Tuesday, May 6, 2014

On The Road To New Orleans Jazz Fest

The first time I visited the electric city of New Orleans I knew I’d return some day. Three years later, that promise became a reality. The humid thick heat of New Orleans, although familiar, is not my cup of tea. Yet experiencing this city during one of their biggest events of the year is well worth the effort if you can manage the climate.

My journey began three days ahead of the start of the festival in order to make the 1,700-mile drive from Salt Lake City to New Orleans. Three full days driving through Durango, CO, Santa Fe, NM, Amarillo and Dallas, TX finally landed me in the Crescent City for Thursday’s unofficial kickoff to the first weekend of the festival.

On the road, somewhere in Texas

Santa Fe street vendors 

First things first, I had to find a bike for the weekend. Biking around a city or surrounding countryside is the best way to experience a place. Biking around New Orleans during Jazz Fest is the best way to get around for a number of reasons:

  • Driving around, finding parking, and, most importantly, getting parking tickets becomes a non-issue.
  • Increased mobility. Whether staying with friends or in a hotel, you have the mobility to be on your own transportation schedule to go off and explore on your own.
  • Flat as a pancake. The city of New Orleans is completely flat, making biking a breeze. The combination of heat + humidity + hill climbs could ruin a perfectly fun weekend otherwise.
  • Save money. It costs enough to get there, purchase tickets, secure accommodations and enhance the experience of being in a culinary dance party like New Orleans by eating and drinking everything in sight. Biking can cost next to nothing if you have the right connections, while potentially helping off-set the daily beignet habit you acquire while there.

Heading toward the fairgrounds

Actually acquiring a bike can be easy and cost effective. I pride myself on having friends who live in desirable locations across the country and world for me to visit. As such, I have a few friends who live in New Orleans and were gracious enough to not only let me crash in their spare bedroom, but also furnished a bike for my use throughout the weekend. However, options abound even if you are not as lucky to have friends in high places. Bike rental shops are located across the city, several of which are situated right in the French Quarter, where you are likely to frequent while in New Orleans. Bike Nola is one of the more reasonable and convenient shops, offering a 2-day rate of $50 with options to rent per hour or for a whole week. Once the wheels are yours, so too is the city.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival runs for two weekends with a mid-week “break,” affectionately known as the “Daze Between”. The break in between can become as relaxed or as jam-packed per one’s taste as the entertainment continues throughout the week. Well-seasoned veterans know the ins and outs of staying both weekends, but as a beginner to Jazz Fest, one weekend sounded like plenty for the health of my liver and bank account. After surviving the first weekend of Jazz Fest I’m already planning how to do it better next year, staying both weekends and taking a mid-week mini trip to the beach in Mobile, AL or as far as Pensacola, FL to recover from the first weekend and re-set for the second weekend.

"Dude, in India, whole families ride on bikes like this. The mom holding her 2 kids on the back while the dad rides them through town..." explained Keree before we took off...

Trying to look good for the camera... slow motion tip over

The first weekend of Jazz Fest packed a huge punch of eclectic acts from traditional New Orleans style big brass and jazz bands, to mainstream acts like Phish, Eric Clapton and Robin Thicke. The festival, itself, is held between the fences of the Fair Grounds Race Course, while the hundreds of bonus acts and events happening after the festival ends at 7pm each night spill over into the surrounding bars and venues across the city.

Street brass keeping the show going after the festival let out

Both weekends of the festival run from Friday to Sunday. I decided to purchase two “any day” tickets to the festival from NOJazzFest.com, leaving one day open to explore the city outside the festival grounds. Friday was spent biking around the French Quarter, eating beignets, these amazing square-shaped pieces of fried dough covered in powdered sugar specific to New Orleans, popping in and out of shops in search of a floppy brimmed hat to keep the sun out of my eyes while at the festival all day (a vital article of clothing for any summer concert festival), and watching street performances. It’s not unusual to see a section of street barricaded from vehicles with street performers from dancers to fiddlers to full brass bands playing for passers by. Doing the touristy thing in any city you travel to is somewhat necessary, yet tourists beware when traveling during a busy weekend in a city. As always when traveling, beware of your belongings, have your wits about you, and do your research before booking a rental house or finding a used bike on craigslist. Staying away from Bourbon Street, the a-typical street you think of when imagining New Orleans and Mardi Gras, is a good idea. Kitschy bars with expensive (albeit strong) drinks and shops selling neon sweatpants with “NOLA” on the butt may be to some tourists delight, yet I prefer to hit the local thrift stores for vintage souvenirs like the 1980 Mardi Gras Marathon t-shirt I scored at the Goodwill upon my arrival to New Orleans.

Beignets and coffee from Morning Call Coffee Stand, a great alternative to the classic tourist trap rip off, Cafe Du Monde. Morning Call is located in City Park and is open 24 hours a day!

Beautiful architecture in the French Quarter

Bourbon Street, had to do it

My day of sightseeing segued into a night of dancing and taking in the sights on Frenchmen Street. Brass-a-holics played at The Maison bar and music venue on Frenchmen while DJ’s and more bands played simultaneously at every bar on the block. JazzFestGrids.com is the Bible for Jazz Fest patrons, listing every act at every bar starting as early as the Tuesday before the first weekend all the way through the second weekend including all the “daze between.”

Music highlights include Phish on the Acura Stage closing out Saturday of weekend one followed by incredible street brass bands spilling out of the festival onto North Lopez Street outside of Liuzza’s Bar, followed by DJ Soul Sister spinning late night at Hi Ho Lounge in the Saint Claude neighborhood downtown. As if Saturday wasn’t bursting with entertainment around every corner, Sunday included some of the best music all weekend. Meschiya Lake & The Big Little Horns, Rebirth Brass Band, Galactic, and Newbirth Brass Band rounded out our final day of the festival. Yet I can say with confidence that the icing on the cake was a show we almost missed due to an unexpected cover charge at the door of Chickie Wah Wah, a storied bar and music venue in mid-city. I We stumbled upon the 21st Annual New Orleans Big Blues Harmonica Show featuring Johnny Sansone and Sunpie Barnes, two of the best blues harmonica players in the game. Exhausted after a long hot weekend of dancing I could’ve easily called it a night instead of paying the $20 cover and going inside to see some music I wasn’t even sure would be any good. Yet in the spirit of Jazz Fest and being in New Orleans I swallowed my pride, paid the cover (which I was able to negotiate a two-for-one deal with the doorman for me and my friend) and witnessed an intimate gathering of friends and fans serenaded by the most rockin’, soulful blues music I’ve ever heard.


Meschiya Lake & The Big Little Horns

Keree and I walking across the fairgrounds to see Eric Clapton

Johnny Sansone ripping on the harmonica

After sweaty, sunbaked days and dancing all night for three and a half days straight I was ready to rest and recover. Reflecting on the weekend I feel confident that with a good rest during those “daze between” I could rally and do it all again for the final weekend. Having local connections and a comfortable home base made all the difference in creating a fun filled first Jazz Fest experience. Yet whether you have a couch to crash on or a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, arming yourself with a bike, your travel savvy wits about you and jazzfestgrids.com, the possibilities are endless. 


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