NOLA JAZZ FEST 2018: New Orleans Fairgrounds: May 5, 6, 7
Little Freddie King, Tank and the Bangas, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit,
Aerosmith, Cowboy Mouth, Walter Trout, Lost Bayou Ramblers
Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Clarence “Frogman” Henry,
Dixie Cups, Galactic, Rebirth Brass Band, George Porter,
Jack White, Smokey Robinson, Radiators, Zion Harmonizers,
Steve Miller, Buddy Guy, Trombone Shorty, Preservation Hall Brass Band
There is nothing like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong, Mardi Gras is wonderful and has a magic spirit all its own. I love getting drunk, going to parades and collecting worthless plastic trinkets just as much as the next guy. but Jazz Fest is all about the MUSIC. For two weekends at the end of April and beginning of May you can see literally hundreds of artists spanning all genres: Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Zydeco, R&B, Rap, Soul, Funk, Pop, Rock and everything in between. It truly is an amazing experience and I highly recommend it! Especially if you have a friend who is willing to put you up for a few days. Hotels can be expensive!
Considering I usually live hand to mouth, saving money for an event like this takes some planning. However, I had $650 in cash, my “Emergency” $20, an extra $100 in my checking account and Dad’s AMEX card (just in case). I figured that was plenty, including the cabs and Uber’s. “The best laid plans of mice and men…” My flight landed early Friday morning and I took a cab ($36 on AMEX) to my buddy Allen’s house. By 9 am we were having breakfast at Please U on St. Charles. The biscuits and gravy looked good but I opted for a soft-shell crab po-boy and an Abita Purple Haze to start my day. ($45 on AMEX) It just rolled on from there.
We went back to his house off St. Charles, a gorgeous and large structure built in the 1830’s. Allen is a LOCAL! I quickly settled into my room and rolled a few joints for the day. The room has a desk, a big fluffy bed, private bathroom & shower. It’s perfect! The best part is I am welcome anytime and Allen understands I am coming into town to play. So, we actually don’t see much of each other. He gives me a key and we hang out when our paths cross. The only way I could have afforded this trip was thanks to Allen. Yet, he doesn’t do Jazz Fest. Not since they raised the price to $15 (30 years ago). It’s funny, with his family connections he could get in for free any day he wanted. It’s just not his thing. Trust me when I say, this guy is made.
I had a couple more beers at Allen’s house and we smoked a joint before I called my Uber to the Fest ($14 AMEX). My driver dropped me off directly in front of the gates, an Uber no-no I later found out. Bonus! The bar across the street was hopping so I bellied up to the Seahorse Saloon for another pre-Fest beverage. That makes 4 before noon. I wandered through the crowd chatting with random people. Hey, it’s what I like to do. Talk, drink, rock…repeat. The main attraction for me on Friday was Jason Isbell. He was scheduled to do an interview at 1:15 and play his set around 3:30, so I had time. The headliners that day were Beck, Sheryl Crow and L.L. Cool J.
Knowing I may have to leave early that day my plan was to start with the Isbell interview, see his set and then just catch a little of everybody on my way out. I planned on a long night! My 7:30 dinner reservations at Court of Two Sisters had been booked weeks in advance. Mom and Dad got me VIP passes to Preservation Hall at 9pm. Not to mention the Funky Meters were at House of Blues, Kermit Ruffins was at Blue Nile and Dash Rip Rock was at Circle Bar! The night shows are usually the best part of Jazz Fest…if you can still muster the energy. I am not as young as I used to be and binge-drinking for 72 hours straight is a bit more exhausting these days. However, sleeping is not an option at Jazz Fest. There will be plenty of time for that when you are dead. Just go to the show! Having said all that, I tried my best, but came up short.
Isbell’s interview didn’t start till 1:15, but I wanted to get there early. I was so early I had time to catch some of Little Freddie King’s set at the Blues tent and stopped in the Gospel tent to boot. I love the Gospel tent! You don’t have to be a religious person to feel the spirit when you are there. AMEN! By the time I got back to the Isbell interview several other fans had arrived. We all took our seats and waited patiently for Jason to arrive. Then the announcer said, “Jason Isbell was not available today….” A slight whimper/groan was clearly audible from the audience. Then we got up and walked out as a group. Oh, well. What’s next on the schedule?
As it turns out, an old friend of mine from THE Ohio State days lives in NOLA now. Friday was the only day she was going, so we made plans to meet. She sent me a pic of their gate number, what flag to look for and away I went. Personally, I hate smart phones but they make finding your friends in large crowds much easier! “Back in my day” we had to get a big pole and decorate it so your friends could find you. It’s true. The tradition continues to this day. I have a friend who claims to know the story of the FIRST stick. The ELVIS STICK! More on that later. I found Tracey and she introduced me to her Crewe. She was excited to see the band coming up before Isbell, Tank and the Bangas. They did not disappoint. I got down front and had a blast! For me to try to describe them wouldn’t do it justice. Find them on YouTube and thank me later.
I love Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit! However, the last three records have been an extreme departure from his DBT (Drive By Truckers) days (which I love). I guess getting sober, getting married and having kids has a way of chilling you out. It was a decent show, but pretty much the same as the last few times I’ve seen him. At least he played ONE Truckers song: “Never Gonna Change” and that was the highlight for me. Afterwards, I was getting beat down and tired. So much so, I blew off the headliners and got an Uber ($15 AMEX) to the Quarter. My dinner reservation at Court of Two Sisters sucked! Shitty service. I left after one beer and turtle soup ($20 AMEX). Sadly, I missed the Meters, Kermit and Dash but my VIP seat at Preservation Hall was great, especially since I got to sit on the bench right next to the band and not on the floor! Thanks, Mom and Dad!
After that, Friday night gets fuzzy. Bourbon Street can do that to you. I blew through the $150 reserved for the day and busted into the first of five $100’s to buy more smokes. I had already gone through TWO packs from the carton I brought with me! ($60 AMEX) Later that night, I thought I lost my AMEX, or left it somewhere. A little research the next morning, which was rough, revealed it was last used at The Funky Pirate at 1:15 am. Damn those Hand Grenades! Cab ride home ($15 AMEX). I woke up at 10am and went to Walgreen’s for a much-needed soda. I gave the cashier $50 from my change I got the night before. It was a fake! Movie money.
Yeah, I was pissed, but also determined to ride the rail for AEROSMITH! That would require finding a spot and planting myself for five hours, which is no problem if you have a group of friends with you, but I was rolling solo. The AMEX card would have to wait and there was nothing I could do about the $50, except hold on to it and try to pass it on later. Does that make ME a criminal? Not compared to our “so called” President. My Uber ($15 AMEX) dropped me off about half a mile from the Fairgrounds, which kinda sucked but gave me time to smoke a joint.
As soon as I arrived at the Acura stage I made some new friends. Weed brings people together. Literally. As soon as you light a joint there will be a group of people around you! The first act of the day was a Grammy-award winning Zydeco band called the Lost Bayou Ramblers and they were fantastic! Next up was one of the greatest blues guitar players I’ve ever seen named Walter Trout. Seriously, look him up! Hell, check them BOTH out. After each band ended some people would leave to go to another stage. This is when you make your move. I got about three people back from the rail and was happy with my spot, directly in front of the vanity ramp! Bingo.
This sweet little old lady next to me had a chair with wheels and she was partying her ass off! There was a group of about eight people from the rail back to me and we made a square to close off any “intruders”. I was the left corner and took my responsibilities seriously. Then came a group of youngsters: two boys, two girls. Young to this old man anyway. They seemed nice enough, one of the girls was really cute. I gave her the duty of holding my space when I left. After chit-chatting with my new buddies, I handed them all my business card and got ready to hit the Blues Stage. The group was nearly in shock that I was going to leave my spot. The only other obligation I had that day was to see the R&B Revival show featuring The Dixie Cups, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. This was a MUST for me! After I explained the seriousness of my need, they understood and said, “Good luck.” as if they would never see me again. In their defense, I was about to fight a crowd of 100,000 people and getting bigger by the minute. I turned around and said, “Save my spot. I WILL be back!”
Getting to the Blues Tent was easy. Getting back would be the hard part. Now, for those of you not familiar with the Dixie Cups, Al Johnson or Frogman Henry, they are New Orleans legends! The Dixie Cups were known for their version of “Iko Iko” as well as their 1964 hit, “Chapel of Love.” Al Johnson wrote the ultimate Mardi Gras song, “It’s Carnival Time.” Clarence “Frogman” Henry was best known for his hits, “Glory of Love” and “Ain’t Got A Home,” in which he sings falsetto and deep bass (ribbit). Sadly, after the Dixie Cups I had to piss so bad I missed most of Frogman’s set. At least I caught the last song. Hey, you can’t see everything!
With my mission accomplished I was ready to fight the crowd back to the front row. However, I hadn’t eaten all day and was starting to feel weak. I got a crawfish pie to start then remembered I still had that fake $50. So, I got a crawfish Monica as well. As I handed the bill to the nice, young, white girl behind the counter she took it and gave it to her supervisor. I thought I was busted for sure. She gave me my food and said, “Have a nice day.” Elvis has left the building! Being full from the crawfish pie I took a few bites and gave the rest to a random stranger. Good Karma. After that, I bought 6 beers and they were kind enough to throw them in a box and tossed some ice on top. That made it much easier to push my way though the crowd! A few “pardon me” and “just trying to get to the guy in the orange shirt” then I was right back where I started!
However, the kids had moved up into my spot. No worries, now I was standing next to the cute one. Katie was her name. There was also an annoying blonde southern woman who weaseled her way into the circle. Who let HER in??? She promised that she just wanted a picture of Steven and then was leaving. Yeah you right, darlin'. She wouldn’t be staying long. I would make sure of that. I talked with Katie until Cowboy Mouth hit the stage: Impressive! I’ve seen them before, but this show really knocked me out. Especially the “Stand By Me” sing-a-long. Kudos, boys.
Finally, it was time for the main event. We had been standing in the heat for five hours as the crowd had grown to enormous proportions. It was asses to elbows. Yet, there was still enough room to dance. This was my 19th Aerosmith show since 1985. The last time I saw them was in Philly 2012 and they closed with “Chip Away The Stone.” It was phenomenal. But, that was more than five years ago. Would Steven be fucked up? Could he still sing? I was afraid it might be a train wreck. My fears were quickly laid to rest with the opening number, “Toys in the Attic” followed by “Same Old Song and Dance.” They sounded great and looked like the true rock stars they are. That said, they setlist really missed the mark if you ask me. They should have opened with “Back In The Saddle” since they haven’t played live in such a long time. Or maybe even allow Joe to take the lead with “Let The Music Do The Talking.” Hell, they were in New Orleans and DIDN’T USE A HORN SECTION!!! No one thought to play “Big Ten Inch”? Ha-rumph!
When they started playing the 80’s/90’s stuff the younger audience members seemed to perk up. Me, not so much. “Last Child” was a nice break in between “Livin' On The Edge” and “Ragdoll” which was somehow supposed to be significant to New Orleans since they shot the video in the French Quarter. Ridiculous. At one point, they were playing “Janie’s Got a Gun” and I thought to myself, “Who picked this song?” I complained out loud for, “Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” Yet, they did manage to play one nugget for the old fans, “Adam’s Apple” (first time since 2009) and also did a bit of “Mother Popcorn” before closing their set. However, they did TWO Fleetwood Mac covers and no “Train Kept A Rollin”? Come ON! Looks like I’m going for #20!
After the show it was a madhouse to get out. I said goodbye to Katie and her friends before forging my own path home. As I wandered around trying to find an Uber I stumbled onto the most kick-ass crawfish boil I have ever seen! The Uber would have to wait. After my miserable dinner experience Friday night, I was ready to EAT! Besides the unlimited mud-bugs, they also had a whole roasted pig and beer on tap. Just make a donation and help yourself. I kicked in $40 and did just that. Hell, I stayed for three hours before finally calling a ride to the Quarter.
As I said, my AMEX was last seen at the Funky Pirate on Bourbon Street, so that was my destination. My Uber dropped me off at Jean Lafitte’s which is at the end of Bourbon towards Esplanade. I had to head the other direction towards Canal St. so I might as well get a drink! Jean Lafitte’s is one of the oldest bars in New Orleans and they are known for these purple slushies that pack a punch. Needed it! I wandered up Bourbon and enjoyed some people watching until I reached the Pirate. Sadly, they did not have the card. Shit. Then, I looked in my wallet again and there it was! I had put it on the other side in my drunken state didn’t notice! Problem solved.
Once I reached Canal Street I ran into a guy with an Aerosmith shirt and we started talking about the show. He must have had REALLY good seats because he pulled out a handful of pics and gave me one of Joe Perry, Brad Whitford and Tom Hamilton. Thank you, kind sir! I caught the streetcar at Canal and rode it back to the Garden District. God, I love the streetcar. For $1.25 you can get nearly anywhere in the city. It’s beautiful! Since I still had a little energy left I stopped off at the Avenue Pub for a couple of night caps and then called it a day. Whew! I was tired and needed some rest. Yet, I still had one more day of Festing to do and there was plenty left on the agenda: Steve Miller, Buddy Guy, Smokey Robinson, Rebirth Brass Band, and much more!
When I woke up Sunday I could hear the church bells ring next door. But it only rang once. Shit, I overslept! By the time I got to the fairgrounds it was already 2pm. Only five hours of fun left. Must see music! Eat later. There was a LOT on the schedule for the day and my choices were nearly limitless. On top of that, my sister texted me on Saturday and ask me to find some “glass monkeys.” All I had to go by was the picture she sent me. They look like the old kid’s game but bigger and made of glass. You hang them outside and they look pretty. Yeah sure, I’ll get right on that, sis. Not my top priority. I entered at the back of the Acura stage where Galactic was playing, not that I would have known it. I was focused on getting my bearings, finding a schedule and getting to the best stage at that very moment. I like Galactic. Normally I would have found some cool people, smoked a joint and waited for Trombone Shorty. Not today.
Rebirth was at Congo Square! The best part about traveling by yourself is not having to worry about walking too fast or waiting for someone else. Just hit the gas and GO! I like to bob & weave when walking through crowds. Focus about ten feet ahead of you and anticipate the next move. You can’t do that with a group of people. It just doesn’t work. Which is why you have those big sticks! So, you can meet your friends at a certain place at a certain time. If you get split up, look for the stick. It’s worked for 50 years. I made it to Congo Square, but unfortunately Rebirth were already half way through their set. That’s ok, half of Rebirth is better than nothing!
Smokey Robinson was up next but I had some time to sneak over to the Lagniappe stage and catch the end of George Porter & His Running Pardners. George Porter is a bad-ass on the bass! Seeing the end of his set nearly made up for missing the Meters on Friday, but not quite. The Radiators were up after George, so I stuck around for a few tunes. Then, I had to get back to Smokey. Unfortunately, by the time I got back the crowd had swelled and I could barely see the big screen, let alone the stage. Plus, the sound was very low! You could hardly hear him from my vantage point. So I saw “I Second That Emotion” and a couple more before heading back to the Gospel tent. It was Sunday, after all. Gotsta get my churchin’ on! Rev. Todd is testifying!
The Zion Harmonizers brought tears of joy to my eyes. Their music inspired me to hug fellow humans with no shame. I raised my hands to the sky and declared for all to hear, “I BELIEVE!” No matter what you believe, if anything at all, the Gospel tent is a beautiful thing to behold and it welcomes all. Unlike our Republican-run Congress and the entire Trump administration. (Hey, it’s my story. If I can talk religion, I can talk politics too. Lighten up, Francis!) After I filled my heart to capacity with pure bliss I continued on to some ROCK. Now, I knew Jack White existed. I knew a few White Stripes songs. I was not prepared for what I saw that day! Mind blown.
The crowd was huge. Bigger than Aerosmith? I don’t know. I didn’t see Aerosmith from the back. However, it took me a LONG while to get through the small barrier to the main field. As soon as I crossed over, I got a beer and planted myself. That’s when I made a few more friends, one from NOLA the other from FLA. We were ALL feeling it! It was an organic orgasm between one hundred thousand people happening simultaneously! Who knew Jack White was that good? I didn’t! When the show was over I planned on hitting Steve Miller with my new friends. Karma had other plans. The Elvis Stick was calling and I had to answer it. Where is Rob Kerner???
I lost the ladies but made it to Steve Miller. Once I got there I immediately made some new friends. As I stated earlier, joints do that. Then, a guy with a backpack strolled up next to me. He took a hit and I asked where he was going. To which he pointed at the Elvis Stick and said, “there”! Hey, I know that stick! Maybe my friend was there. So I followed him through the immense crowd and we somehow made it through. Unfortunately, BK had already left for the day, dammit! I gave the guy my business card and said, “Tell him Rev. Todd was here.” The message was received.
With less than two hours of Jazz Fest to go I walked rapidly to the Blues Tent for a bit of Buddy Guy. Having never seen him before, it was a must and he tore it up! He took his guitar from the stage to the back of the house and back! I tried to get some video of it, but to no avail. Too late. Once again, you can’t see it all. Just try to see a bit of each when you can! It’s ALL good! Back to the Acura stage for Trombone Shorty, the end of my Sunday night. The last night of Jazz Fest is always bittersweet. You don’t want the fun to end but you know it must. When Quint Davis took the stage after Shorty’s set to say thank you I knew it was over, but it was wonderful.
As I was leaving, I made a frantic effort to find my sister’s precious request. Lo & behold, at the very end of the arts tents, I FOUND THE MONKEYS! Having not properly read her text, I did not realize she only wanted ONE monkey…in orange. She said it would cost about $100 with shipping. I ended up buying three for $200 and lugging them all back with me through Mid-City. Plus, I also got a Fleur-De-Lis for an early Mother’s Day present. With my time in NOLA waning, I enjoyed wandering the streets, listening to the music and taking in all the beauty of the city. Including nitrous! Hey, somebody had a tank. I had $20. What the hell? We only live once.
Once the “wah-wah’s” wore off I continued down the street until I found a cab. Forget Uber at this point. Go with convenience. Three others hopped in and the driver said it would be $8 apiece to The Quarter. Fine. We started driving and stopped at a red light. As I looked to my right I saw a sign that said Dookie Chase. Holy Shit! This is one of the places I REALLY wanted to eat! I told the driver, “Let me out here!” and I got out of the car without paying. It wasn’t until after he drove off I realized they were closed on Sundays. Now, I HAD to call an Uber ($15 AMEX), as this was not a place for a white boy with glass monkeys to be hanging out. Plus, I had to piss. Peeing outdoors in NOLA will get you arrested fo’ shiggity! I took the risk. Had to.
Uber picked me up and took me to The Quarter where I proceeded to crawl from one end to the other. Needing food, I opted for an old stand-by, The Clover Grill. The atmosphere is more restrained than it used to be and for that it loses points. Where are the tranny servers? Where are the gay-positive menus? This was just a diner now. No matter. I had the chicken-fried steak and it was good. I made one last stroll up Bourbon. Who cares if it’s a tourist trap or the best place to get shot by a gang-banger? It’s still fun. By the time I got to Canal Street I was ready for bed.
Once again, I took the streetcar home. I had to break into my Emergency $20 to make change. My $650 was gone. God knows how much I put on AMEX. Fuck it. Check the totals when you get home, Baker. As I rode the rails on that beautiful beast, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on conversations while watching the downtown streets blow by. It was a beautiful evening and another extraordinary New Orleans experience. As we passed Lee Circle it was hard not to notice the lack of a statue on top of that huge column. I consider that progress. More is needed.
Monday afternoon I awoke groggy yet determined to squeeze every glorious moment out of my last day in New Orleans. As I came out of my room, there was Allen! I hadn’t seen him since I got to town. He thought I already left. We got to hang out for a little bit before I had to take off, which was nice. I mean, the guy put me up for a weekend and I barely see him? Some friend I am. Yet, as I said, Jazz Fest isn’t his thing and he has own schedule to keep. Spending some time together is better than nothing at all, right? Shit, I’ve known this guy for over twenty years and we really don’t talk much. A coupla times a year tops, usually around Christmas and if I’m coming to town. That’s about it. But, it’s better than nothing, folks. CALL YOUR FRIENDS NOW!
Taking my own advice, I finally got around to calling Rob Kerner and he agreed to pick me up at Allen’s. Saying goodbye to one amigo and hello to another, I got in B.K’s truck and off we went. To where I was not sure, but I knew it would be fun! My sister was his friend first, but when she introduced us in 1995 I knew has my friend, too. Rob was meeting people at their hotel in the Quarter but he couldn’t reach them via text. So, we took a stroll through the French Market and smoked a few cigarettes while waiting for a response. We should have gotten a beignet at the Café Du’ Monde and taken a stroll through Jackson Square. Missed opportunities.
Sadly, there is TOO MUCH to do in New Orleans. Whether you are at a Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras or just the average Thursday, you can’t do it all in a weekend. Sorry. It’s impossible no matter how much money you have. You can’t buy TIME! I spent the rest of my Sunday by the pool with B.K and his friends at Hotel Le Richelieu. It was wonderful. Laughing, lounging, drinking. Just what the witch doctor ordered for my last day in NOLA. Yet, the time in my happy place was closing.
Rob and his friends had dinner reservations at Briquette and I had to catch a plane back to Florida. He gave me a ride to the restaurant in the back of his truck and I took the opportunity to take a few parting pictures of my favorite city in America. I wish I could afford to live there again, but alas it is out of my means these days. So, I will suffice with visiting as often as I can. Or, as long as Allen lets me stay. Did I mention hotels were expensive? Well, they are!
Sigh…back to reality, and my AMEX bill, which was about $700 by the time I got home. Whoops, I guess I went a little over budget. It happens. Who gives a shit? I had a blast and THAT is what life is all about, folks. You can’t take it with you and I have no one to pass it on to anyway. So, I plan on dying broke! Besides, I had my glass monkeys and Katie’s number in my cell phone. Life was indeed good. I made it to the airport on time with a lifetime of memories jammed into half a week. I hope to come back to New Orleans and my friends soon, but I had a wedding in Columbus to attend in two weeks. No rest for the wicked. Looks like somebody is getting a glass monkey for a wedding present. Congrats to Andy and Alicia Hindman!