Something Different About Bourbon Street

New Orleans' Bourbon Street.
New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.

Memories of the New Orleans Jazz Fest and Bourbon Street

By Dominic Degrazier

The New Orleans Jazz Fest. Photos by Dominic Degrazier
The New Orleans Jazz Fest. Photos by Dominic Degrazier

I first roamed New Orleans Jazz Fest, back in 1995 as an oblivious freshman college kid focused on his new girlfriend. Next came Mardi Gras in 1999 – I remember maybe 25% of my 100% inebriated hours of that trip.

But did I truly experience the city of New Orleans? I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I now arrive to experience Jazz Fest alone, and without as much alcoholic consumption.

Back in 1970, the 1st annual New Orleans Jazz Fest hosted 350 visitors. In 2001, attendance peaked when 650,000 shuffled through its Fair Grounds Race Course field.

This year, the 41st annual New Orleans Jazz Fest jammed and [of course] jazzed for 375,000 music lovers. I arrived for the last of the two long weekends (April 23-25, April 29-May 2) ready for anything the city and festival had to offer.

Friday, April 30th, 9:00 p.m. I arrive to India House Hostel. I’ve lived in hostels for a combined total of two years and feel that I judge hostels’ ambiances easily. After five minutes I feel at home here, and ready to hit the French Quarter for a bit.

10:30 p.m. Something’s different on Bourbon Street from what I remember. I don’t feel too motivated to explore on the street (maybe because I am sober this time?). I enter the Tropical Isle bar to grab a hand grenade – “New Orleans’ Most Powerful Drink.” Yes, its power is confirmed.

Bourbon Street
Bourbon Street.

11:15 p.m. Leaving Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub, after listening to some good live music, and paying $7 for an unfilled draft beer, I see a guy on the corner of the road.

“Where can I find more of a local’s scene around here?”

With blonde dreads to his mid-back, looking not homeless but possibly without a home, he immediately responds, “Over at Frenchmen’s. I’m on the way there right now.”

It took Patrick all of two minutes to proudly declare himself a hobo. He’d been a blacksmith up “North” for the past 12 years, and just recently began living in New Orleans with his guitar.

“New Orleans has the most street musicians in the world,” according to Patrick.

The Spotted Cat
The Spotted Cat.

We get a bit lost on the should-be ten-minute walk to Frenchmen Street, but the houses’ architecture showcasing columned porch after porch enchants the journey. I feel like I am in another time… around 200 years ago.

Should I be worried about my new “friend” and any ulterior motives? Whatever, he seems legit and I don’t have any valuables on me.

Saturday, May 1st, 12:07 a.m. Frenchmen Street – this is what I have been looking for. It’s a two-block stretch full of random music and dance on the street surrounded by bars and clubs ubiquitously permeating,

“This is New Orleans.” I have arrived. (see the video)

The Saw Street Band
The Saw Street Band.

2:45 a.m. I’m at the Spotted Cat bar on Frenchmen watching two guys duel over one girl via a jitterbug dance. This lasts for at least 20 minutes (I am still hitting myself for not taking a video of this). But it’s time to throw in the cards and get back to my new home…for a few hours of sleep.

10:00 a.m. I’m back on Bourbon Street for some daytime wandering. Pedestrians either walk around with a coffee or a cocktail in their hands. The more I cruise around, the more cocktails and less coffee saunter past me. New Orleans: The City of Drinking.

10:35 a.m. By now, after seeing various street bands, I believe Patrick’s claim. One group catches my eye on Royal Street more than others. A player in the six-member band is stringing wavy sounds from a bending saw. Yes, a legitimate saw. I have to leave a tip. (See the video)

11:00 a.m. I use a bathroom at a pub, and on the way out see a sign for a “hurricane to go”. It’s confirmed that this place is impossible [for me] to walk around without grabbing an alcoholic beverage.

Alan Toussaint on stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest
Alan Toussaint on stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.

11:47 a.m. Time to catch the Canal Street streetcar back to my hostel and get to Jazz Fest. I wait in the streetcar line, and witness a scene of utter beauty: a man on a bike holds a ghetto blaster on his shoulder (a quintessential old-school visual) blaring Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle album. Absolutely classic. (See the video)

12:35 p.m. Back at my hostel the desk clerk informs, “The walk to Jazz Fest from here goes through a dodgy section.” How to hide my D40x Nikon camera, I ask myself. I decide that nothing will happen on the walk; I leave with my camera.

12:50 p.m. From one of the many porches of New Orleans I hear a, “How ya doin’?” The older gentleman is a Vietnam War veteran. Holding an oxygen inhaler he speaks in between puffs. He holds my hand for a two-minute conversation in which I understand maybe two sentences.

1:05 p.m. I walk through the gates and don’t recognize one thing about the music festival. Apparently I did a really good job 15 years ago with my consumption levels.

The City of Shoes
The City of Shoes.

3:00 p.m. The eleven stages/tents are evenly spread out on the Fair Grounds Race Course. No act has caught my attention enough to stay for more than ten minutes. And I have officially decided not to drink for the day due to the insanely long lines for the porta-potties.

3:45 p.m. The legend Allen Toussaint is finally on stage – I have been waiting for him all day. He slides onto the stage looking as cool as I had imagined: white slacks, red blazer, stylish grey hair – he’s got it. His music becomes the eye of the crowd’s monstrous enormity roaming around the fair grounds.

5:35 p.m. It’s post Toussaint-time now, the crowd is still pressing in the next acts’ directions, and I don’t feel like listening to Pearl Jam from far away. I call it a day.

5:38 p.m. Yesterday I noticed an elderly couple both wearing shiny gold shoes. And now, on the walk home, I have to take a picture of a dude on the sidewalk. I’ve never seen high-top converse all the way up to the mid calf. New Orleans is now the City of Shoes as well.

5:50 p.m. “How ya doin’?” I am walking on the sidewalk, head looking to the right, and I hear this from the left. It’s a man sitting on his porch. He’s saying hello from 20-feet away. I love places where strangers say ‘hi’ to each other while crossing paths, but New Orleans steps up the friendliness even more. Sincerely impressive.

An above-ground cemetery
An above-ground cemetery.

Sunday, May 2, 9:15 a.m. Picked up by Cajun Encounters Tours. The tour leader drives the large van repeatedly saying, “And comin’ up on the left/right….”

We’re shown the many cemeteries’ above-ground tombs (due to the city’s below-sea level position and heavy rains making the below-ground coffins rise to the surface back in the 1700’s), the Garden District, Uptown and more.

But it’s hard to stay focused. She reminds me of an older rap song with the chorus, “And comin’ up….” It’s uncanny how this tour lady nails the chorus every time, but I can’t place the exact tune.

We pass the 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans and see numerous houses still boarded up. Tour guide recites that there were 1.1 million people in New Orleans before Katrina, and 300,000 after Katrina (and today).

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars on the Congo Square Stage
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars on the Congo Square Stage.

My favorite part of the tour was thinking about that song I hadn’t heard in so long. Other than this I wouldn’t pay the $49 with this company.

12:31 p.m. “Stop the van please, I have to go.” The Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are on the Congo Square stage at Jazz Fest. I jump out and flag down a taxi.

The driver looks Indian, but does not have an Indian accent – he’s from South Africa. On New Orleans he states, “New Orleans is my spot.”

Concerning himself he declares, “I would have to say that I’m a non-practicing Indian. I was just dealt these cards.” Upon being asked for one piece of advice, “Do less dreaming and more doing.” I love cab conversations.

Happy crowd outside of B.B. King's Blues Tent
Happy crowd outside of B.B. King’s Blues Tent.

12:55 p.m. I shake Pershall’s hand, leave him a healthy tip, and start the run for show. The Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are having fun on stage with the crowd hopping around to the beats – I thankfully catch three of their songs.

1:25 p.m. The decision is made to go see Irma Thomas (The Soul Queen of New Orleans) instead of the up-and-coming band Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Irma lights up the Acura Stage with the slightest movements and giant voice. It’s a pleasure watching a legend on the stage live.

3:45 p.m. The following act at the Acura Stage, Van Morrison is set to begin. Van Morrison… I have been listening to his stuff for so many years. He sts down at his piano, and it seems like this guy is punching in his hours and can’t wait to get off stage. There’s too much to see here to waste time. I don’t last more than three songs – off to find another act…

Just outside of Jazz Fest's exit gate
Just outside of Jazz Fest’s exit gate.

4:00 p.m. Alligator sidetracks me. And a few beers. But back to the gator. I make it a point to eat gator at least once a day in New Orleans. The food at the fest is amazing. Quality, very Cajun, and affordable. I.E. A bowl of Cajun jambalaya runs $5, a plate of alligator $6, and gumbo $5.

4:20 p.m. Over on the Congo Square “My Louisiana Stage” goes Clarence Carter. He sings to the crowd about the importance of making love and asking when and where everyone has done it. “Have you ever made luuuuvv before breakfast?!?” But don’t get me wrong, it isn’t sung in any sort of crass way. Clarence is too smooth for that. Some ladies in the audience even have a set dance for one of his signature “Strokin’” tune. (See the video)

6:00 p.m. I head on over to the Blues Tent to get my spot for Mr. B.B. King. “Which one is B.B. up there?” I ask a six foot two inch African American woman. As she points to the [later discovered wrong] person on stage she smiles, “He’s there in the white. He’s like the black Elvis.”

6:10 p.m. B.B. walks onto the stage and there is no missing him – he must weigh 300 pounds. “There’s no way the guy is 82,” my mind says, as he looks at least a decade younger. Within seconds it’s easy to understand why the Blues Tent is overflowing with hundreds of people.

B.B. talks to the crowd like we are friends – he’s full of smiles and love for us and his band (it was the only time I have seen a performer introduce his band before they start the first song).

Mr. King strums his precious “Lucille” guitar as if he were on his home’s porch on any normal day. We are held captive – smiling, absorbing, swaying, enjoying.

6:45 p.m. I leave 15 minutes before the scheduled end of the festival. I had already experienced more than enough beautiful sounds to keep me content… until next year.

6:54 p.m. Walking home I see a new hostel-friend of mine selling his shirts, on the side of the road.

He yells to me, “Hey Dom, I bought you a ticket for a show uptown tonight!” It’s a perfect ending to a fantastic weekend.

Thanks for welcoming me into your times, New Orleans. Your passion for food, love for music, and friendliness was nothing short of infectious.

Dominic DeGrazierDominic Degrazier is a freelance writer and photographer. Growing up in Southern California, he then moved east to Texas for university, and kept on moving east to London, Copenhagen, and San Sebastian after graduation. Hooked on the world, he then lived in Australia for a year, and travelled through parts of South America for another year. Visit his blog Moving Montevideo.

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