a.m. I walk home from a nearby hotel and feel very calm. The world around me is silent. The sun is out now and the chorus from “Dear Prudence” comes to mind. I walk much slower and revel in the song’s beauty.

Sunday May 5

12:18 p.m. “I wake up on my stomach with my face between my hands and crawl along the floor toward the doorway. Jumping to my feet I try to pull myself together, but I feel it in my knees and the room begins to spin and I slip and bump my head and raise a welt. Split Open and Melt.”

12:56 p.m. Sage and Schwartz convince me to come to the Fairgrounds for RatDog and Phil & Friends. I’m physically drained, hung over and cranky, but I decide to push on.

1:40 p.m. Surprisingly, my Jazz Fest experience today is amazing. A large patch of clouds has moved in from the West and it’s cooled off significantly. RatDog sounds better than I’ve ever heard them. Bobby, wearing a grey beard, is pumped and playing with conviction.

2:14 p.m. The first food I taste today is a chocolate-covered strawberry that Heidi brings me in the middle of the concert field. It is orgasmic. My appetite is wet and I head for the food vendors. I stuff my face with a catfish po’boy, a crawfish po’boy, stuffed mushrooms and fresh fruit. The woman standing behind me in line tells me that she actually comes to Jazz Fest more for the food than the music.

3:56 p.m. Phil & Friends are ripping “Help On The Way,” but most of the people around us are looking towards the sky. The sun is trying to break through the clouds and has created a glowing silver lining with refracted rays of light pouring down on us. The deep blue behind this spectacle creates a stark contrast. Predictions float through the crowd that the next song will be “Touch of Grey,” “Looks Like Rain,” or “Here Comes Sunshine.” We’re all wrong.

4:46 p.m. Euphoric chills run down the back of my neck as I am enlightened in the Gospel Tent. It is such a perfect juxtaposition to Phil’s set. Fifty or so singers donning white robes depart the stage, revealing the backing band, which is just killing it. I’m blown away by the rhythm section and thousands around me rejoice. I may convert.

10:45 p.m. I awake in my hotel room. The “cat nap” that I decided to take has turned into several hours. I’m really disoriented and have no concept of time, place or date.

11:40 p.m. The Funky Meters are burning. The Orpheum Theater is packed to the gills as I wander aimlessly around the venue. It’s hard for me to form sentences, but I converse briefly with several new friends whom I’ve met over the last nine days. The big question is where everyone will be heading later tonight. Like every night, there are simply too many choices.

1:14 a.m. We decide to kill some time on Bourbon Street before the late night shows begin. My body feels awake now, like I have just started a new day. I’m joined by a group of women who want to dance, so we look for an appropriate club. The first bar we pass is blaring Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough,” which makes our decision very easy. We all let loose on the dance floor and I get my exercise for the day.

3:16 a.m. Soulive and its horn section are on stage at the House of Blues. I can’t dance anymore, but I appreciate the groove nonetheless. I sort of just stare at the stage and contemplate the fact that I’ll be in my own bed at this time tomorrow. Most of the crowd seems pretty lackadaisical, although the band sounds great.

5:05 a.m. I decide to make it an early night and head to bed, exhausted.

Better rest up for next year

[Editor's note: to check out some of the images Jeff took down in New Orleans stop by our JazzFest Photo Gallery.

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