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Travel: How to visit New Orleans during the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival



The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival provides an overflowing musical feast each day for two weekends, Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. But the city doesn’t fall quiet when night descends and the fairgrounds close. Nighttime in New Orleans is always bright with music, but it never sounds fuller and sweeter than those 11 nights during the festival, which this year goes from April 25 through May 5.

Keith Abel, who gives music-related walking tours in the city, emphasizes that the special shows go nonstop, from the first night of the festival to the last. For the opening night, he recommends the Threadhead Cultural Foundation’s free concert in the New Orleans Botanical Garden. And each day you can leave the festival and walk two blocks to a street party called Sauvage Fest.

The final Sunday at 1 p.m. will feature a street naming, complete with a second line band, honoring influential piano player Professor Longhair. (It starts at the Old Caledonia Inn on Rampart Street and goes to 1738 Terpsichore Street.) “That’s so New Orleans,” Abel says. And after the festival’s finale, head to Papa Mali’s Poylester Birthday Party for a tribute to David Lindley featuring The Iguanas, Alvin Youngblood Hart and others at the intimate Chickie Wah Wah’s. “It’s as big as my house,” Abel says.

But there are dozens of clubs and theaters featuring performances by the musicians in town for the festival. George Porter Jr., the bass player for the Meters who now has his own band, explains that many New Orleans acts spend much of the year on the road because local clubs’ exclusivity requirements make it difficult to earn a living at home — but those requirements vanish during Jazz Fest so the venues are packed each night with visiting stars and local legends.

“There’s lots of gigs to be had for a lot of cats,” says Ivan Neville, son of Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers and leader of Dumpstaphunk. “Everyone comes to play shows, which gives people so many different choices and different types of music. This is the most amazing fun-filled, musically enriching, soul-feeding 11 days, man. There’s nothing like it.”

He says the first super jam was organized years ago by Zigaboo Modeliste, the Meters’ drummer, for a Thursday night show at 2 a.m. at the old Howlin’ Wolf location (another club, The Republic, is now there). “There was a line around the block of people waiting to get in,” Neville recalls. “That was something to behold and led to promoters bringing together different configurations of musicians for super jams during Jazz Fest.”

Porter says most tourists just think Bourbon Street is New Orleans, “but the bands there just play the top hits so why even bother — that’s music you can hear anywhere in the world. You’ve got to get off Bourbon Street to clubs like the Maple Leaf Bar or Tipitina’s to really hear New Orleans.”

Neville’s favorite club is Tipitina’s, which has survived for nearly 50 years — the members of the band Galactic bought it in 2018 to help keep it alive — but he says visitors should also check out Chickie Wah Wah, Howlin’ Wolf, DBA and Blue Nile.

“If you’ve never been here you’ve got to experience everything you can,” he says. “You should eat at Jacque-Imo’s which is right next door to the Maple Leaf Bar and then go in there.”

With so much to choose from, perhaps the easiest way to build a schedule is to focus on four members of New Orleans musical royalty: Porter, Neville, Galactic, and Trombone Shorty … If you can keep up with them:  Porter, who is 76, will be playing 21 shows across that span, although in a concession to age he says this is the first year he’s not playing a show that starts after 1 a.m.

“He’s inspiring, if not insane,” says Robert Mercurio, Galactic’s bass player, who is plenty busy himself — playing with Galactic, with FiyaPowa (which includes Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, Neville and other members of Dumpstaphunk), and with Dragon Smoke. That band, which rarely plays outside Jazz Fest, features Mercurio, Moore Neville and Eric Lindell. They play on the home turf of Tipitina’s on the Tuesday between wekeends but Mercurio says they started years ago at a place called The Dragon’s Den off Frenchman Street which he recommends as “a really cool room.”

These days, of course, Mercurio is mostly playing at Tipitina’s, which is “a cultural center for New Orleans music lovers,” he says, which means the band feels tremendous responsibility as owners.

“People here view it as their bar, we are just stewards. Playing here was always magical but since we took over that feeling just has been elevated. Some stages just feel like a cold shower where you’re just constantly trying to find that right temperature. But the second we step on stage at Tipitina’s it’s like we’re just soaking in a beautiful warm bath.”

While Mercurio doesn’t get to see many other shows during these eleven days —“I’m either eating, sleeping, rehearsing or performing” — he sees plenty of other musicians. “Tipitina has a loose side door — you never know who is going to stop by and play,” he says, adding that, “we  stretch out and jam a little more than normal here.”

Neville says that all these musicians in all these configurations frequently choose songs they know so they can rehearse on their own. “If you do your homework you can show up for soundcheck knowing what’s going on,” he says. Still, part of the thrill is knowing things won’t always go smoothly in these jam sessions. “There’s still a bit of an edge, which adds to that feeling of spontaneity. Sometimes the fun is knowing there could be a train wreck happening … although hopefully I’m not involved in any of those train wrecks.”

While most of the best shows are in clubs, where there’s time for bands to jam and room for fans to dance, the one worthy theater show is Trombone Shorty’s eighth “Treme Threauxdown” at the Saenger Theater on Saturday, April 27.

With the deaths of many of New Orleans’ elders in the last decade (Alan Toussaint, Art and Charles Neville, and Dr. John), Shorty has, to some extent, become the face of the city’s music scene, deftly blending jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop and rock — all with a great balance of virtuosity and showmanship.

Shorty, whose real name is Troy Andrews, attracts an endless list of stars to the Threauxdown, which has featured Galactic and Dumpstaphunk but also Mavis Staples, Dr. John, Joan Jett, Gary Clark Jr, Usher, and Steve Miller as announced guests, plus spontaneous additions like Jon Batiste and Wyclef Jean. Among the guests announced for this Threauxdown are Paul Janeway from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Big Freedia, and Marcus King.

“If I was visiting from out of town I wouldn’t go to the big theater shows because what makes New Orleans is the unique vibe in the bar and club scene,” says Mercurio. “Troy’s ‘Threauxdown’ is the only theater show I’d go to because he gets these great special guests — a cavalcade of stars — so it’s not a show you’ll ever see anywhere else. “

Andrews also hosts Shorty Fest at Tipitina’s on April 29, which, in addition to a concert featuring his band and Galactic offers a free outdoor “Cultural Block Party,” with performances by local brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians as well as food trucks.

Meanwhile, Neville has lined up at least dozen shows, at both theaters and clubs, beyond his official Jazz Fest gig. On April 29, he’ll join Soulive’s Eric Krasno and Anders Osborne for the first day of the NOLA Crawfish Festival, which runs outdoors at a club called The Broadside for three days between the Jazz Fest weekends.

“It’s a different little thing,” Neville says. “There’s jambalaya and crawfish and it starts in the afternoon and goes into the night. You can come get some crawfish and listen to music and then go back out.”

On the middle Wednesday, he’s bouncing to three different shows and on Saturday May 4 that FiyaPowa gig with Mercurio and Moore starts at 2 a.m. (which technically makes it May 5, but in New Olreans no one is counting). Neville will also take part in “Rejuvenation 50: A Celebration of the Meters,” at the Civic Theatre on May 2 sharing the stage with George Porter among others. Along the way he’ll also be jamming with everyone from Government Mule to Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, to soul and gospel legend Irma Thomas to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Neville’s schedule is so busy that in the middle of our conversation he starts reorganizing his set lists on his phone and later he loses track of which gig is where.

“But I know I’ll be playing somewhere that day,” he says with a laugh. “You can look it up.”

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