Jazz Fest. Just those two words alone make my brain sweat. It’s been a few years, but I recall there being an ongoing debate over which of the two weekends is better at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. I’ve disappeared into the depths of New Orleans for both jazz fest weeks before; I came out alive, worse for wear, and my life forever changed (it’s true, there are really are some things you can never unsee). Tearing through both weeks is a physical and mental challenge where you need to pace yourself like a marathon runner, or maintain unhealthy daily rituals like a junkie. And the fact remains, these days, who can really afford to drop out for two weeks in New Orleans? So, you have to make a choice and pick one good long weekend to blow out the pipes.
Of course, fest organizers say that you really can’t go wrong with either. “Great care is taken to distribute the music evenly over both weekends,” reps say. But it is never that clean-cut. It depends on your tastes, the weather, your access, and how far you want to push your intake and keep on your feet.
The first weekend of the Jazz Fest, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, brought excellent acts to the fairgrounds; among some of the bigger crowd marquee draws were Wilco, Dave Matthews Band, and James Taylor. But longtime fave Wynton Marsalis, as well as Joe Cocker, Drive By Truckers, Henry Butler, Erykah Badu, Johnny Winter, and Pete Seeger all put their stamp on the fest as well as the usual local suspects that fill the many tents on the sprawling grounds. Rolling Stone did a decent wrap-up of the first weekend.
The first Friday is widely considered locals day. You wouldn’t have been turned away from the gates, but there a more mellow, old-school NOLA vibe to the crowd, and a whole lot less people. My friend Eugenie Hero Jaffe, a New Orleans native who now hosts Funky Trunk on Utah Free Media, prefers the first Friday because, well, she’s still a local, and the second Thursday because it tends to be less crowded. “But the final Sunday is a blast. People are partying hard, have beautiful sunburns and blown out ear drums. The posters are sold out by the last day, the track is a mess, but the beer is still cold.”
The second weekend — the final sprint for two-week warriors — has more festival days, generally has bigger crowds, and a bigger party. “If you can get the time off of work, its nice to get the four days,” she says. “The final Sunday generally closes out with traditional acts: Neville Brothers and Radiators. So, some people go like to catch the big NOLA names. But you can never count on mother nature. Some rain out days.”
But that’s just the festival grounds. After the first weekend, a host of parties start around town from the Krewe parties and benefits at Tipitina’s, where you never know who will show up to play, to smaller hole-in-the-wall venues in the Garden District like Igor’s Lounge, which offers drink specials from 5 to 7 a.m. and where even the most innocent game of pool can turn into a decadent and potentially violent adventure. As for music specifics, there’s a Tipitina’s Foundation Benefit with beloved native son George Porter Jr. on Wednesday night, and guitar virtuoso Steve Kimmock’s band Crazy Engine plays Tip’s late-night Thursday show, starting at 2 a.m. Be sure to check out Off Beat, New Orleans’s culture, entertainment, and music bible for full listings.
By Thursday morning, whether or not you’re starting out, you’re in the fest’s final run. Be sure to hit Liuzza’s outside the fairgrounds (popular meet-up spot). Hurricane Katrina wasn’t enough keep down the weird, low-down funky dive Snake & Jake’s, a must visit.
You can lose days at a place like Snake & Jake’s, or you can hit the headliners at the fairgrounds and reacquaint yourself with the sun (or rain). My picks are Ben Harper & Relentless7, Emmylou Harris, Solomon Burke, and the Subdudes for Thursday. Friday is sleepy, but Bonnie Raitt plays as well as Tony Bennett. Weird, right? But not as weird as Bon Jovi headlining Friday (I know!). Pass on Bon Jovi and catch Dr. John and Kings of Leon (be sure to find a place near bassist Jared Followill’s stacks — trust me). And just when Sunday slinks around, with your nerves shattered and eyes glassed, bring it in with Neil Young, let the Neville Brothers put a smile on your face, and muck through the swamp rock of The Radiators.
Or just stay at Snake & Jakes and ask that your mail be forwarded. And if that question remains, which weekend is better? Some people have all the answers. “That’s never a concern,” says one fest vet. “I’ll be there for both. Yeah, you right!”