Jazzfest 2010: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Let’s put one thing on the table straight away — Jazzfest is great and always will be, and I had a great time. So much fantastic music and food, how can you not?

There were a few things I wanted to single out as being particularly good, though, plus the disappointments, plus something that makes me growl. I’ll throw in another few tidbits about the visit itself, not necessarily Jazzfest-related, because I’m a great big cheatin’ bastard.

The Good

Almost every single musical act we saw the entire time at the Fair Grounds (with a few quibbly exceptions). The Bester Singers, Chocolate Milk, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Theresa Andersson, Susan Cowsill (who’s always been good, but with her maturation as an artist in the last 2-3 years she’s become great), Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots, Paul Sanchez, Elvis Costello and his marvelous acoustic arrangements of his older material, nifty covers and his new stuff with the Sugarcanes, the Fleur de Ladies Brass Band (who kicked MAJOR ass), the astonishing New Orleans Spiritualettes, John Boutté, The Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra, The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra, Henry Butler, Band of Horses, Sonny Landreth, Anders Osborne, Charmaine Neville, Clarence “Frogman” Henry (still got it!), Feufollet, my old schoolmate Tim Laughlin, Trombone Shorty (with special guest Mystikal), the Neville Brothers (still at it), and Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias to take us out.

One thing that surely belongs in “The Good” was something I only heard about second-hand, unfortunately — Earth, Wind & Fire’s last-minute substitution for the missing Aretha Franklin. From all accounts they really tore it up, and although I wouldn’t have thought to go see them had they been scheduled, Wes and I both wish now that we’d made it over there to hear them.

Finally, in the music department, we were frequently very moved and touched by all the musicians who dedicated songs and shows to our friend Mary, who passed away on Mardi Gras Day this year. Paul Sanchez, Susan Cowsill, Tim Laughlin, Dave Alvin and more … although we miss her very much we felt good to see and hear how far and wide was her impact on people’s lives. We had a very, very special cochon de lait po-boy for her and our friend Dave, who left us last July. Jazzfest wasn’t the same without them but there were still there with us the whole time nonetheless. As Paul Sanchez said, “We celebrate life by releasing what’s in us. We celebrate life by remembering those who can’t celebrate life with us right now.”

The Fat Pack

Two great new additions to the Jazzfest food lineup made us very happy this year. The standout dish: Shrimp & Grits, by Fireman Mike. A truly amazing dish — plump shrimp in a creamy, slightly spicy gravy over cheesy stone-ground grits. Simple yet full of flavor and nicely filling, this was the only savory dish we went back for twice.

The other standout — La Divina Gelateria, open in New Orleans since mid-2005, made their debut appearance at the Fair Grounds this year, and if you ask me it was long overdue. Sure, we all love Angelo Brocato’s and their ices, spumoni and biscotti, but La Divina kept it exciting with a special feature, the Flavor of the Day — each day, something different. The first Friday’s flavor was Abinsthe Sorbetto, made with Lucid Absinthe and absolutely stellar. It was wonderfully creamy, with the alcohol content of the absinthe making smaller ice crystals leading to the creamier texture but with no cream content, a nice anise flavor and the broad herbal undertone holding it all up. Magnificent. The other flavors of the day were strawberry balsamico sorbetto, Bananas Foster, sweet potato, Creole cream cheese, pineapple-mint sorbetto and finally the amazing Coco Thai sorbetto, made from a coconut milk base with coconut, lime and Thai pandan leaf, very unusual and very delicious. Of the regular flavors, they offered café au lait, crème brulée, stracciatella and my favorite, Chocolate Azteca … rich and creamy dark chocolate gelato spiked with cinnamon, almond and hot chile. (Um, I had that three times. I ate a LOT of gelato and sorbetto at the Fest.) And on top of all that, we made friends with Carmelo and Katrina, the couple who co-own the gelateria, and they are super-nice folks.

Then there were the perennials, food-wise … the stuff that’s always there, and always good. We got our pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo from Prejean’s, the marvelous cochon de lait, soft shell crabs, Vaucresson’s sausages. But as happy as all that food makes me, the thing that’s kept me the happiest the longest, and has been a thread of food connection going back for more years than I realized, is the single most underrated and almost criminally under-noticed food item at Jazzfest: Creole’s Stuffed Bread, from Creole’s Lunch House in Lafayette.

For more years than I could remember (at least as I entered the Fair Grounds for Jazzfest for the first time this year), the first thing I’d do is head to the Creole’s Stuffed Bread booth, just to the left of the Crawfish Monica booth, where all the long lines are. Crawfish Monica is good, but I can make that at home. That simple-sounding but magical combination of ground beef and pork fresh sausage, slices of smoked sausage, spices, minced jalapeños and just enough cheese to hold it all together, inside a thin, crisp bread shell is just one of the best things I’ve ever had. They kick the everlovin’ ass of Natchitoches meat pies, which I find bland in comparison. I eat at least one Creole’s Stuffed Bread every day at Jazzfest and have been for many years.

I love them. And I adore the nice lady who makes them and sells them from that booth every year, Mrs. Merlene Herbert, who remembers me by face (if not by name) every year. The year after the storm and the Federal Flood, the very important and emotional Jazzfest of 2006, I made a beeline to her booth only to find out that it wasn’t there. I was horrified, and hoped that it wasn’t hurricane-related; Hurricane Rita, which slammed southwest Louisiana less than a month after Katrina devasted the Gulf Coast further east, largely spared the city of Lafayette. The news was bad, though — Miss Merlene’s husband had passed a few months earlier, and she couldn’t bring herself to do the months of work required to bake and freeze the large quantity the stuffed breads she needed to prepare for Jazzfest. I missed her and her food too much, so in the midweek between Jazzfest weekends as we headed to the annual crawfish boil we attend in Eunice, I made a detour to the Lunch House in Lafayette to see her and enjoy her food. She was astonished by our visit, and I wish we had had more time to spend with her, but unfortunately we had to take our breads to go in order to make it to the crawfish boil. (I was so hell-bent on Stuffed Bread that I passed right by a sign at a gas station in Opelousas that said “tasso sandwiches,” and I didn’t hear the end of that for about two years, but that’s another story.)

I was trying to remember exactly how many years it had been that I’d been happily gobbling down Creole’s Stuffed Bread at Jazzfest, and I asked Miss Merlene how long she had been vending at Jazzfest. “1989, honey … it’s been 21 years.” Wow. And although I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled across her dish, I know I was there in ’89, and have been enjoying them ever since.

I’ll tell a little secret, which I hope doesn’t get me in trouble. One day during Fest this year we went to see Miss Merlene as usual, money already in hand to pay for my Stuffed Bread. “Put that away, dawlin’,” she said. “This one’s on me.” Holy bejeebies … that was a first! It may have been a first-ever, as the younger man who was working in the booth with her did a double-take worthy of a Tex Avery cartoon, and the look on his face said, “She’s never done THAT before!” Well, folks, all I can say is … eat one every Fest day for 21 years and you might get a free one some day too.

Twenty-one years of Creole’s Stuffed Bread was very notable for me in “The Good” this year. May there be many more.

Finally … the rain. Rather, the relative lack thereof. Sure, we got a little soaked the first day, but it wasn’t too bad. Actually, the mud the next couple of days was worse, but the weather on the first Saturday and Sunday couldn’t have been more comfortable. This kept up until the second Sunday, last day of the Fest, when it did sprinkle a little bit but nothing remotely daunting. I don’t know what kind of deal Quint Davis made (not, one would hope, with the guy with the horns and the cape), but whatever he did, he did it right. No sooner had the Nevilles, the Radiators, the Wild Magnolias and all the other finishing acts played their last note when the weather started looking seriously threatening, giving us just enough time to walk back to our car and get inside before the rain, as Wesly put it, started “pounding down like a fucking monsoon.” Talk about timing.

The Bad

The first couple of mentions here have nothing to do with Jazzfest, but are my own fault. I typically overstretch and overschedule myself, particularly with the somewhat insane decision to do all seven days of Fest, which doesn’t leave us enough time to do other things we wanted to do. We didn’t get around the city as much as we would have liked. We didn’t get to go to Chazfest. We didn’t get to go to Cure, one of my favorite bars in the city (and anywhere) … sorry, Rhiannon! We even missed seeing some family, which is almost inexcusable. If I were to move back home there’s no way I’d do all seven days of Jazzfest; I’d do French Quarter Fest for free and maybe two or three days of Jazzfest. Given my limited vacation time I’m thinking next time we need to skip a day or two in order to have more time to see more people and more places. It’s inevitable that we’ll miss some great acts, but we’ll see ’em again sometime.

Now, on to the Jazzfest Bad.

Okay, people … what the hell happened to the Strawberry Lemonade?! That incredibly delicious and refreshing beverage has been a mainstay of my Jazzfest for as many years as Creole’s Stuffed Bread, if not longer, and it’s been exactly the same every year, i.e. perfect. After the first sip this year I knew something was amiss. It didn’t taste the same. In fact, it was all tartness and harshness without a lot of strawberry flavor. At all. In fact, it lacked lemon pulp to the point where my sister Marie actually thought it was based on a powdered mix, and unless they swear otherwise I think so too. I was even wondering if there was real strawberry in it, given the lack of strawberry pips in the first one I bought, but a subsequent purchase did have a few measly little seeds in the bottom. I noticed that the booth was run this year by Café Reconcile, which is a great organization (I honestly don’t know who ran it before) and they should be involved in Jazzfest, but I only have one thing to say: PUT THE STRAWBERRY LEMONADE BACK THE WAY IT WAS BEFORE, MADE BY THE SAME PEOPLE. You just don’t mess with stuff like this.

I was also baffled by what seemed to be the complete lack of New Orleans French bread throughout the Fair Grounds. Anything that was served as a po-boy, whether it was fried soft-shell crab, cochon de lait or Vaucresson’s sausages, was served not on the crisp-crusted bread like we get from Leidenheimer’s but on those soft, squooshy bread rolls like you get in supermarkets anywhere outside New Orleans. As delicious and perfect as all those fillings were, the bread was simply wrong, and it was the same from booth to booth. Did Jazzfest make some kind of demonic deal with someone else to provide cheaper French rolls instead of our beloved po-boy bread? Anybody know? In any case, PROPER NEW ORLEANS FRENCH BREAD FOR THE PO-BOYS, PLEASE. C’mon. This is basic.

I was disappointed with a couple of perennial dishes this year, too. The Praline Connection’s grilled chicken livers with pepper jelly was below par — the livers were crumbly and cold, the pepper jelly sauc watery, and while they were acceptable (barely) they weren’t nearly as good as last year. The biggest disappointment of all was the Ya Ka Mein from Miss Linda’s Catering. She’s the yock lady with an old and venerable (and secret) recipe, but someone screwed up this year. The ya ka mein was so salty that it was inedible. I mean, seriously inedible — I only took a second bite to make sure it was as bad as I thought it was before I dumped the whole thing out. It tasted as though someone had emptied an entire salt shaker into my bowl. I should have brought it back and said something, but I didn’t … sigh. That annoying non-confrontational side of me reared its wimpy head, and I just swore and moved on. Y’all need to watch the salt next year.

There was yet another organization running the Music Tent this year. We missed last year to go to Europe, so I don’t know who ran it in ’09, but this year it was billed as “The Right Place Rhythmporium.” I found out later that it was actually run by Jazzfest itself, which explained the fact that fully half of the ample space in the tent was given over to Jazzfest t-shirts, hats and other memorabilia (as if there weren’t already enough of those all around the Fair Grounds). Only half of that big tent was dedicated to actually selling music, and while the selection of music seemed to cover most if not all of the artists performing at the Fest, there were still racks and racks of empty shelves the entire time. There was also little to no selection of other New Orleans music other than Jazzfest artists, and no box sets at all. I’m not saying this only because my box set wasn’t there (although I must admit it’s perfect for Jazzfest on-site sale and had been for years before), but because any number of box sets needed to be there. Whoever put the selection of music together did only a barely adequate job. I don’t know if they can afford to hire someone from an actual record store to put the selection together (Gawd knows the Louisiana Music Factory was busy enough already), but it seemed that whoever put the music together just looked through the cubes at who was performing and never went beyond.

Jazzfest, if you’re going to have a Music Tent, fill it with music! Keep the t-shirts and hats in the t-shirt tents (there are already at least three of ’em).

Musically, despite how great most of everything was, there were a few eyebrow-raisers. We were talking with a couple of our good local friends about how some truly great bands have a tendency to put together uninspired sets for their Fair Grounds performance, which is baffling. Happened a coupla times this year. What a huge crowd wants to hear is not slow waltz after slow waltz, but some upbeat numbers. Not to mention any names, ’cause I love the bands, but y’all need to think about who your audience is going to be.

Aretha Franklin actually came to town on her tour bus but cancelled at the last minute for no stated reason. Lame. I don’t expect she’ll be invited again.

As much as I hate to say it, the biggest disappointment was Simon and Garfunkel. As much as I hate to say it, it really wasn’t Simon, so much — he was great, and the songs he did on his own shone. As much as I hate to say it, Art’s voice just wasn’t there. I know that he had been struggling recently, that he had had a cold and that he was hoarse, but the truth of the matter was that he just couldn’t hit the notes. It was a pretty big disappointment. That said, it was still nice to hear them together, and on some of the songs where he didn’t have to stretch too much he sounded okay. I find myself agreeing both with music writer Keith Spera in Da Papuh, who was just as disappointed as I was if not more so, and the people in the comments who said they were so happy to see S&G up there that the enjoyed the show anyway — we did enjoy what we saw, but must admit we left to go see someone else, unable to face the prospect of Art crashing and burning on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” (The two people who attacked Keith for his opinion, however, were typical comments-section asshat trolls, though.)

Where I started getting mad was in the WWOZ Jazz Tent. As has been the case in previous years, the sound mix in the Jazz Tent was abysmal. You could hardly hear the vocals at all, which drove me insane during John Boutté’s set, and I had heard that it was just as bad during Keely Smith’s set. You couldn’t even hear them talking between songs, much less singing. Boutté is notoriously hard on sound techs, but someone afterward said they heard him say that he wasn’t even going to bother yelling at the sound guy and asked that the vocals not be turned up. I didn’t hear this, but this doesn’t sound like John — why the hell would he want the vocals kept turned down deliberately, unless it was just to keep it from feeding back as it tends to do in there. There’s no excuse for bad sound here, folks — this is one of the greatest music festivals in the world. Compounding the problem was where they put the Jazz Tent this year — directly behind the Fess Stage (what some people insist on calling the “Acura Stage”), the biggest and loudest stage at the Fest — resulting in bleedover of sound. Ughhh.

The bottom of “The Bad” is a problem that’s been growing at Jazzfest for years — lack of traffic regulation in the tents and inconsistent regulation of standing traffic (e.g., some aisles in the tents were clogged with standing people while others were regularly swept). In some tents it wasn’t so bad — the exuberance of the Gospel Tent actually worked with people who stood in the aisles, and it wasn’t jam-packed to the point of being unsafe. By far the worst example was the Blues Tent, which was a madhouse — despite how huge it is it’s still not big enough for the acts they’re booking in there. Which leads me to my rant …

The Ugly

Portable folding chairs are ruining Jazzfest. It’s not the chairs themselves, necessarily, but the inconsiderate and outright bad behavior of the people plonking the chairs down, the sense of entitlement that surrounds them and Jazzfest’s seeming unwillingness or inability to do anything about it.

Oh, they did do something about it one time, and that one thing they did was good — at the two biggest stages there’s a chair-free standing zone in front of the stage, which works and is Good. This should be done at every stage, actually. I’d even suggest that the chair-free areas be bigger.

See, the problem with the chairs is that people plop down in the chairs and never move. You can’t tap a chair on the shoulder and say “Excuse me” to get by or to try to get in and out of the crowd to meet someone or get some food or go pee. Trying to navigate at some of those stages amidst immoblie phalanxes of chairs can be incredibly frustrating.

Take the portable chairs into the tents and the frustration goes up by an order of magnitude. Entrances and exits to the tents are clogged with chairs. Areas that were once reserved for standing room when the provided chairs were all taken are now clogged with portable chairs. And most if not all of the chairs in these places come with that sense of entitlement. I’ve got mine, so screw you, buddy.

This gets argued about every year — just drop into the Jazzfest web site forums and see. One thing we noticed is that the age demographic of Jazzfest is skewing older, most likely due to the eye-popping at-the-gate ticket price of $60. As Sarah pointed out, young people now tend to go to French Quarter Fest, because it’s free, and might go to Jazzfest for one day if at all. Because of this the chairs are likely here to stay (and I hope that I can last without having to resort to one until I’m elderly, if at all).

However, Jazzfest has to do something more to regulate this glut of chairs. No goddamn chairs in the tents. They already have chairs in the tents. If the chairs are full, you stand. This isn’t just for comfort, this is a serious safety issue. If something bad happens in one of the tents one day, God forbid, and people get trampled because all the entrances and exits are clogged by the glut of chairs as they were this year, something even worse is going to happen. No goddamn chairs in the tents.

If they can manage to do this very necessary thing, it’ll be a lot less ugly.

Okay, now that I’m done ranting … The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is one of the greatest events on our planet, and I’m in it for the long haul. I’ll have a few more specialized posts with photos about particular days, just some nice reminiscing. Finally, as Quint Davis was quoted at the end of Keith’s Jazzfest wrapup in the T-P: “You know the great thing about Jazz Fest? When you leave here, you’re in New Orleans.”

Yeah you rite.


16 Responses to “Jazzfest 2010: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. Cleophus said:

    May 12, 10 at 10:58 am

    Hate to burst your bubble, but Miss Merlene gave me a free pie too! 🙂
    (Of course mine was out of sympathy — I have a busted leg and I was in a whelchair at the Fest.)

    You are spot on about no portable chairs in the tents, especially the Blues Tent. That in and of itself might not remedy the bad vibes and overcrowdedness in the Blues Tent, but it’s probably the most logical place to start. It’s hard enough on foot to get thru the phalanx of portable chairs to get in to that tent, and it was impossible for me to do so in a wheelchair this year.

  2. Chuck said:

    May 12, 10 at 11:09 am

    Well, you obviously had it coming too. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if it were not for her co-worker’s hilarious reaction!


    I do hope you’re feelin’ better and out of that wheelchair soon. Get you a-healin’!!

  3. Christy said:

    May 12, 10 at 12:15 pm

    I think the whole point of the Music Tent is strictly to make it easier for people to buy a cd from an artist that they just-this-minute-heard; an impulse buy, kind of like the M&M’s in the grocery store line.
    Anyone who truly wants to shop would go to the LMF….

  4. Chuck said:

    May 12, 10 at 12:20 pm

    True, they certainly could go to LMF, but what if they can’t? They may only be there for a weekend with no time to go to the Quarter during LMF’s opening hours, plus LMF is difficult to shop in during Jazzfest because of their (admittedly wonderful) in-store performances.

    I think it should be more than just an impulse buy — the Music Tent has been MUCH better in the past, but it seems as if they change who’s running it every couple of years and they can never get it back to being as good as it used to be.

  5. Amy said:

    May 12, 10 at 12:52 pm

    Interesting to hear about Simon and Garfunkel – I was only there 2nd weekend but did see Paul Simon at the Fest (I think in ’01) and it was sublime – BOTW ringing across a completely silent Acura stage crowd was amazing – sorry to hear it wasn’t the same with the duo – thanks as always for the reviews 🙂

  6. laurat said:

    May 12, 10 at 2:11 pm

    thanks chuck if i go next year i will try the stuffed bread. omg this year the poboys werent serve on leidenheimer’s bread what a travesty for real.
    wow i cant believe you went to all 7 days of jazzfest and you didnt have time to visit with some family or Cure.
    yeah i dont like the chairs either are there chairs allowed at other big outdoor fest like bonnaroo?

  7. Rob said:

    May 12, 10 at 3:36 pm

    Hey! Good to have you back. I can’t imagine anything worse than a John Boutte show where you couldn’t hear the vocals.


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  9. Swag said:

    May 13, 10 at 5:46 am

    I missed getting the strawberry lemonade this year, and hadn’t noted this before, but you’re right. There was a vendor change. Through last year, the strawberry lemonade vendor was “Scales Strawberry Lemonade”, who also sold Caribbean Fruit Salad.

    See recent year food lists at http://swag.livejournal.com/tag/food

  10. Chuck said:

    May 13, 10 at 9:02 am

    Right! And I forgot to mention, there was no Caribbean fruit salad this year.

  11. james said:

    May 13, 10 at 10:24 am

    i love the creole stuffed bread too. It was the first thing i ate when i first went to the fest in ’98. that was back when they had two stands, one also by the kids food. i sometimes get two in one day. i attempted to make it once last year, and i must admit, i came pretty damn close. a lot of work, though.

    i whole-heartedly agree about the chairs. despite a serious foot injury in a recent motorcycle accident, i refuse to bring chairs to the fest because i like to move around a lot. yeah, chairs in the tents just don’t make no damn sense. been diggin’ your blog for a long time. can’t wait to try a Doctor’s Orders.

  12. Chuck said:

    May 13, 10 at 11:45 am

    Thanks, James.

    Here’s a great post on OffBeat’s blog by Alex Rawls about Jazzfest, more about the music:


    I’ve just finished editing our Jazz Fest wrap-up, which will be out in the June issue, and two of the writers wrote that the festival has lost context, that what once made it special is missing, and what’s left behind is a sort of Disneyland for music-oriented adults. An event that once presented a number of unpredictable artists – some of the New Orleans greats that have passed including Professor Longhair, Earl King and Snooks Eaglin come immediately to mind – now features artists recreating a condensed version of their club shows, which are stronger because they assume more natural rhythms.

    There’s a lot to think about in that. Obviously, not everybody played Jazz Fest as if it were just another gig. Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s set with Terence Blanchard, Jim James and Amy LaVere was a one-of-a-kind event, and I can’t imagine any two James Andrews and the Crescent City All-Stars shows being identical. His set leaned heavily on New Orleans R&B standards, but constantly changing lineup and ad hoc vibe to the show made it feel like anything could happen at any minute, and that if the same lineup was on another stage the next night, everything would be different except for the extreme looseness.

    But Jazz Fest does seem aimed more than ever at musical tourists more than locals, offering those who’ve been at the festival before a chance to relive their previous year’s good times…

    The Threadheads (i.e., Jazzfest forum chat folks) are discussing it here:


  13. lola67 said:

    May 16, 10 at 1:29 am


    The chair people are ruining the festival. I’m part of that aging demographic – (knee and neck surgery in the last 3) and I can make do very nicely with any of the extremely portable (and less space-consuming) devices up there. The fest needs may need to train and utilitze chair monitors… it’s just ridiculous that huge groups of people hog the space and are rude as well. I’ve seen people stomp mud on their blankets and attempt to kick their chairs out of the way.

    Do we really need this?

  14. Chuck said:

    May 16, 10 at 10:24 am

    Of course, there are always going to be people who need to use chairs to enjoy Jazzfest, but the attitude and sense of entitlement of so many chair people is creating Bad Jazzfest Vibes, and that’s the thing that ruins it all. Jazzfest has been and should always be The Happiest Place On Earth (Disney shmisney). When someone is harshing someone else’s mellow because of their own selfishness and lack of consideration for other people’s good time, that someone is taking Jazzfest down several notches. This also goes for people lke the drunk idiot at Acura seeing Chocolate Milk, spinning around and “dancing” so wildly and recklessly that he was actually striking people, and this was before he started taking running jump/slides into the mud, splattering people in a circle 20 feet wide, before he finally apparently injured himself enough such that his friends had to take him to the first aid tent. But that’s another topic …

    One of the Jazzfest mottoes should be “Have a great time, but think of others … and others will think of you.”

  15. Witne said:

    Jul 13, 10 at 10:55 am

    Hi Guys! We’re glad to see you missed us at the Jazz Fest this year but SCALES STRAWBERRY LEMONADE just created a facebook page! Please search us and keep connected! Feel free to post pictures, comments, and discussions! Thanks! We look forward to hearing from you and SPREAD THE WORD!

  16. Witne said:

    Jul 19, 10 at 1:02 pm

    More importantly, if you want to start a petition to get the Original Scales Strawberry Lemonade back at the Jazz Fest please email foodadmin@nojazzfest.com with your concerns. Thanks!