JAZZ FEST 2014: Pre-Festival Recap and Day One Highlights

I arrived in New Orleans on Thursday evening for the annual Jazz Fest celebrations, and with a little under 36 hours under my belt already, I feel like I have had too many amazing experiences to convey in words in the proper manner.

The full range presented by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is really a testament to the culture of New Orleans and the culture that the people of this fair city have built for themselves, and that range is a wide one. There’s jazz, obviously, but there’s a lot of blues on display here, too. There’s gospel, also, mostly housed in a big tent obvious for anyone to see when they arrive at the festival. There’s some zydeco and bluegrass here, as well. African culture, check. The best food you’ll ever eat at a music festival ever, (gut) check. Late-night shows are everywhere. You just need to be here and see it to really believe it, and this being my third time here I’m still constantly impressed by the feelings I have when I’m living it. In short, it’s mostly just awe for the festival and the city and how proud everyone is to be here experiencing it all. No one is pretentious about anything here. Everyone is just blissful. You can just feel it here.

Anyway, I’ll have plenty more to write by the time the weekend’s over so here’s a quick play by play of what’s gone down so far.

My trip started off by meeting my liason at the fairgrounds, getting a lay of the land before the crowds descended on the park. Promptly afterwards, I walked into the bar across the street and ordered a beer to go, then headed outside and waited for my cab to take me into the French Quarter to my hotel. From there I found my crew at an amazing restaurant called Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits, which had an amazing backyard seating area with a band playing and helping us ease into the weekend. A friend had access to the Slightly Stoopid show that was happening at the Joy Theater so the crew headed there and proceeded to walk in the front door of the venue, which was seemingly unstaffed at that point and it didn’t seem to matter. We were sort-of laughing at ourselves for picking this show as our “first” late night stop, so we redeemed ourselves by going NOLA-proper and then heading over to the Maple Leaf to catch one of the Johnny Vidacovich trio shows which featured Jesus from Lettuce and Nicholas Payton playing keys and trumpet. Things were getting remarkably weird there in the best late-night sorta way. Highlight for me included meeting Johnny V’s daughter (“look at my face”) and from there the crew found ourselves back at the house having a late-night dance party to Holy Ghost! while drinking Fireball whiskey. Oy the headaches we had the next morning.

Friday morning rolled around and we hydrated ourselves proper and found a small crew to get heading over to the fairgrounds. I was excited for the full day ahead and musically I was open to what was there that I hadn’t seen before, so our day started with Honey Island Swamp Band on the Samsung stage. They got things going for us while we sweated into our clothes and warmed up our ears, but quickly the sun was taking hold of us so we got ourselves some tasty beverages and made our way over to the Jazz Tent. I started to float around a bit after that and found myself hanging backstage for a few minutes to grab a quick bite of complementary VIP treatment (wooo!) when I saw Ben and Jerry doing the same thing I was. Felt pretty humbling for me to be in such good company.

I caught some of the Infamous Stringdusters jamming their way through “Deep Elem Blues” with a “When the Saints Go Marching” tease, which was pretty slamming and they were keeping people pretty engaged before everyone started to exodus their way over to the Acura Stage area for the headlining set by Santana. He got things rolling before landing on the one-two punch I was waiting for: “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”. Now I can die happy. Seeing those two songs delivered right when people needed a jolt was a real treat, and the crowd definitely played into it and started dancing their way salsa-style through the grass. Definitely a great Jazz Fest moment right there.

When we left we had our sights on Jacques Imo’s Cafe, a must-see restaurant that features some of the best NOLA food you’ll ever get a chance to eat. It’s a pretty heavy menu, so I’d recommmend you refrain from eating lunch when you have this reservation because our whole crew was pretty stuffed by the time we made it out of there. And for our first full-crew late night we all had tickets to The Meter Men show with Page McConnell with Stanton Moore + Marco Benevento opening up as a duo to start the show. That’s a stacked lineup and we had high expectations going in, and I’m happy to report that we weren’t let down in the slightest. The opening set was downright hilariously fun with Marco and Stanton playing to each other’s strengths in a very visible way, but then the Meters got up there and everything was just so funky for two straight sets of fire (on the bayou). Just… WOW. The vibe in there was so tight; everyone was getting down their hardest. Definitely one of the funkiest Jazz Fest shows I’ll probably ever see.

Our friend Jim Brock is on the grounds for the first weekend and brought back this gallery from the first day at the fairgrounds. Highlights in the set include Santana, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell and more…

“Standard” Jazz Fest so far, but this year has been particularly amazing so far considering our trip was provided for by the team at Acura. It’s not often I’ll ever get to say that someone paid for me to attend a music festival, but truly, I think that was always the dream behind why I started this blog and being able to live through that has been a wonderful and joyous thing for me.