We visited 2022 Jazz Festival in New Orleans. Stretching over two weekends, with a huge variety of musical genres, we enjoyed the first weekend shows on Friday 29th April to Sunday 1st May. With a large festival ground and over 10 stages, we soaked up the atmosphere, danced to fun bands and ate tasty Cajun and Creole food. It was quite unlike any other music festival we’ve attended.
1. “Heritage Festival”
With the full name being the “New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival”, we were unsure exactly what the heritage part referred to. We found this was three pronged – Louisiana heritage, heritage bands (I’d even put Red Hot Chili Peppers into that bucket…) and also the average age of the attendees! And you pay mainly in cash (which is fairly heritage). The actual festival runs from 11am to 7pm which is fantastic, as often nanas like us are pretty tired by late night headliners! It is also good for the city, as people head out after the festival for dinner or other shows.
There were all sorts of acts on the line-up – a couple of up and coming young Indie darlings (who I think were upstaged by the more well trained traditional musicians), old Jazz masters, the kids of old Jazz masters playing in multiple different bands and a diverse selection of headliners. For the days we were there they included Lionel Ritchie, Death Cab for Cutie, The Who, Nelly and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
We learned about Mardi Gras Indians (which I would never have thought existed) and found that they paraded through the fairground in their amazing feather costumes just when you were trying to get from one stage to another! There were exhibitions on everything from blacksmithing to First Nation boat building, and lots of traditional food. There were craft vendors and a whole African market section where Mark bought a hat. (An older couple we were chatting to were very concerned about his lack of hat, and when we bumped into them later were very happy to see he hadn’t melted in the heat with his new purchase!) Somehow all of this worked together and it was a pretty cool vibe. It was also interesting compared to Texas which has a lot of hispanic influence, to see the addition of French, First Nation, Caribbean and African cultures in the mixing pot.
2. Strong Traditions
Most people seemed to be festival veterans, and there were many traditions not common amongst other music festivals we have visited. When we arrived on the first day, the streets around the venue were already buzzing (about an hour before the gates were opening) and the done thing was to have a Bloody Mary to start the festival experience, so we had to participate!
With a lot of older festival goers, we noticed a many people taking chairs along. At some of the stages, there were areas to set up chairs and a lot of people seemed to camp out for the day. With that many people, it then becomes difficult to find your way back to said chair, and hence you need a large flag to mark your spot! You can also bring in umbrellas (small), soft 12 can cooler bags (but no outside drinks) and blankets. We spent a lot of time going between stages and our legs are not yet painted on, so no chairs for us. Plus the tents have chairs if you need a break and as a bonus are out of the sun.
The most popular festival attire was colourful shirts and wrap dresses from BayouWear, who unveil a fresh New Orleans themed Hawaiian pattern each year (a great change from hot pants and side boob which are often the festival garb of choice these days). Of course, wearing this year’s pattern is very passé and so instead there were people dressed in “Splendor in the Brass” (2013), “Vintage Vinyl” (2017) and even some “Red Rice and Beans” (1998). There are also lots of New Orleans and Jazz Fest hats, brooches and jewelry. My favourite was “Make Levees, Not War”. There were also matching flag and badge combinations so you knew who belonged to the pork chop or blender krewe flags.
3. Festival Food
One of the main drawcards of the festival is the food on offer. There is no ‘carnival food’ here (hot dogs, hamburgers), with the local vendors typically selling one or two items per stall, often items that can’t be found outside of the festival. The stalls don’t change much from year to year and there are definite crowd favourites, with everyone keen to give recommendations.
Some of the most popular items include Crawfish Monica (buttery pasta with crawfish and Canjun spices), Crawfish Bread (crawfish and cheese stuffed bread) and Cochon de lait Poy-Boy (smoked pork shoulder on French bread with slaw). They were all real standouts and the guy before me in the Cochon de lait Poy-Boy line had been dreaming of this since the last Jazz Fest and was getting extra to take home… to Wisconsin!
There was a definite crawfish theme – we also tried crawfish pasties, crawfish sack (fried beggar’s purse with crawfish filling) and crawfish beignets (a savoury version of the famous dessert with crawfish in the batter which is fried and covered with a crawfish sauce). I’d wanted to go on a food walking tour in New Orleans but couldn’t fit this in with the festival. However, with all the different food options available, I think we got to experience quite a few different Louisiana specialties.
Unfortunately the beer options were nowhere near as good as the food, with a poor selection (Miller Lite etc) due to the tie-up with major sponsors. Being really hot, it was also better to drink the traditional festival strawberry lemonade! But, if you did want to drink the beer there were no pesky nanny state limits to beer buying. Between the main stage music sets, people were buying so much beer (14 cans for the person before us) that the vendors were putting the beers in boxes for carrying (plus ice!). Also, beer sellers roamed around the festival, even into the mosh pits, dragging their eskies on carts so you could buy a cold beer from in front of the stage.
4. Packed Stages
I’ve always loved lots of people on stage and horn sections – this was the festival for me! There were horn sections galore, backing singers (and dancers), often multiple drummers and percussionists. The Who even had an orchestra on stage.
There were outliers with small bands – like nu-jazz groups but they made up for it with crazy solos. A the other end of the spectrum was for Trumpet Mafia, which seemed to have rounded up a huge amount of trumpeters and other brass instruments with 25+ people in the band.
I did have to chuckle when a guy standing near us during RHCP stated that a four piece is all you need! Not sure if he was at the right festival…
5. Plan – but not too much!
We had never been to a festival with so much music being played concurrently! There were over 10 stages to chose from:
- Two main stages – Festival Stage and Gentilly stages which had the headliners
- Congo Square – World Music, Afro-funk, reggae
- Blues, Jazz and Gospel Tents – three different tents with music selections as per their namesakes
- Fais Do Do Stage – Cajun and Zydeco Music
- Jazz & Heritage Stage – Brass Bands
- Economy Hall – Traditional New Orleans Jazz
- Cultural Exchange Pavillon – mixture of genres but mainly World music
- and then three others stages we didn’t visit – Kids Stage and two other small stages!
When the cubes came out we didn’t know many of the bands other than the headliners so did some listening beforehand, asked other festival goers for recommendations and took a punt! Even with a loose plan, we kept getting side-tracked on the way between different stages as awesome sounds floated out while we were trying to navigate from one end to the other. On days two and three we arrived through the main entrance and couldn’t leave the Gentilly stage (the first as you enter the racegrounds) the as the opening bands on there were both excellent (J & The Causeways on Saturday and Maggie Koerner on Sunday).
In the end, we enjoyed a lot of local New Orleans bands. They were all polished, great performers and very entertaining. To make it as a musician in New Orleans, you need to be pretty good!
With so many stages, there were a few bad clashes between the headliners on the main stages and the Jazz tent, but other than that we saw a huge range of music from traditional jazz with clarinets, to hip hop brass bands, feminist ‘nerd burlesque’ and more washboard playing than anticipated!
6. Vibes and Appreciation
New Orleans has definitely endured a fair amount of hardship, with music and the Jazz Fest being a key way for community healing (for example the 2006 edition after Hurricane Katrina). With the Jazz Fest postponed for two years because of covid, everyone was super happy to be playing and partying again in 2022. Almost every band spoke passionately about how much they had missed playing for large audience and how appreciative they were to be at the festival again.
The whole city seemed to embrace Jazz Fest with lots of houses flying Jazz Fest flags (even in other parts of town), Uber drivers playing WWOZ (the local music station which is part of the whole festval) and just such a good vibe from festival goers who had flown in and locals alike. There were fairly long lines to enter on day 1 and 3 of the festival and we chatted to long time festival attendees from both a few streets away (lucky!) and those that had come from other states. Everyone remarked on how happy the festival was and the ‘jazz fest’ feeling.
7. Memorable Moments
- Chad Smith tearing up during Under the Bridge, a lot of emotion from the Red Hot Chili Peppers who filled in for the Foo Fighters after the death of Taylor Smith. Actually I found the whole set kind of surreal, as I’ve loved the RHCP in my late teens and not wanted to see them play after that with their less funky sound. It was weirdly nostalgic to finally see them 20 years later, and reflect that as an idealistic youth (who was going to win a Nobel prize/work for Bell labs on semi-conductors) there is no way I would have suspected that I’d see them half way around the world due to being a engineer for a dirty oil & gas company… They played three songs of fBlood Sugar Sex Magik (Funky Monks, Give it Away and of course Under the Bridge) and obviously these were the highlights of the set.
- Frogman (Clarence Henry) in the Blues Tent who at 85 years young was still hitting on the ladies, singing his hits like “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” and showing off his three different signing voices – his normal voice, a high falsetto (I was looking for where the lady on stage was singing!) and a low rumbling voice which earned him his Frogman nickname.
- Zydeco cover version, sung in French, of The Who’s “My Generation” by Lost Bayou Ramblers. The Fais Do Do stage was a huge amount of fun and was generally packed with locals. We didn’t know what Zydeco was to start with, and hardly more knowledgable now – it originated in southwest Lousiana by French Creole speakers and is blend of blues, and indigenous music with washboards, piano accordions, guitars – but we know it is entertaining!
- The sea of people watching The Who, we probably haven’t been in such a large crowd before. Without ‘knowing any Who music’, I knew a lot of Who music and how much of an influence they have been on so many other musicians. Maybe we also made our parents jealous?
- Lingerie wearing, bespectacled, hair in curlers star Boyfriend rapping about the gender wage gap (amongst other topical things).
8. The Fest is just the start…
As the main festival finishes at 7pm, there are concerts at venues across town until the small hours for those who want to keep going… Even just heading out of the festival each day, the streets around the racetrack become parties with bands, BBQs and beers being supplied by local houses! With packed days in the sun, we were too tired to rock (jazz?) on, but maybe next time!