It wouldn’t be Jazz Fest without the brass bands; the Elton Johns; the locals (and tourists); the rain (and mud); and the glorious, inescapable sunshine.
Jazz Fest, in its immensity, encompasses a spectrum of phenomena you wouldn’t expect to see at the same festival – and yet, they persist, in much the same way that New Orleans presents its little absurdities, side by side, inextricable. Between my two days at the Fest, Saturday the first weekend and Friday the second, I encountered a pretty good representative range of the Jazz Fest experience. What follows are the highs, the lows, the rain, the sun, and a whole lot of in between.
SATURDAY: CASH MONEYPALOOZA
I sprang out of bed at noon sharp with the gleeful realization that today was the day – the day I’d finally see Juvenile and Mannie Fresh Together, hometown heroes of Cash Money Records – in one of those divinely arranged unions of pretty much all of my New Orleans hopes and dreams. Sure, the two perform together periodically, but usually in random amphitheaters in like, Kenner, where I’m not wont to go. Sitting in my apartment in St. Roch, I watched the sky grow steadily darker to the tune of WWOZ live streaming from the Fest.
“Uh-oh, Dorothy,” said the DJ. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
True: the rapidly darkening sky looked like it might open up and swallow the city into an alternate universe – at 1 pm, no less – but no matter. Juvenile and Mannie Fresh would not be forgone. Donning my orange raincoat and eggplant rain boots, I paced around my apartment and nearly flipped my kitchen table over in rage when the ‘OZ DJ announced their upcoming set as being at 2:00 pm instead of 3:35 pm – as it was listed on the official schedule – meaning I’d see maybe twenty minutes of their set, at the most, as I was still sequestered in my house in the torrential downpour. FOMO settled in, and how – the gods, they were unfair. But I was determined to go anyway, if only to stand outside of the festival and strain my ears for the one final refrain of “Back That Ass Up” that would make it all worth it.
I waited until the storm abated to a lazy spittle before setting out on my bike and rolled into the Fest. Booking it over to the Congo Square stage, I prepared myself for the worst possible outcome – perhaps I’d only see 15 minutes of Juvenile and Mannie Fresh Together, those Cash Money mavericks; perhaps I could learn to love this Luke James, whoever he was, the artist who either preceded or followed them. I tried to be as Zen as possible about it. But, lo and behold, I arrived on the scene to R&B falsetto wafting across the Fair Grounds in such a way as to be certain that Juvie and Mannie hadn’t yet performed, a fact I quickly confirmed with a security guard wearing neon (whom I probably alarmed with my unabashed enthusiasm).
Dreams come true: I wormed my way into the crowd, roughly front and center, and proceeded to get really excited, squealing along with this Luke James character every time he went for the high notes. Baseball-capped bros in ponchos drank Fireball from empty sunscreen containers. I gave some whiskey to a boy in braces, pausing briefly – very briefly – to ask if he was indeed 21, before deciding I didn’t care, like a beleaguered mom at a cousin’s wedding (he did offer to show me his ID, however).
Though the sky remained a muddled gray, the rain stopped in time for Juvenile o appear on stage in a camo jacket; Mannie came out not long after, launching into all of the old school hits one could possibly hope to hear at such a set: “Nolia Clap,” “Slow Motion,” “Back that Ass Up” (be still, my beating heart), “Hot Boy,” “I’ll Pay For It.” Family members came up on stage, Trombone Shorty came up on stage, Soulja Slim and Magnolia Shorty came up on stage (in spirit – RIP). In short, the entire set was a Cash Moneypalooza. They finished with the Big Tymers’ hit “Still Fly,” and I nearly wept with happiness. A girl in front of my had a tattoo on her back in looping script that read: How Sweet the Sound. Indeed.
Oh, Mannie. [Image via nola.com]
Afterwards I left in frantic search of a bathroom before dipping back into the crowd that had swelled significantly for John Legend, much further back from the stage than I’d been. The sun parted the thick clouds that presided over the larger part of the day to shine on John Legend’s cute little face as he sang songs about love. In this strange, symbolic deliverance from the day’s gloom, I became excessively maudlin and left to go eat enchiladas on my friend’s porch. While wringing myself out to dry at home, I stubbornly vowed that next weekend would be sunnier, I would be less day drunk, and No Doubt (no doubt) would make me less mawkish and thus be more awesome than John Legend.
FRIDAY: DAY OF DIVAS
The second weekend of Jazz Fest was as sunny as the first week was soggy. Friday promised a stacked lineup of divas (in the most fabulous sense of the word): Maggie Koerner, Macy Gray, Irma Thomas, Gwen Stefani. My friend Amelia and I met inside the Fair Grounds next to an enormous, blow-up can of Miller Lite that swayed slightly in the wind. That we were both wearing crop tops, jean shorts, and black boots prompted an ongoing bout of “Where’s Coachella?” and “Which way to Coachella?” jokes between us, much to the dismay of basic bitches and locals alike – though to be fair, my watermelon halter top was pretty bitchin’. It’d become something of a Jazz Fest tradition for me. My aunt had knit it back in the day for my mom to wear to her middle school dance, though my grandfather had refused to let her out of the house in it. I rescued it one summer from a box in the attic and made a point of reviving it each year in homage to my mom’s stunted sartorial ambitions circa the 7th grade, ensuring the world could properly admire my aunt’s handiwork (nearly half a century later – whoa).
A stop at the NOCCA tent afforded an excellent view of Jacob Reptile’s paper mache opus suspended from the ceiling – dolphins romping amidst jellyfish, a sea turtle, a massive alligator head – as well as a shady starting point for the trek to the winding food booths. Walking along and stuffing my face with a cochon de lait po-boy, I spotted a blue plume that’d fallen from a Mardi Gras Indian we’d been following in a second line, which I decided boded most auspiciously for my sunny Jazz Fest day (side note: found while partaking in two of my favorite activities, eating and dancing). The feather, ultimate ground score, fit perfectly in the brim of my hat.
Jacob Reptile, paper mache wizard extraordinaire
From there we spun briefly by the misty recesses of the Gospel Tent, where a choir sang about how Jesus is My Friend, after which we began our protracted search for the Lagniappe Stage, which happened to be inside the actual racetrack. Instead of spandexed jockeys lined up alongside their horses, however, Maggie Koerner mesmerized an intimate audience nestled into the neatly manicured lawn and its environs. The crowd somewhat resembled a very attentive garden party. Maggie was wearing a killer pair of orange-tinted sunglasses and generally looking (and sounding) cool as hell. We walked out humming He calls me mama(aaa) in the morning before bustling over to the Acura Stage to optimally position ourselves before Galactic’s set with Macy Gray – in anticipation of No Doubt. We weren’t without strategy.
Those sunglasses, though- [Image via nola.com]
As the second diva of Diva Day, Macy Gray didn’t disappoint, emerging on stage in a full-length, red sequined gown that was probably really uncomfortable in the heat. In between songs, she addressed the crowd as “sexy people” (which I appreciated, you know, as a sexy person) in her signature rasp. The band rounded out their set with Macy Gray’s “I Try,” transporting me back to my middle school days, when my friends and I went to Skateland in mini-skirts and dreamed of having boyfriends.
Girl, aren’t you hot in that? [Image via nola.com]
Thus we waited: No Doubt was to arrive imminently on stage. Amelia informed me she hadn’t been able to sleep the night prior owing to her overwhelming excitement and showed me pictures of ‘90s Gwen on her phone. We weren’t alone in our fangirl-dom because – duh – it’s No Doubt, and – double duh – it’s Gwen Stefani, eternal rock goddess we all grew up listening to on the radio.
At this point, Amelia was ready to girl fight her way to the front row, though it ended up being unnecessary as we were pretty close to begin with, in good company and surrounded by equally ardent Gwen fans. When the band did come out, I (and likely everyone else in that crowd) was seized by an incredible yearning to be one with the Gwen. Sublime transcendence ensued. They made it through all of the songs you’d want to hear from No Doubt, opening with “Hella Good” and spinning through “Don’t Speak,” “Spiderwebs,” “Excuse Me Mr.,” “Magic’s in the Makeup,” and more. At one point she paused to say, “Why am I so lucky to get to sing songs for you, I don’t understand! Why me?”
BECAUSE YOU’RE AWESOME – came my reply, rendered silent by thousands of other, equally adoring voices.
Yasss, Gwen. [Image via nola.com]
Though I didn’t end up hopping the fence and pursuing a mad dash for the stage as did another girl (coulda, shoulda, woulda), I trotted home with a sense of satisfaction and sunkissed shoulders, smirking at smiley faces written in the sky, and thinking of my friend Jeffrey who once told me that a feather on your path means that you’re going in the right direction. Between FOMO-inspired rage tears and Juvie/Mannie magic, John Legend’s sappy ass and No Doubt’s super posi, ska-pop punkiness, dire reflections on life and feeling pretty damn good about myself, it seemed to me that it was precisely these opposites that enabled me to enjoy it all as much as I did when the weather finally cleared up. New Orleans – and Jazz Fest – are good like that. And I still have the blue feather in my hat – a fuzzy reminder that the best things show up on the ground, by chance, when you’re walking slow enough to notice.