Louisiana, May 2, 2015—The 460,000 estimated fans who wandered throughout all 12 stages of the 46th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell at the Fair Grounds Race Course over the course of two elongated weekends porked up bigtime on 60+ food booths of the best damn music fest cuisine in the world. I was enjoying some turtle soup when Gulf Coast treasure Marcia Ball hit the stage with her brand of boogie ‘n’ blues. The sun was shining at high noon and she started the festivities off right as her fingers flew over the piano keys playing songs from her brilliant The Tattooed Lady & The Alligator Man CD while her kick-ass band pumped out the love. It was a triumphant moment for the 66-year-old icon and she reveled in it.
By 2:00, after a visit to the blues tent to shimmy and sway to “Classic R&B Divas” featuring The Dixie Cups (“Iko Iko”) and Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”), I sauntered back to the big stage and thrilled to Davell Crawford’s Fats Domino tribute. Man, those great songs sounded better than ever and when three 30-something ladies started dancing with me, it felt like a dream.
Armed with my backpack of water, towel, meds, lip balm, sunscreen, map, Cheeba Chews, Altoids, sunglasses, hat and newly purchased t-shirts, I slowly made my way towards Jerry Lee Lewis. The sun was getting hotter and the crowd was getting bigger and bigger towards being gargantuan as I could only inch slowly in the right direction. But was it the right direction?
My crawl came to a complete stop as all walkways leading in and out of the big stage were jammed belly-to-butt with people vainly trying to move but to no avail because more folks simply plopped down on their blankets and beach chairs. There was no going anywhere. So fine. I was within sight of the stage and could see The Killer himself on the big screen. So I stood and marveled at the man who is the living personification of the original dangerous spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. At 79, he sounded amazingly spry and vital as he made his first three hit singles—“Crazy Arms,” “Great Balls Of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”—come alive yet again 59 years after their release. It was joyous, amazing and, for me, spiritual.
This is my religion.
When the last notes evaporated from the air, the people around me looked at each other dazedly. Some tried to leave. Others, like me, just stood there in the afterglow. As more and more people filtered in for Elton John, I tried to fathom an escape route. Unfortunately, there was no such thing. “How do we get out of here?” a scared teenage girl asked me.
“Follow me,” I replied.
We made our way through disgruntled chair people who were getting upset at the constant attempts of folks who wanted to exit only to come up against folks who wanted to enter until everything came to a complete dead stop. The girl started to cry and I felt like I was the star of my own disaster movie. There was no way out. The sun was getting hotter. I was out of water. I felt like Snake Plissken in Escape From New York as he stepped over corpses in the Lincoln Tunnel…until one of them reached up and grabbed his ankle. My human obstacles were quite alive, though, and waiting for Elton. Stepping on blankets, knocking over chairs, incurring the wrath of folks who simply refused to move from their claimed spot, I knew this wasn’t supposed to be happening. 46 years earlier I had put up with a similar circumstance at Woodstock but back then I was 18 and tripping on the brown acid.
Longtime festival producer/director Quint Davis was made aware of the problem after the fact. He’s considering banning tarps and chairs next year. “There certainly were places that shouldn’t have had chairs in order to maintain a good flow,” he admitted. “They’re a blockade. That stops flow. You can’t walk through it. It’s one of the things we will work on for next year.” He also made sure to mention it was only the second time that happened in the festival’s 46 years.
Suffice it to say, I made it out alive in time to see the legendary Charles Lloyd and The Terence Blanchard E-Collective in the jazz tent.
I didn’t leave the jazz tent for the rest of the day.