The New Orleans festival season is fast approaching. While the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the crown jewel of the season, there are reasons for the music tourist to consider visiting the city at any time during the long festival season other than JazzFest. Here’s a few.
The Crowds. New Orleans is a tourist town year round but it can be overwhelming during Mardi Gras and JazzFest. During those peak times, restaurants and nightclubs are a harder to get into and lodging is more expensive. Go before or after JazzFest and the city feels more relaxed and accessible.
Free Outdoor Concerts – New Orleans offers some wonderful outdoor concerts showcasing local musicians in a festival atmosphere. There are two exceptional, easy to get to concert series that run through the spring. This year, “Wednesday at the Square” features Marcia Ball, Amanda Shaw, Tab Benoit, Flow Tribe, Honey Island Swamp Band, Kermit Ruffins, Anders Osborne and Soul Rebels. This downtown show held in Lafayette Square usually features an opening act, runs from 5 to 8 p.m. and is surrounded by ways to purchase food and booze. On Thursday evenings, Louis Armstrong Park comes alive with Jazz in the Park. This event attracts more locals with chairs and picnic baskets but you’ll still find sustenance and drink in this park just across historic Rampart Street from the French Quarter.
Neighhorhood Festivals – Only in a New Orleans neighborhood festival would you find youth dance groups and more established artists like Bonerama, Mississippi Rail Company, Tank and the Bangas, and New Breed Brass Band. That was just a sampling of the three stages last year that defined the boundaries of the Freret Street Festival, one of the early season neighborhood festivals in New Orleans. Neighborhood festivals run throughout the year, except for JazzFest. Check the festival schedule and sample a few online such as the Bayou Boogaloo –- definitely on my bucket list for a future visit. You’ll find most New Orleanians are incredibly social—almost to a fault. Go to a neighborhood event or establishment and if you are reasonably gregarious, you will meet locals who will happily share their opinions on bands, restaurants and the best route to take to your next event.
French Quarter Festival – This four-day event attracts more audience than the more well-known seven-day JazzFest. The difference is that the stages are scattered about the French Quarter and they are free, making it easy for the casual daily tourist to get sucked into the music. Whereas JazzFest adds a healthy dose of world and national music acts to their line up of local performers, French Quarter Festival is almost exclusively local musicians. Held two weeks before JazzFest, it’s the first major festival of the season. If you’re already staying in or around downtown, you won’t need to taxi or bus to the fairgrounds as you would with JazzFest. Last year French Quarter Festival headlined with Allen Toussaint, who later joined in a delightful conversation with Deacon John about Cosimo Matassa at the festival’s interview stage. I can’t tell you how fortunate I felt to be in the audience for both of those events.
Lagniappe. Regardless of when you go, relax. You won’t be able to do it all. Things will get in your way, like torrential rain storms. Last year, I had set my mind on catching Irma Thomas at the big stage by the river at French Quarter Festival but when I saw a mass of dark clouds headed my way, I reluctantly ducked into the House of Blues courtyard. What a break. Not only did I stay dry but I became acquainted with the talent of Sarah McCoy and Colin Lake –two performers who were able to keep playing despite a very heavy rain. The Irma Thomas show was cancelled. Slow down, take care of yourself and enjoy the moment because you’re in New Orleans, baby!
P.S. JazzFest is a hoot and you should do it, particularly if you haven’t and have always wanted to. Here’s my five things you should know about JazzFest.