The sounds might vary from year to year but there’s always stability in the food lineup at Jazz Fest, and you can’t enjoy the music on an empty stomach. Featuring Louisiana cuisine from local chefs, a few meals over a long weekend doesn’t come close to enough time to sample everything but prices are reasonable for festival fare so it’s worth a try. Among the favorites was the cochon de lait—a generous heaping of smoked pork on a crusty loaf, complete with cabbage slaw and horseradish sauce. Feeling indecisive lead to a combo plate of crawfish sack, oyster patty and crawfish beignets smothered in gravy that was well worth the line. A need for spice resulted in a hot sausage po-boy paired with gumbo. The only constant over the weekend was a large rose-mint iced tea that began each day, and a handmade ice cream sandwich for the walk out the gate to sweeten the nightcap. If you’re unsure on where to eat, queue up in the longest line. The locals know good food and you won’t be disappointed. And, if all else fails, ask somebody for a recommendation.
You’ll find people from all walks of life with a similar interest—the music. That’s true for many music festivals but New Orleans Jazz Fest takes diversity to another level with their lineup. Gospel, blues and jazz have their respective tents but the sounds extend to soul, funk, R&B, zydeco, folk and bluegrass with three large stage headliners encompassing pop, rock, hip-hop and any fusion of the aforementioned genres.
Lionel Richie’s sweet voice capped the opening day of the second weekend with 90 minutes of hits from both the Commodores and his solo career. From the soothing “Easy” to the funky “Brick House” there is no denying that Lionel is one of the all-time soul and R&B songwriting greats. Dripping with sweat after a long day under the New Orleans sun didn’t stop the largest crowd on Thursday to sway and sing along with “Lady,” “Hello” and an unexpected performance of “We Are The World.” He ended his set with an encore of “All Night Long,” which felt a bit out of place as the sun was still visible but the show would’ve been incomplete without it. And it gave the revelers a bit of a nudge to take the song to heart…as if that was even remotely necessary in the Crescent City.
Shredding through each of his musical projects, Jack White completely owned Jazz Fest on Sunday. He seamlessly moved through material from The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and his solo project with aplomb, while his backing band kept up without missing a beat. Though it wasn’t on the same level as 100,000+ fans singing “Hey Jude” during a McCartney set, there was an electricity behind The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” that places it among the best of festival anthem sing-alongs.
Most of the headliner’s tours are well in excess of a daily admission ticket to Jazz Fest. Entry to see Aerosmith in an arena can easily run $150, plus fees, and they rocked the same 90-minute set. The same can be said about Springsteen, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and a bevy of other stars that have recently performed here. Sure you forego some of the production element from a tour date but once the beat drops, and the fans go wild, it quickly sets in that the music should always trump the production. New Orleans Jazz Fest is one of the few large-scale festivals that hasn’t been tainted by an electronic dance music presence. There are dozens of other festivals around the country that market to that demographic and it's nice to know that the music of Jazz Fest will always remain true to its roots.
New Orleans exudes culture and it is present in abundance at Jazz Fest. On and off the stage, whether it's the Creole and Cajun influences in the food, Zydeco and Afro-Carribean infused music or the Mardi Gras Indians, you are completely immersed once you set foot inside the gates of Fair Grounds Race Course. Handmade arts and crafts begged for a peek, while the Folklife Village offered demonstrations of generations-old traditions. Getting lost and discovering something new seems to happen every year and it’s always one of the highlights.
Recluse might be a bit harsh, but Jazz Fest definitely provides access to artists that infrequently tour. Eric Clapton, Arlo Guthrie and Patti LaBelle have each graced the stage in recent years. This year Anita Baker arrived a little late, but more than made up for it by performing past her 7 p.m. cutoff and well after all the other headliners had left their respective stages. Baker drew in a massive crowd that let out a roar as she opened with "Lady Marmalade." As she continued to work through her hits, particularly "Sweet Love," fans continued to swell along the outer edges of the field to witness her farewell tour. Given the response and her smooth voice, perhaps she’ll reconsider this as her farewell tour. Or, at least, make another appearance down the road at Jazz Fest. It’s always a special moment combing through the lineup and find that elusive artist on the schedule and this year was no different.