Talk about being a long way from home. It has been a matter of circumstance that has led to me heading to New Orleans (or, "Nawlins", as it's affectionately known) this year for my first ever Jazz Fest. A city which continues to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in the outlying areas, here on Bourbon Street where we're staying - at the famous Royal Senesta - you'd never know anything had happened. The lights are bright, the music is fine, the food phenomenal, the beads flowing and the drinks cheap (and potent). This is, as it has always been, a pretty special place indeed.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest has been going for some fourty three years now, taking over seven days of the year over two weekends every April/May. We have arrived just in time for the second weekend - missing acts like Bruce Springsteen and the Beach Boys on the first. But that's nothing to pity - there's a bombardment of amazing music still to come.
For those that know of the location of New Orleans, you'll know it's a warm place year round, and as we walked in on our first of four days, I can already feel the sweat dripping down my back. The frozen margaritas and ice cold water went on to do a good job for keeping me cool, though the off and on clouds did the best job of all.
My festival started with Irish singer songwriter Glen Hansard, from The Frames (who apparently sell more tickets in Ireland than U2), and The Swell Season. Today, off the back of his debut solo release, he was performing without a band - just the man himself and an impeccably bashed up acoustic guitar.
He ran through a few of his latest tracks (including "Take The Heartland" from the impressive Hunger Games soundtrack), but also delved into the back catalogues of his many projects. This included: "Say It To Me Now", "Low Rising", "Leave" (a request from the crowd and my favourite track of the set) and Irish ballad "Lakes Of Pontchartrain". He also covered Van Morrison's classic track "To Be Born Again", "Love Don't Leave Me Waiting" and The Frames song "Finally".
He ended the set with a special moment where he asked people from crowd to come play backing instruments on the Bruce Springsteen "Drive All Night". Unable to locate a bass guitar, he had one of the Jazz Fest Roadies, Joe, help him out on drums, and did a pretty good job of it. The set ended with the crowd chanting his name instead of Glens! Glen also summed up my personal feelings about the festival pretty well: "Aaron Neville was in front of me in the queue for a coffee... I thought to myself, today is a fucking great day." Indeed it is.
That said, Jazz Fest is more than the music: there are parades and craft areas, for one. But most of all there are the famous food stalls. Hundreds of local delicacies prepared by local businesses - the sorts of dishes that have become stuff of legend, with some bands even celebrating them in song; see Dave Matthews Band's "Alligator Pie" for one, a dish I hope to enjoy before the end of the week. Today I enjoyed a Crawfish Sausage Po'Boy, some freshly fried Sweet Potato Crisps and some spicy Crawfish Sushi. Delicious, and wholly unique to this part of the world (don't come here if you don't intend on enjoying yourself in that capacity).
Moving back to the music, George Porter Jr & Running Borders had some smooth times happening with the Saxophone, keys and guitars, with "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley" a highlight of the set. Rosie Ledet, meanwhile, was a find at the Fais Do Do stage, complete with washboard, accordion and amazing vocals.
Big Chief Iron Horse was at the Jazz and Heritage stage, with the elegantly dressed Mardi Gras Indians, lots of drums and reinterpretation of standards like "Shoo Fly Don't Bother Me". Back on the main stage, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans delivered just what the name suggests. A whole lot of brass and songs such as "Dancin' in The Streets" and "When The Saints Go Marching In".
With the high energy of the previous act, it was a bit down tempo to see Ani DiFranco (pictured above) next, though she remained a beautiful force to be reckoned with, accompanied today with a double bassist. Lyrically impressive, Ani reminded us all why she has served as inspiration to so many musicians. "Unworry" and "Splinter" were highlights of the set.
Closing out the Gentilly Stage - which is essentially the festival's second main stage - was the one and only Florence and the Machine, who gave us a taste of what she'll be bringing to Australia in a couple of weeks for VIVID in Sydney and a national tour. Emerging in a Black Cape, Florence opened with "Only If For The Night", which felt strange given the sun was still up. A fact I should have mentioned before - this festival finishes up daily at 7pm (more on that later). The band sounded at bit shakey at first, but as things progressed it was the standard I've come to expect from the extraordinary talent.
The rest of the set included "What The Water Gave Me", "Cosmic Love", "Between Two Lungs", "Heartlines", "Leave My Body", "Lover to Lover", "Shake it Out", "Dogs Days Are Over" (with the usual jump around from the crowd) and an encore of "Never Let Me Go" and "No Light No Light", which set us all off of our way...
Closing things up on the main Acura stages meanwhile, was the one and only Jimmy Buffet (pictured in header), serving as a replacement for Eddie Vedder (who pulled out due to injury) performing an "acoustic" set with Mac McAnally and a massive backing band. Playing with an Everly Brothers Gibson Guitar, which he was pretty proud to be able to own, I managed to catch a couple of tracks, including the famous Hank Williams song, "Hey, Good Lookin'", which had the whole crowd singing. Esperanza Spalding was also performing nearby on the Congo Square Stage, though I only saw Saxophone and Trumpet solos in my brief encounter.
With Florence and Jimmy closing out the festival for the day, and the sun still out, it's Certainly a unique festival. But this jut serves as an encouragement for you to head out and enjoy the more traditional sights and sounds of New Orleans. As I write this, we're about to head out and continue our festival experience away from the grounds. Who knows where these adventures will take me. What I do know is that tomorrow the Zac Brown Band will headline another massive day. Being a Friday, one can only expect bigger and more enthusiastic crowds. Until then.
Photos by Larry Heath. Full gallery from Johnny Au to come!