New Orleans is known for throwing a good party just about every day of the year, but there's not much that can compare to the “week in between” (Monday to Wednesday) and the second weekend of the Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that happen in late April/early May every year. It's a music-and-food lover's cornucopia of delights, combining top musical acts performing in clubs and at special events all over town with the best food to be found in America.
This year, for example, at Louisiana Music Factory, the well-known local record store that recently opened in an expanded location on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny district, there were free live performances throughout the days in the week in between. Local favorites (and nationally known group) Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue was just one of the great bands that played live in the store in front of a large crowd of fans; there was Kermit Ruffins, Big Sam's Funky Nation and many others hitting the small stage all week there.
On Oak Street in the Uptown district of the city, the 2nd Annual Oak Street Block Party went off all afternoon on Wednesday April 30, 2014. Happy revelers enjoyed free crawfish and checked out local vendors set up along the street, while free live music played all day from a large stage set up in the middle of the closed-off street. Bands also performed inside the Maple Leaf Bar, while down the block Jacques Imo's and Squeal restaurants welcomed partygoers looking for a taste of some of the best food in town. The party, funded and put together by www.bearcreekmusicfestival.com and sponsored by www.fiyawerx.com, the Maple Leaf Bar and www.Jamcruise.com, helped raise funds for WWOZ, the local non-profit public radio station run by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation.
Later on Wednesday night, another free concert happened in Lafayette Square in the Central Business District. The YLC Wednesday at the Square is a free, 12-week concert series held every summer that benefits the Young Leadership Council and is sponsored by the New Orleans Saints. It's a great place to meet up with friends, enjoy the music, sample local foods and check out local artisans set up at booths along the perimeter of the park; during the week in between, Eric McFadden, Jerry Joseph, Norwood Fisher and Eric Bolivar headlined with an all-star band on a perfectly gorgeous evening.
Wednesday was also a perfect night to wander over to Borgne, Chef John Besh's “Coastal Louisiana Cuisine” collaboration with Chef Brian Landry, which is just a few blocks from Lafayette Square in the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. That's the place with crazy good, seriously local eats could make you forget all about music – for a few hours, anyway. Based on the fishing/hunting-camp fare traditionally cooked up while out in the waters and woods nearby NOLA, the menu has some astonishingly delicious choices. Start with the “hunting camp style” duck poppers, made with jalapeno and bacon for a dense, smoky mouthful of wonderful, and you may need two orders of the grilled octopus, served with a spicy Berber hummus. Throw in their “festival lemonade” – honeysuckle vodka, strawberry, mint, rose, lemonade – and you may not need anything else for perfect happiness. Well, except for their wonderful seafood entrees (try the famed oyster spaghetti or the black drum a la plancha, paired with a crisp Albariño wine from Spain) and the insane chocolate hazelnut puddin' dessert. That is heaven in a mason jar and like no “pudding” you have ever tasted before.
Meanwhile, all week long in venues all over town – think Tipitina's, House of Blues, d.b.a., the Spotted Cat, Rock ‘n' Bowl, the Howlin' Wolf, etc. – there were music shows starting at 9 p.m. and continuing until 2, 3, even 4 a.m.! And they didn't stop on Thursday, when the second weekend of Jazz Fest began again at the Fair Grounds Race Course. Four days of music, from Thursday through Sunday, held on 11 stages from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. might be enough for some people, but not for locals and their out-of-town visitors, who barely sleep as the week blurs by.
There was even a counter-programming event on Friday May 2, an all-day concert held on two stages (one outside under a tent, the other inside in a cavernous space) at Mardi Gras World, overlooking the Mississippi River. The Fiya Fest (created by Fiyawerx Productions) was a massive show featuring live music from an all-star cast of over 95 rock, funk, soul and blues artists (including Cyril Neville, Stanton Moore, Big Sam, Corey Glover, Billy Iuso, Papa Mali, Maceo Parker and many others), plus a crawfish boil with all the fixings included in the admission price.
But most local and out-of-town fans were at the Jazz Fest for four days, where astonishing musical moments happened all through the second weekend. There was Jimmy Buffet – who did not even play a gig at the fest this year – coming onstage to jam with Alan Toussaint; Christina Aguilera belting out the Etta James classic “At Last”; a segment reuniting The Radiators; The String Cheese Incident, Lyle Lovett, Solange, Johnny Winter, Foster the People, Arcade Fire, the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars, Dumpstaphunk and John Fogerty all delighting the massed music lovers of all ages, in picture-perfect weather; and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue closing out the 45th Annual Fest with a crowd-pleasing last set on the Acura stage. And speaking of crowd pleasing, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band drew a tremendous sea of people on Saturday and spent three hours reminding everyone exactly why they are the greatest and he is the Boss.
“Thank you Jazz Fest for having us back!” Springsteen shouted over the vociferous cheering. “It is always a pleasure to play here in New Orleans where it all began.”
And the place where everyone who loves all kinds of music will return again next year, same time, same place, for a musical experience that is unmatched anywhere on the planet.
Follow Jenny Peters and Spywitness onTwitter@jennpeters