Either way – a comeback, rebirth, revival, reunion – the 2022 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was a triumph.
For the first time since 2019, friends, family and fans once again gathered at the fairgrounds for a seven-day celebration of Louisiana music, food and culture, a celebration that was augmented by the star power of Stevie Nicks, Lionel Richie, The Who, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Erykah Badu and other “visits”.
Local musicians made money and did what they love to do. Fans raved and reconnected. Music clubs, hotels and restaurants got an economic boost.
COVID was still an issue, hounding musicians, attendees, and even staff members at WWOZ-FM’s on-site broadcast/hospitality tent. Meters bassist George Porter Jr., Ben Jaffe and Charlie Gabriel of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and guitarist Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne, among others, were forced to skip at least one weekend of the festival following a positive test.
Fortunately, most cases turned out to be much milder than previous iterations of COVID. For this reason, perhaps, people were willing to risk feasting in tight spaces.
Attendance for the seven-day Jazz Festival in 2022 was 475,000, matching the total for the eight-day festival in 2019. This figure represents the highest attendance for Jazz Fest since Hurricane Katrina.
This first jazz festival after Katrina took place in a context of destruction and hardship. The emotions were raw.
The first Jazz Fest since the start of the pandemic was not as intense as this 2006 festival. It was more like reconnecting with an old friend, one we sorely missed.
As we close the books on the 2022 festival, here’s a final look at its best moments and what needs polishing in the future:
Living up to the hype
Cimafunk, the “Bruno Mars of Cuba”, presided over non-stop funk dance parties at Congo Square Stage and Jazz & Heritage Stage. A dynamic and active rhythm section, sassy horns and the undeniable charisma of the band’s namesake leader created a fun show.
And it was easy to see why Billy Strings’ career took off. With youthful energy and a myriad of tattoos, he concocted contemporary bluegrass that sounded both ancient and current. The musicianship of his entire band was off the charts.
Go the extra mile (or miles):
It’s always appreciated when Big Name Acts do a little something different at Jazz Fest to recognize the setting and the circumstances.
Stevie Nicks, who played her first gig since before the pandemic, not only dedicated “Landslide” to the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, but also covered “New Orleans,” a song she wrote in honor of of the city after Hurricane Katrina. On the first Sunday of the festival, the Red Hot Chili Peppers also saluted Hawkins.
The Zac Brown Band and his road crew literally went the extra mile – about 500 of them – by delaying the start of vacation to drive and/or fly from Austin to New Orleans to replace Willie Nelson, who has abandoned following a positive COVID test in his group, with 48 hours notice.
Not only that, but Brown brought in Willie’s son Lukas, who performed earlier in the afternoon on the same Gentilly stage, to sing ‘On the Road Again’ – an acknowledgment of the situation. and a sign of respect for Willie.
And kudos to the festival for even booking the Zac Brown Band. The producers could have saved what was probably a six-figure sum by letting Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real shut down the Gentilly Stage, or the Radiators, who were also already on Gentilly’s schedule that day.
Instead, festival producer/director Quint Davis tasked Darlene Chan, the festival’s National Talent Buyer, with finding a headlining replacement. Chan phoned in a festival trailer on Friday afternoon and, within five hours, had secured the Zac Brown Band – which is represented by the same talent agency as Willie Nelson.
Best New Initiative: Recycling
Shell, which sponsored the Gentilly stage as well as the entire festival, supported a recycling program for plastic bottles and aluminum cans at Jazz Fest. Several thousand were picked up, but festival-goers also threw thousands more in the trash or left them on the ground. Hopefully recycling becomes a permanent part of the festival and attendees enjoy it even more next year.
The sound dilemma
Complaints about sound quality at Jazz Fest are not uncommon. In my experience, the perception of sound quality, especially on the main stage, varies greatly depending on where you are and, quite literally, the direction the wind is blowing. At the start of Stevie Nicks’ set, I was standing in a shallow trench about 25 yards to the right of the soundboard; the volume was too low. I squeezed into slightly higher ground 10 yards away, and it was much better.
The sound at a festival is often not as good as in the controlled environment of an arena. It’s a trade-off: sound quality for the overall festival experience.
The festival’s stage and sound teams are faced with a difficult task. They must set up several acts and ring one after the other. Things happen; the sound will not always be perfect.
That said, I’ve heard some heated complaints about the sound this year. I rarely thought, “Wow, that doesn’t sound very good.” However, Blues Tent’s sound was so muddy that I couldn’t understand Meschiya Lake as she spoke between songs. And the Black Crowes were really strong. (Maybe that’s how the Black Crowes roll.)
Stevie Nicks complained of a “boom” she kept hearing on stage. It could have been Erykah Badu’s bass in Congo Square, or something else. Either way, you don’t want the act playing in front of the biggest crowd at the entire festival complaining about the sound.
Very long lines
Every year there is a logistical learning curve in producing a festival as large and complex as Jazz Fest. After a three-year hiatus and with many new staff members, that learning curve was bound to be a bit steeper.
This manifested in extremely long queues for the ticket security/scanning process on opening day and even longer queues to purchase tickets on Thursday “Locals”.
A crush of Louisiana locals and Luke Combs fans showed up to buy the special $50 tickets that could only be purchased at the door Thursday. Some would have spent two hours online, which is unacceptable.
The discounted tickets for Locals Thursday is a great idea and a nice gesture. But if fans wait so long in lines, much of that goodwill is wasted.
Missing bleachers, children’s area and interviews
When plans and budgets for Jazz Fest 2022 were drawn up months ago, no one could know for sure where the world would be in terms of the pandemic and how it might affect attendance.
The festival producers clearly didn’t skimp on musical talent, even down to the last-minute booking of the Zac Brown Band.
But some of the changes this year were probably budget-related.
The large green bleachers that have framed the main stage grounds since 2016, each with a seating capacity of 1,100, are gone this year. They were installed in part in response to the overflow of Elton John fans blocking foot traffic on the dirt road in 2015. Because the bleachers blocked the view from the track, fans were discouraged from settling behind them. With no bleachers this year, Stevie Nicks fans partially blocked off the dirt road.
Also, the children’s tent was much smaller than usual, and nearby craft and food kiosks were eliminated. The children’s tent stage could barely accommodate some acts, and parents and children found themselves standing outside the tent in the sun after it filled up.
In what may have been both a budget issue and a COVID precaution, interviews with Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage musicians in the grandstand were cut this year.
Given the heavy attendance of 2022, hopefully all of that will be fully restored when the 2023 festival kicks off on April 28.
And the lines move faster.