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Trip Report New Orleans Trip Report - Jazz Fest 2012

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Back from New Orleans from my 6th consecutive Jazz Fest, and 7th overall, and here are my three main (and very general) observations: (a) the condition of the city was best exemplified by the battle I had to fight with a taxi driver who didn’t want to take us to the 1300 block of Annunciation Street, (b) smart phones have completely changed the way we enjoy Jazz Fest, and (c) is it wrong for me to have wished fervently for rain by the end of the weekend? Now, for the details.

Attending Jazz Fest annually has become a tradition for me and a close friend from college. He lives in Houston, and hence within a half-day’s drive to NOLA, so he has attended far more often than I have. At my husband’s 40th birthday party in Key West, we made a pact to meet at the Fairgrounds to mark the 20th anniversary of our having graduated from Loyola of New Orleans. We met that year, and every year since. Of course, at the time, we had no idea that Katrina would wreak havoc before that anniversary, which fell as of the 2nd post-K Jazz Fest.

In 2007, the city was still very obviously recovering from the storm (and – don’t get me wrong – it still is, but it’s not as obvious to a casual observer who doesn’t have the point of reference that a former resident and frequent visitor does), Jazz Fest was relatively lightly attended, and the areas in which tourists could comfortably roam were fairly narrowly circumscribed, especially during non-festival times. Over the years, I’ve watched the crowds increase, vegetation return, communities recover, and development spread. One of our dinner destinations, the restaurant Dijon, is located in a neighborhood near the Lower Garden District, close to approach to the Mississippi River bridge, where I certainly would not have wandered even pre-K. Our taxi driver resisted my request to take us there, and declared that in 20 years of driving, he’d never gone there. Nevertheless, I prevailed, and we found there an excellent new restaurant, located in a renovated firehouse, across the street from a stylish new condo development. The area is patchy, but clearly, development is reaching its tendrils into previously challenging zones.

Exploring different areas was not the only newness I experienced on this trip. For the first time, we did not stay in the French Quarter. Even though I reserve my hotel room about 8 months before Jazz Fest, my preferred hotels were already booked up. So, we stayed in the Central Business District, combining a single night in a business hotel, with 3 nights in a vacation club condo (gifted to us by my husband’s mother). The first night we spent at the Renaissance Pere Marquette, a stylish, fresh and comfortable hotel with a cool hotel bar, located at Carondelet and Common Streets, very convenient to the streetcar and only a block off Canal and Bourbon for those who like the French Quarter bustle. The balance of our trip was spent in a 2 bedroom/2 bath unit (with another couple) at the Wyndham La Belle Maison at the corner of Magazine and Gravier, just behind the Sheraton where the Jazz Fest shuttle stops.

The Belle Maison is a small resort property, with many standard hotel amenities available to guests. Our unit was beautifully decorated in tropical/colonial style in chili pepper reds and palmy greens (a scheme I’m partial to, as much of my home features those colors….) The site of a former printing plant, there were clearly some design benefits (e.g. exposed brick walls), as well as challenges. The biggest challenge was with providing each unit with natural light. We were on the losing end of that, since our unit did not have any exterior windows, which made getting a sense of time and weather difficult – we slept later than we normally do. Nevertheless, we liked having a place to retreat to after the heat and inevitable dirt of attending Jazz Fest, and having a condo where we and our friends could chill with snacks and a bottle (or two…) of wine before heading out to dinner was great. My only complaint was that the bathrooms could have used some updating, as years of soap scum and use were taking their toll.

Not staying in the FQ, I don’t think we got a full appreciation for the crush of humanity that was attending this year’s Jazz Fest until we actually got to the Fairgrounds that first Friday. Due to attractive performances scheduled for each day of the first Jazz Fest weekend, we elected to attend all 3 days. But first, we had several gauntlets to run. Tickets for the shuttle bus didn’t go on sale at the downtown Sheraton Hotel until Friday morning, so we had a long line to navigate there. Then the bus line to get through (which wasn’t too bad). Then approximately 40 minutes to get into the venue (passing through security and then ticket-scanning) once the bus arrived there. Once inside the Fairgrounds, Friday was not so bad, but Saturday (with Tom Petty headlining) and Sunday (with Bruce Springsteen) were absolutely insane.

Our loose group of 7 included 2 newbies, so I gave them some basic Jazz Fest training. Lessons included proper attire (comfortable and potentially disposable shoes, loose and cool clothing, sunscreen), proper equipment (folding chair from Walgreen’s at $9.99, tote bag or backpack containing beer coozie, hand sanitizer, tissues and rain gear), dining (cochon de lait, duck or soft-shell crab po-boys; mango freezes; iced or frozen café-au-lait; crawfish; etc.; and the room to stuff it all – it’s well priced and delicious); locations of stages and the seating arrangements and vibes of each one of them; and how to make the most of a schedule that includes far too many aural delights than can possibly be consumed by a single person bound by laws of physics that prevent one from being more than one place at one time.

As I hinted, one of the wonderful things about Jazz Fest is that there is a multitude of entertainment options. Roughly a dozen stages, with musical acts obscure and huge, of various genres ranging from rock to zydeco to jazz to brass to gospel, running from 11 a.m. until just after 7 p.m. Jazz Fest is not just about Jazz. If you are a music fan, you will find many competing options. Some years, I’ve been known to park my chair at a single stage and stay there for the duration; other years (like this one), I hit many stages. Everyone in my group had different wishes to fill at different times. The vibe at Jazz Fest is incredibly friendly and laidback, so you can feel perfectly comfortable wandering and hanging out solo – the people watching is a pure delight, so even if you’re alone, you’ll never feel lonely. You can safely leave your chairs at one stage, and they’ll be there when you return.

My crew and I were like a bunch of marbles on a tilting board. Sometimes we’d all go off in our own directions, sometimes we’d pair up, sometimes we’d all get together. In earlier times, making a rendezvous would have been challenging, and even with just cell phones, it would be difficult, since it’s tough to hear over the general din (much less during a performance). But with the ability to text and even shoot each other photos, getting together and sharing real-time info was a snap. Though smart phones can be incredibly isolating, in this case they were a tool to bring us together. And, when you’re done seeing what you want to see, it’s easy to hop on a shuttle bus and be brought safely back to your starting point, whatever time it is you want to leave.

Beyond Jazz Fest itself, I love New Orleans dining. Over the years, it has gotten more and more challenging to score reservations at some of the places I like, so arranging for meals takes a little more effort and a bit of thinking outside the box. Getting a table at a longtime favorite destination, Bayona, required me to call 2 months out and grovel a bit, and that got me a 9:30 p.m. table. Since I’m coming from the eastern time zone, waiting that long for dinner is torture, but it also provided a margin of error for my travels that day. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly, due to the crowds), while the food at Bayona was exemplary, service was slow and we didn’t get out until close to midnight.

Another night, we ate at the aforementioned Dijon – which featured great food and great service. As good as our experience was, the restaurant was only half-full. The location and the newness of the restaurant assured that. If they are still around for next year’s Jazz Fest, I don’t expect to be able to get a reservation so easily. On Saturday night, our entire group of 7 had dinner at Lüke, part of Chef John Besh’s expanding empire; so far, his influence remains undiluted and the food and service here were good. But, this is a large restaurant with hard floors and ceilings, with a rustic brasserie theme, and so it’s very noisy – don’t come here for a romantic tete-a-tete. On Sunday night, with no particular plan and being weary of late nights and extravagant meals, we walked a block to Rambla. Service was spotty, but small plates were just the ticket for a lighter and faster dinner – and each offering was delightful.

Finally, the pinnacle of our weekend of outstanding food was once again Coquette, in the Garden District. Unable to score a table there for dinner, we opted for lunch on Saturday, and it was absolutely perfect. Although one can order a la carte, there is also a prix fixe lunch for $20, with appropriately petite portions that pack a lot of flavor. Rarely am I inspired to photograph my food because it’s so darned pretty, much less ask the chef for a recipe, but at Coquette I did so for a vegetarian appetizer of stuffed squash blossom and shaved squash salad. And it got better from there, for shrimp and grits, followed by a tiny disc of chocolate cake and a shot-glass-sized banana milkshake. Great service, too, since it was lunchtime. This has me considering doing all of our fine dining at lunchtime next year.

Of course, we wouldn’t have planned lunch outside of the Fairgrounds if the music schedule hadn’t accommodated it. But since we didn’t feel the need to get to Jazz Fest until later on Saturday, we not only had lunch but a chance to stroll around the French Quarter for a while. I exercised tremendous self-discipline by limiting my Royal Street purchases to cologne at Bourbon French Parfums, where I’d had a custom scent blended for myself many years ago, of which I’ve yet to tire. Usually, the damage is more significant! (Part of our crew arrived a day before my husband and I did, and since one of them was a New Orleans newbie, I made them a map of my particular walking and streetcar tour of the Riverbend, Uptown and the Garden District.)

After our Coquette lunch, we tried to catch a cab to get to the Fairgrounds. As further evidence of the increase in tourism, all weekend long, cabs were a precious commodity, starting with the very long taxi line at the airport. As we stood at the corner in front of Coquette, a friendly soul asked his taxi driver to pull over and offered to share with us; this was a perfect example of the goodwill engendered by Jazz Fest weekend, and we made sure to pay it forward when we had a chance.

Back at the Fairgrounds, there was too much music from which to choose – and if it’s possible, the second weekend coming up (which I’ll miss) will have even more. But I book air and hotel well in advance of the music schedule coming out, so it’s a roll of the dice. While it would be easy to regret who I’ll not be seeing perform due to my choice of which weekend to attend, the key is that each weekend has terrific music and memorable performances – whichever stage you happen to choose at any given moment. I got to see performances by Gomez, Cowboy Mouth, Beausoleil, Trombone Shorty, Sonny Landreth, Tom Petty and many others. A highlight was the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, a group of iconic Louisiana performers (including Dr. John, Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, and Cyril Neville) assembled to raise awareness and money to save the fragile ecosystem of the region.

With that in mind, I will confess to having left early and skipping out on the Beach Boys on Friday, and Bruce Springsteen on Sunday. Disrespecting the Boss is Heresy (with a capital “H”), I know. Although I’ve never been a big Boss fan, I thought I might at least do a drive-by at this year’s Fest so I could at least check that cultural box. But having stayed at the Acura Stage for the prior day’s Tom Petty performance (a great one, by the way), I just didn’t have the stomach to battle crowds which promised to be even bigger than the ones for Tom Petty. The fact of perfect weather, as well as really amazing headliners, brought in bigger crowds than I’ve ever experienced – people who might not otherwise have attended. Rather than do battle with the masses, I caught a shuttle back to my hotel, took a long shower, and enjoyed a cool glass of wine.

Even before leaving the Fairgrounds, those of us who elected to skip the Springsteen show got some real treats. There was a lot more room at the other stages, and the artists gave their all for those diehards dedicated to their performances. The Cowboy Mouth show at the Gentilly Stage went head-to-head against the Boss. There was certainly a respectable crowd, but further away from the stage, there was a lot more room on the lawn. Plenty of space to dance, for kids to run around and play, a chance to kick back and experience the way Jazz Fest felt in earlier years. Cowboy Mouth gave a super-enthusiastic show, which my husband said was his favorite of the weekend (he having even gone to see the latter part of the Springsteen show). So, while I’m delighted that Jazz Fest’s attendance is growing, and more and more people are being attracted to New Orleans, a part of me wishes for a little less success. Or a little rain.

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