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Free in the Big Easy
Written By: Tish Michel
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Free in the Big Easy
Aerial view of Jackson Square during the festival.
   You know I love Ocean City and it’s oh-so-talented and wonderful group of musicians.  Friends also know that New Orleans holds a very special place in my heart and is my chosen home away from home.  After tax season ends, I volunteer to work with the Jazz and Heritage Foundation during Jazzfest each year. I’ve spent almost three weeks in NOLA and have taken scads of notes in order to write a series of articles for the Coconut Times on life in New Orleans.
    Yep, as soon as I found out the dates for the French Quarter Festival I said, “At last - I can do it”.   When I’m not enjoying the music in O C, I’m working as a tax accountant in Baltimore.  For many years I’ve dreamed of going to the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans but have never been able to attend as the Festival is usually held the first or second weekend of April when I’m working 90-plus hours a week.  This year Easter was the latest it can be and so, to avoid holding the festival on Palm Sunday or Easter weekend, the Festival was scheduled for the third weekend of April.  Hooray - on February 2nd I bought my ticket for a 7am non-stop flight to N’awlins departing on April 17.
    The good news is that my dear friend Dew dropped Mel (my 8-pound dog) and me off at BWI airport in plenty of time to check my luggage and get to the gate an hour ahead of time.  The bad news is that Southwest overbooked the flight and I got bumped along with another handicapped lady and several others.  When you travel with a dog you can’t get an advance boarding pass. The airline was terrible to deal with and we didn’t arrive in New Orleans until 10:30 PM, which was over 12 hours later than planned.  This blew the first day for the French Quarter Festival for me and it’s a day Southwest can never replace.  On top of that, when I finally got my luggage which was sitting all day in the open area at security in New Orleans, someone had been through my things and took the three prescriptions I had filled the day before and my press passes and tickets for both weekends at Jazzfest.  After we finally checked in to our room, I took Mel for a walk and he got his paw caught on something and lost a toe nail.  What a bloody mess!  I put a tourniquet on Mel’s paw, wrapped him in a towel and found an all-night pharmacy to get bandages and meds. Needless to say, our trip was not off to a good start.
    Dr. Mike is a wonderful Vet on Rampart Street in the French Quarter.  We went to see him first thing Saturday morning only to find he had taken the weekend off.  I called the emergency number on his door and got instructions for Mel until he could see him on Monday after I finished work at the Jazz and Heritage Foundation.  Meanwhile, I carried Mel around the French Quarter as we thoroughly enjoyed day two of the French Quarter Festival.
    Everyone in NOLA says, and I so agree, that the French Quarter Festival is the best free festival in the world.  It’s the largest free festival in the south. There were 18 stages spread throughout the Quarter including three or four along the Mississippi River waterfront.  One of the new stages on the riverfront was “Harrah’s Louis-Louis Pavilion Stage” named after the city’s two most famous Louis’s - Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima.  There was an excellent tribute to the famous Louis’s at this stage on Saturday afternoon featuring Lillian Boutte and Don Vappie. I also caught Marva Wright, John Boutte (Lillian-s brother) and Paul Sanchez, Susan Cowsill Band and Bonerama at this wonderful new stage.  Another new stage was the “Esplanade in the Shade” stage which was designed to have the funky Frenchman Street feel to its programming.  I really enjoyed Ingrid Lucia’s show at this stage Sunday afternoon.  
    There were over 150 local musical acts including most all of New Orleans’ best musicians.  All genres of local music were represented including Zydeco, brass bands, opera, contemporary and traditional jazz, R&B, gospel, funk and the list of great sounds goes on!  This is the 26th year for the festival and it is so well run.  Although there was always a good size crowd for each performance, I never felt two crowded and was always able to find a spot in the shade somewhere in viewing and listening distance.  You know how you go to an outdoor festival and the sound’s not so hot but hey - it’s free; this wasn’t the case - the sound guys did an outstanding job for every act I saw!
    Most of the musicians arranged to get a sponsor to pay for their show, thus keeping costs down to allow for this marvelous free event.  Local bars and businesses also sponsored stages.  Preservation Hall is my favorite place to go for traditional jazz.  All shows all day and night were free during this weekend and you know I left Mel in our room on several occasions over the weekend to attend shows at Preservation Hall. Another place where dogs aren’t allowed is in Jackson Square. My dear friend Charmaine Neville had the closing act there on Saturday so Mel and I stood outside the Jackson Square gate to catch her act and then had a great get-together with her afterwards.  Oh my, how great it is to be back in my favorite home away from home!
    One of the most fun things about attending a music festival is that you always discover someone new to you that you think is fantastic.  That person for me was Jimmy Robinson.  I’ve seen him over the years play with outstanding musicians including Susan Cowsill and he’s a founding member of Twangorama.  This was the first time I’d seen him head his own trio.  This truly highlighted what a phenomenal guitarist he is, plus he has a great voice and put on a wonderful show.  The guy definitely has the whole package and you can bet I’ll have him on my “can’t miss” list whenever I’m in New Orleans.  I also hope to bring him up to my TUUC Friday Concerts in Baltimore one of these days.
    The French Quarter Festival is family oriented and had a terrific area especially for kids of all ages.  Educating families about healthy living was the theme of the Audubon Aquarium Plaza riverfront kids’ area, and I enjoyed homemade guacamole freshly made by kids and sponsored by Whole Foods. I also enjoyed low fat Chocolate milk, milkshakes and fruit smoothies all free! Also free was a five-minute chair massage and a chance to have your picture taken sporting a milk mustache.  Such fun along with great music!
    Tons of friendly and helpful volunteers support this wonderful festival. In addition to free help and sponsors, the festival is supported by the sale of T shirts and other merchandise and the sale of food and beverages.  Now if you’ve ever been to the Big Easy, you know about the food.  Charmaine Neville often  jokes that if you aren’t a great cook, they kick you out of Louisiana.  There were over 90 food and beverage venders at the festival manned by many of the city’s finest restaurants.  The average price was $5 for a good size serving and I totally enjoyed everything I tried.  I guess my favorite new things to try were “Bad Bart’s Black Jambalaya” from Huevos, and grilled chicken livers with sweet hot pepper jelly from the Praline Connection.
    Despite the difficulty we had getting to New Orleans and Mel’s mishap, we had a fabulous time at the French Quarter Festival. Next year it will be held April 9th through 11th. If you can get away during this time, do so!!!!!
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