Too much of a good thing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s how twenty days in New Orleans eventually came to feel. And I’m not talking about the after effects of partying or drunkenness as I engaged in only staid, middle aged versions of the former and (sadly) none of the latter.
I enjoyed my time here, Jazz Fest especially. Even better was getting together with several friends — all of whom were either NO first-timers or had never experienced the city as an adult — and introducing them to various aspects of the city, especially Fest and Frenchmen Street.
But twenty days here? Nope, not doing that again. A week is probably my limit here.
Part of the issue is simply the lingering post-Katrina devastation in portions of the city. Most of my time here was spent in the Seventh Ward, one of the areas hit hard by the flooding 11+ years ago. Plenty of rebuilding has occurred and continues, so in neighborhoods such as this one, wherever one looks there is a mixture of new construction and ruin, bright colors and ruined beauty.
There is also widespread disrepair of what were once nice homes that now suffer from a decade of neglect, some due to poverty (with new construction and gentrification, housing values have shot up, resulting in much higher property taxes… same story as most every other older city in the U.S.) and the loss of residents following the flooding and forced evacuation (many abandoned properties).
Then there is the matter of the bums and the gutter punks. I’m not referring to the homeless in general: just to those who make a nuisance of themselves with aggressive panhandling and behaviors that range from obnoxious to dangerous.
And finally, there are the crowds during Fest. Oy vey! The crowds at the Frenchmen Street clubs were incredible at all hours, and while I’ve never liked crowds, my patience with them seems to wane more and more with age. This was my first and probably last time attending both weekends of Fest. I’d long heard that the second weekend is always busiest and found that to be the case: I left midday on Saturday when even the smaller tents and stages were jam packed. And I didn’t go at all on Sunday, though that was in part due to feeling like I was coming down with a head cold, which in fact I was.
But again, despite the frustrations, I overall had a blast. Some favorite moments:
While out walking one morning, I came upon a scraggly fellow, probably homeless I would guess. I said hello or some such as I passed him and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I can’t really describe how or what it was exactly, but it became apparent that he wanted to talk, so I slowed up to allow him to catch up with me and readied myself for the request for money. But it never came*; instead, we walked for about 20 minutes while he told me an outlandish (and somewhat contradictory and mostly unbelievable) story about his life and career. The man was engaging and intelligent. And quite crazy, too, I believe, based upon his claims and the strange hit I got looking him straight in the eyes. But he was thrilled about having the conversation, actually interrupting himself at one point to tell me what a pleasure it was to be able to talk about this stuff. I had to be insistent about parting ways as he would easily have walked and talked all day had I allowed.
*An aside: This is one of the instances when I would have given someone on the street money. I’d long been opposed to doing so, believing such practice potentially more harmful than helpful and having faith that giving exclusively to organized charities was sufficient. I’ve had second thoughts about that in recent years and now give to those people who I sense have real need and who are not aggressive in their approach. It’s not for me to say how they use the money or to put restrictions on its use. If I’m wrong and someone uses that money to buy drugs or drink, well, so be it. I have to imagine that if I ever find myself in such circumstances, I’ll welcome an occasional drink even more than I do now. And though I’m not Catholic or even religious, my comfort with that new personal policy was strengthened earlier this year when I read of Pope Francis’ recent encouragement of such direct giving.
Long story short, he claimed to be a wildly successful graduate of some writing program at Stanford who got into technical writing then IT marketing & strategy at a Fortune 50 company, then into programming (or maybe that was before the other IT role), and now works as a writer of every type, but mostly novels (he can write in any style, from Tolstoy to Hemingway) and screenplays (again, he can do everything, from classic drama to science fiction such as “The Matrix”).
It was a weird, fun 20-minute encounter with a real New Orlean character.
Jazz Fest favorites:
Jonny Sansome, Kermit Ruffins, Helen Gillet, Zena Moses, Cyril Neville & SwampFunk, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, Dirty Bourbon River Show, Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
The Kermit Ruffins set was especially remarkable. Beyond the great music and Kermit’s fun stage personality (typical joke: “Well, my wife ran off with the reefer man. I sure am gonna miss him.”), he introduced me two incredible New Orleans singers in James Winfield (aka, the Sleeping Giant) and Nayo Jones. And his trumpet duel with Irvin Mayfield was something to behold.
Helen Gillet was definitely the biggest surprise. I’d never heard of her before but went to her set because of how unusual the Fest guide’s description of her music was: “eclectic mix of French, Contemporary Jazz, North Indian, Blues and Classical styles.” It something I felt certain that I would either love or detest. Not only did I love it, but I was mesmerized by her skill not just as a cellist and singer, but in her use of looper pedals to build layered sounds that were often startlingly complex. Here’s a video of one song from her set.
Watching the excitement and pure joy of friends who’d not seen one another for long periods unexpectedly happen onto one another amid the thick crowds.
And of course the WWOZ Brass Pass hospitality tent. Oh, and the ‘OZ Mango Freeze.
Best t-shirts seen at Fest:
- CAUTION MOJO WORKING
- BIEGNET DONE THAT
- WORLD’S OKAYEST DRUMMER
- KEEP CALM YOURE JUST HIGH
- MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE (this one wasn’t a favorite so much as it was strikingly creepy)
- SURREAL MCCOYS (yep, know this is a band, but I hadn’t heard of them in years and was reminded what a great name they chose)
Some favorite non-Fest moments:
- Going to Kermit Ruffin’s Mother-in-Law Lounge to enjoy him recording a live album. Even better than watching and listening to him and his band was the opportunity to talk with him beforehand. And best of all was enjoying his red beans and rice with roasted pork during a break.
- Cocktails of New Orleans bike tour. Not only can you walk the streets of this city with a drink in hand, you can also bike while drinking. Interesting history of the city and its drinking culture, as well as of particular bats and cocktails. The Sazerac at the bar of the same name at the Roosevelt Hotel and the frozen Irish coffee from the Erin Rose were favorites.
- Happening upon Sarah McCoy at the Spotted Cat. This lady has an incredible voice, both powerful and soulful. And her songs are odd and rather dark. Will be on the lookout for her debut album later this year; meanwhile, here is her first single, “Beautiful Stranger.”