Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are swimming in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salty water
And the storms will blow from off toward New Orleans.
When we made our plans this year, I vividly remember telling my wife, “This will be the best year to go to Jazz Fest. Hardly anybody went to Mardi Gras last month, it’ll be the smallest crowd we’ll ever see there.”
Our first stop on Saturday was at the Cajun-themed Fais Do Do stage, for the Driskill Mountain Boys, a traditional country and Bluegrass band named after the highest “mountain” in Louisiana (elevation 550 feet). Modern “country” music rarely strikes me as anything more than vapid pop with a fiddle part, but the real thing can still strike a deep chord. These old boys play the real thing, and then some.
Off to the side of the stage came a reminder that like most celebrations in these parts, Jazz Fest is often as much about family as it is about putting on a good show for the tourists; certainly that was more true this year than is usual:
Then came my personal highlight of the weekend, the Lil Rascals Brass Band at the Heritage Stage.
The Rascals were filling in for another Second Line band that had to cancel at the last minute, and their own lineup had to be filled out with trumpeter Derek Shezbie and Vincent Broussard on sax from the Rebirth Brass Band. They were stuck with, in the band’s vocal estimation, “the worst sound man in the world.”
And damn if they weren’t the best act we saw the whole weekend.
I’ve had a soft spot for Second Line since I first saw the raw, real deal in the French Quarter growing up: bands of teenagers playing what were obviously school band instruments on the street for tips. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if some of the kids I watched some 20 years ago were on that stage Saturday. Then and now, I could only goggle at the startling musicianship coupled with an irresistable get-down beat. And like we’d seen just a few minutes earlier at the Cajun stage, family ties took front and center:
As band leader and trombonist Corey Henry put it, “That’s my daddy and my daughter,” and you don’t get any more family than that. Towards the end of their set, the Rascals were joined on stage by several Mardi Gras Indians:
Now, I’m not even going to try to explain New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians–not least because their origins aren’t exactly a matter of public record. But they’re really cool. If you haven’t been there to see them, you’re just going to have to take my word for it.
After the Rascals wrapped up, we crossed over to the Congo Square Stage for another Second Line set from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, whose act we try to see whenever they’re in Atlanta (you can count on catching them whenever the Saints are in town to play the Falcons).
From there, we crossed over to the main Acura Stage, figuring we’d stake out a good spot for headliner Jimmy Buffett. After all, it was a good two and a half hours until Buffett was scheduled to go on.
When we arrived, we were met by the biggest single crowd of people I’ve ever seen in my life:
We shrugged, found a spot in the back that was uphill from most of the throng, and settled in for the duration, which included great sets from Deacon John Moore (a criminally under-known star in NOLA’s musical firmament) and Buckwheat Zydeco.
Buffett, who owns a bar in the French Quarter, has a long history with New Orleans. According to a Jazz Fest official who introduced him, Buffett had called in early January to commit to playing this year, and that committment gave the Jazz Fest Foundation the clout it needed to pull together the funding and organization they needed to make the ’06 festival a reality. Six figures worth of Parrotheads greeted his arrival with an appropriate roar.
(The above picture was actually taken Friday, when Buffett guested with Little Feat. We were way too far from the stage on Saturday to get a legible shot.)
The crowd for Buffett was so large that the racetrack at the far end of the fairgrounds filled up with people–people who couldn’t even see the stage.
Buffett opened the set with a poignant but upbeat acoustic rendition of
Arlo Guthrie’s Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” and followed up with several well-chosen songs from his long career, notably including “I Will Play For Gumbo.” Sure, he hit all the expected rowdy crowd-pleasers like “Margaritaville,” “Volcano,” and the inevitable “Fins”…
… but the real highlights of his show were the quieter pieces like “A Pirate Looks At Forty” and “Son Of A Son Of A Sailor,” and particularly the closer, Jesse Winchester’s “Biloxi” (recorded by Buffett back in the ’70′s). Buffett is a native of Mobile, Alabama, and like many, many other performers at Jazz Fest, made a commendable point to mention the often-forgotten Gulf Coast communities east of New Orleans that were also devestated by last year’s storms.
It was a fun, fun day, even if the fun was easily punctured by just glancing outside the Festival grounds:
It was expensive to get there. It was occasionally a pain to get around, and let’s not even talk about finding a bathroom among 100,000 people, most of whom were hitting the beer stands early and often. Because flights were so hard to find, we had to miss Sunday’s festival, including Paul Simon and Fats Domino (as it turned out, Fats had to cancel at the last minute due to his health, but did greet the crowd). It was often sad and painful to simply look around… but I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything.