Just checked the weather report for New Orleans today, sunny and dry. B and I have been to Jazz Fest something like eight times in the last decade, and I think we’ve made it there for the last five or six in a row (it gets hard to keep track after a while). We’ve been lucky with the weather for at least the last three or four years, tending to come on the rainless weekend on occasions when there’s rain. New Orleans weather in late April/early May is changeable, usually hot and humid, and rain is always a possibility.
So I pack shorts, aloha shirts, a straw hat, t-shirts, tevas, but also a rain slicker, a nonporous hat, sneakers, and a lot of changes of socks. If it rains you make the best of it, put on one of the ponchos advertising a local radio station or a brand of sunblock usually given out for free near the entrance, and hunker down in a tent when possible. I prefer the Jazz tent on such days, but sometimes you just have to go where the seats are. The newest tent is the Blues tent, introduced last year, and its a big one.
Not all the stages are under tents. Some are in large fields and others have smaller audience spaces, with risers set back or to one side. Not all the music is jazz. I think the name of the festival can be misleading. When people hear that B and I return to Fest again year after year, they sometimes surmise that we are jazz fanatics. We like jazz, a lot. We go to Yoshi’s here in Oakland and we always pick out some vocalists or instrumentalists as must-hears at Fest every year. But it’s a Jazz & Heritage festival, and besides the crafts and the all-important food booths, this also means that the music extends well beyond the boundaries of trad Dixieland and more contemporary jazz.
Pretty much anything jazz- or blues-influenced is fair game. You get gospel, zydeco and cajun (of course), reggae, r & b, rock, pop, jamband, and of course da funk. Lately there’s even been some rappers in the house (and I don’t just mean Buckshot Le Fonque). If there’s a kind of American music you like, you can find it somewhere.
Lately we’ve relied more on serendipity. We may not be there the same weekend as Ornette Coleman or Los Lobos, but frankly the bigger names and more famous acts are available to us at other times of year, in dedicated venues. And even some of the venerable must-see acts we’ve stuck to in the past, such as the Hackberry Ramblers and the various Nevilles, Marsalises, and Batiste family bands, no longer have the power to dominate our scheduling plans or drag us away from a serendipitous find.
Yes, it’s fun to look at the day ahead and scope out some picks, but the real gold of Fest is some singer you’ve never heard of, that local band causing a buzz, or some ancient player long overdue for recognition. I always come home with some CDs with no antecedents in my collection, and sometimes – as when I was introduced to James Booker – I come home with a whole new obsession.