* New Orleans- Spring is upon us. Locals can see the rainbow through the gray clouds. Yes, as they say, April showers brings May flowers. There were lots of showers in the region for the 32nd Annual French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron.
The rain didn’t dampen the spirit or enthusiasm of the estimated 386,000 festival goers in attendance to enjoy the music, food, special events and historic French Quarter. Unfortunately, inclement weather impacted attendance, which hit a record 733,000 festival goers last year.
Festival goers had an extra pep in their steps as this is the season of renewal and rejuvenation. This is also the start of the festival season in New Orleans. Visitors to New Orleans are keenly aware of this fact, as they have already made plans to get out and about to enjoy the culture, heritage and festivals that the great city of New Orleans has to offer.
The 32nd Annual French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron was held April 9th-12th, 2015. The festival started off modestly as a neighborhood festival and ‘local’ event, which has currently grown into the largest showcase of Louisiana music and food in the world, with an economic impact over $251 million.
Nothing says “Let’s get this party started” than a New Orleans Secondline Parade. The 32nd Annual French Quarter Festival officially got under way with a colorful Secondline Parade that snaked through the French Quarter to Jackson Square. The parade featured French Quarter Festivals Inc. Executive Director, Marci Schramm, and The French Quarter Festival Board of Directors, VIP’s and Sponsors, with several Brass bands, Secondline Dancers and other entries.
You are probably aware that April is Jazz Appreciation Month. I couldn’t have found a better occasion to celebrate this distinction, in the city that gave birth to jazz. On the Capital One Bank Stage, in Jackson Square, Ellis Marsalis played a set of straight ahead jazz while accompanied by a gifted quartet of in demand musicians featuring Jason Marsalis on drums, Jason Stewart on bass, Derek Douget on saxophones and Ashlin Parker on trumpet. The quintet took the crowd and me on a musical journey of jazz standards and original tunes, featuring a standout rendition of “A Train.”
I ventured over to the Woldenberg Riverfront Park, to the Big River, GE Capital/New Orleans Tech Stage. Joe Krown Trio with Walter Wolfman Washington and Russell Batiste, Jr. laid down a set of funky grooves.
I stayed put for the next performer. Big Chief Smiley Ricks and the One Nation Band pushed the throttle forward a notch for a set of “Indian music with a twist” – a gumbo of New Orleans R&B, soul, funk and blues. Their set featured the tunes “Fire Water,” “Go to New Orleans,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Ho Na Nae,” “Peace Pipe,” “New Suit,” “Pocky Way,” “Big Chief,” “Sick and Tired,” and a Latin tinge version of “Going Back to New Orleans.”
My next journey took me up the River or down the river at the Berger Great Lawn, Abita Beer Stage for a stellar performance by Allan Toussaint. Allan Toussaint is one of the most influential figures in New Orleans. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. Mr. Toussaint is a celebrated songwriter, record producer, and musician who dazzled the crowd with his piano wizardry and vocals on the tunes “Do Some Old School,” “Huffing and Puffing,” “Sneaking Sally through the Alley,” “Lady Marmalade,” “It’s Over,” and “Soul Sister.”
This incredible set was followed by the Irvin Mayfield and New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, playing an energetic set of music by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and The Grateful Dead. It was quite apparent that this orchestra came out to swing! Swing! Swing! as evident on their rousing opening tune “Sing, Sing, Sing.” The orchestra also made a bold statement by not being afraid to step outside the jazz genre to incorporate some pop tunes into their repertoire. Case in point “Come Together” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles, “Secret Life of Plants” and “Overjoyed” by Stevie Wonder and “Dark Star” by The Grateful Dead.
Day Two-Vocalist Neshia Ruffins and the Young Franchise Band entertained a huge crowd at the Louisiana State Museum Old U.S. Mint, WWL-TV Esplanade in the Shade Stage. The daughter of renowned trumpeter Kermit Ruffins played a nice set of cover tunes “I Want You Back,” “Only Want to Give it to You,” “Like a Dream,” “Call Tyrone,” and “Heard it All Before.”
I walked over to Bourbon Street to the Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. This was the perfect intimate venue for the Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse Book Release Party. Irvin had an engaging conversation with reporter Keith Spera about Irvin’s career and major influences on his life both musically and other wise.
A visit to the Crescent City isn’t complete until you are in the audience to see some of the cities Royalty. Vocalist Irma Thomas “Soul Queen of New Orleans” briefly held court on the Abita Beer Stage. She opened her shortened set with “Hold You To Your Promise” and changed her set to include the tune “It’s Raining” followed by “You Can Have My Husband; Don’t Mess With My Man.” The skies opened up so that Mother Nature could Bless the occasion with some Libations. The festival was shut down until the storm passed.
Day three- I took a break from music to watch a competition of epic proportion. Rouses World Champion Crawfish Eating Contest hosted by Rouses at Louisiana State Museum’s Old U.S. Mint featured contestants in three categories- amateur, media and the heavy weights, Professionals. Adrian “The Rabbit” Morgan retained his title against Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas and other challengers. The final results- Adrian Morgan-1st Place, Scott “Mac” Malcombe-2nd Place and Sonya Thomas-3rd Place. The competition is heating up for next year to see if Mr. Morgan can go for the Triple Crown.
The Crawfish Eating Contest was entertaining, but is also gave me a case of the blues. The French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron ordered enough dosage of the blues that we could use with back to back barn burning sets by Guitar Slim Jr., and Little Freddie King. These two amazing guitarist set off a flurry of adrenaline rushing guitar riffs that we felt working through our veins. Little Freddie King brought out two special guest for the second half of his set, Big Chief Juan Pardo and Isaac Kinchen of Golden Comanche.
Sunday, the final day featured additional highlights despite the inclement weather. The New Orleans Songbook featuring Irvin Mayfield and New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Wanda Rouzan and A Taste of New Orleans and Brother Tyrone & The Mindbenders, to cap off a soggy but enjoyable 32nd edition of the French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron.
Ricky Richardson is a Southern California based writer, music reviewer and photographer. Contact him via: [email protected]