For four decades, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been a mecca for music lovers from across the nation. Before multi-day festivals ever became popular, Jazz Fest has been offering weekend-long celebrations of the music that defined the sound of The Big Easy, along with the many genres it influenced. The festival has grown from its early days at the famed Congo Square to its current location at the Fairgrounds and Racetrack and continues to deliver two weekends of the best musical acts on the circuit. For four mud-filled days from May 2 through 5, Jazz Fest, yet again, provided the perfect early summer escape.
Housing nearly a dozen stages, Jazz Fest offers enough music to pacify any music fan from country and bluegrass, to reggae and straightforward rock 'n' roll. While the main stage lineup for the second weekend featured A-list acts like Fleetwood Mac, Maroon 5, and The Black Keys, if one wandered around the festival grounds, a slew of other lesser-known acts were delivering some of the best sets of the weekend, including Galactic, who turned in a funky hour-long show featuring an appearance by vocalist Corey Glover of Living Colour.
Traversing between multiple stages can prove to be a daunting task – especially with crowds exceeding 100,000 – but being able to take a five-minute walk from watching Maroon 5 on one stage to see the legendary Willie Nelson on another is certainly a nice reward, though having so many stages running simultaneously can cause a bit of frustration for fans hoping to catch a full set by their favorite acts. For instance, Saturday, May 4 had Fleetwood Mac, Phoenix, Frank Ocean, and Los Lobos sharing the same timeslot, but having a true Jazz Fest experience ultimately leads to catching brief snippets of certain acts and planning your route to catch others playing at the same time.
For those who did stick it out for their favorite acts, the music did not disappoint. Fleetwood Mac, arguably the headliner of the second weekend, put together a set chockfull of hits, including “Second Hand News,” “Tusk,” “Rhiannon,” an exquisite “Landslide,” which showcased Stevie Nicks' still crisp voice, and a pounding “Go Your Own Way,” which turned into one of the loudest sing-alongs of the weekend. Earlier on Thursday, a reunited Widespread Panic trudged through a rain storm with a fiery set, including “Climb to Safety,” “Blackout Blues,” and a fine take on Traffic's “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
On Sunday, popular alt-rockers The Black Keys played one of the more lively sets of the festival with upbeat crowd favorites like “Howlin' For You,” “Dead and Gone,” “Little Black Submarines,” and a driving “Lonely Boy.” Later in the evening, New Orleans favorites Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue brought the festival to a close with a charging 90-minute set full of funk, blues, rock, and brass. While his name may not be too familiar in NEPA yet, Trombone Shorty is proving himself to be a force on the up-and-coming list and will probably be reaching a much bigger audience in the very near future.
Aside from the music, Jazz Fest distinguishes itself from other festivals in various ways, including ground performers, parades, and most importantly, the southern cooking that has helped New Orleans establish itself as a culinary hotspot. Sure, there's standard fare of burgers, soft pretzels, and Sno-Cones, but Jazz Fest may be the only festival where you're able to catch your favorite bands while indulging in soft-shell crab po' boys, alligator jambalaya, and more variations of shrimp than any person can handle. It's almost enough to make the music seem like the backdrop for the weekend.
With an early ending time of 7 p.m., Jazz Fest somewhat serves as a catalyst for the New Orleans night scene, with many of the acts playing clubs or theaters after the festival concludes. For those who wanted more music, the city offered late-night headlining gigs with everyone from Robert Randolph and the Family Band and The Black Crowes to George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, albeit for a small price. Even in the French Quarter, there were multiple clubs featuring the brass and funk bands that have become part of the New Orleans sound.
After more than forty years, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is still one of the biggest festivals in our country. The music, food, people, and – this year – the mud, helped uphold its tradition of being a yearly destination for people from almost every state. For anyone looking for a relaxing, music-filled, and delicious vacation – to quote actor Woody Harrelson, who was spotted on the grounds this year – the answer is simple: “F——-g Jazz Fest!”