Neen and Joe at the 1997 Jazz Fest

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It's been 11 & 1/2 months now, so some of the details are sketchy. But after reading all of the other great reviews from 1997, I thought I'd sit down and write ours up. 

THURSDAY

Events in April of 1997 seemed to be conspiring to make sure we had a rotten Fest trip (as if there could ever be such a thing). As we were packing the car we couldn't believe it - the weatherguy was talking about hurricanes in New Orleans! Plus to top it off, while hiking with my two dogs the previous weekend, I had laid down in what apparently was the middle of a poison ivy patch. While never allergic before, rolling around in a fresh crop was just too much for my immune system to handle, and I was covered with poison ivy rash from head to toe. But we'd been planning this trip too long to give up, so I bravely packed my aloe, cortisone and Benadryl creams, and Joe and I drove out of Atlanta late Thursday afternoon of the first weekend. I was so proud at having found what I thought was an unknown, out-of-the way hotel (Holiday Inn Gretna); but when we pulled in 'round midnight, the place was jumping! We should have known! The place was great - and just a 5-minute hop from the Quarter. I'd recommend it to anyone.

FRIDAY

Of course by now everyone knows about the weather for the first weekend. It was very very very very very WET! We pretty much stayed soaked for three days. And chilly too. People said it kept the crowds down, but we couldn't tell. Everywhere we looked were masses of happy, smiling, moist people. 

This was Joe and my first trip to the Fest without the services of my brother Mark as host. After the second child arrived, Mark decided to move his family out of the Irish Channel and back to the Carolina foothills. So Joe and I were on our own, but we felt like we knew New Orleans pretty well (we certainly knew what it means to miss New Orleans!). As luck would have it (or Lagniappe that is), Mark would be in town on Saturday and Sunday for a "business conference" (what a joke!). So we had made plans to hook up with him at the Fest. Anyway, after experiencing the incredible "no parking scam" of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, we decided to try driving to the Fairgrounds and sure enough, found easy, free parking only about 6-7 blocks away on a large, safe-looking street. So - after a quick pause in the "Happy Car", we placed fanny packs on butts and headed for the Fest.

Once in the gates, we immediately hit the first group of food booths to begin what would become a three-day orgy of non-stop, incredible food. Our favorites are always the Oyster Po-Boy and the Fried Crawfish tails, but other highlights included a decent jambalaya, very filling crawfish bread, mounds of boiled crawfish, crawfish etoufee, crawfish sacks, (we were beginning to sweat crawfish from our pores!). Also - the most incredible bread pudding we've ever had actually came from the Fest!

LUCKY LAGNIAPPE: While strolling around the fairgrounds on Friday, I spied a friend from high school who I had not seen in 21 years. And what a coincidence - she was as trashed as we were!

YUCKY STUFF! Negotiating the port-a-lets is tough enough in the best of circumstances. When you add an enormous mud-pit in the on-line waiting area, and damp, sticky clothes, it gets really tricky. Add to that the gyrations required to slather my poor arms and legs with my poison ivy creams, and it almost qualified as a circus act. Of course, more beers helped, as the weekend went on.

I can't remember everyone we saw that first day, but I know we enjoyed Henry Butler at the Jazz Tent, and CJ Chenier at the Ray Ban. I'm pretty sure we saw Lil Queenie too.

Friday night we met my brother at his hotel and "did the quarter" including oysters at the Acme Raw Bar, dinner somewhere, and lots of beers. We spent several hours wandering and revisiting favorite sites, and made arrangements to meet at the Keb Mo set the next day at the Fest.

SATURDAY

Since we'd had an early night, we were up and ready to hit the Fest when it opened. Unfortunately, the hurricanes had the same idea. The officials wouldn't open the gates to the fairgrounds until the threat was past. So Joe and I headed to a bar across the street to wait it out. The place was packed, and they'd just announced that they had run out of vodka and Bloody Mary mix. We came up with the bright idea of asking for "top shelf" vodka, and drank Absolute screwdrivers with lots of other wet, drunken Fest hounds. Some of these may have even been Pet de Kat folks - I don't remember the name of the bar (it may have been Luizzas).

When they finally opened the gates, we grabbed some food and headed over to hear Earl King's set. We're not used to drinking so early in the day, so we were pretty sloshed. But Earl's set seemed perfect to us – pure New Orleans, as we held our umbrellas high in the gusting winds and rain, and boogied along in the puddles.

We wandered around that day and saw lots of other great music, and then went to meet my brother at Keb Mo. We found Mark among the mob, and caught the start of the Keb Mo set. He was obviously enjoying himself as much as the crowd, but a couple of flashes of lightning and immediate thunderclaps directly overhead sent Joe and I running for the nearby Economy Hall tent. We parted with my brother, and made plans to meet him Sunday morning, as he had to "do business" Saturday night.

After watching lots of other good music, we went back to the hotel for HOT showers and DRY clothes. Joe was reading the Offbeat, and found the Dirty Dozen listed at a club called The Funky Butt. Well, with a name like that, we had to go! In the old days, my brother always told us to avoid Rampart, especially around the entrance to Louis Armstrong Park. But since Joe is a big guy, I felt safe enough. We were delighted to see that the prosperity of the Quarter was inching out to the borders, and Rampart had lots of pedestrians, bars and restaurants. We had dinner at the 'Butt and then we headed upstairs for the music. Our first hint of the remarkable night to come was encountering three very drunk guys running down the stairs to the bathroom chanting "We're at the FUNKY BUTT! We're at the FUNKY BUTT!"

What a surprise to arrive upstairs and find such a small, intimate room. By the time the Dozen took the stage, some of the musicians were actually spilling onto the dance floor. We were on our feet dancing from the first song, and it was, without exaggeration, a Memorable LIFE-EVENT to be that close to all of that brass. While dancing, we had to nimbly avoid the trombone slide as it slid out between us on the low notes. The entire set was a blur of rhythm and joy. After that, all we could do was just walk around the quarter for awhile before heading back to the hotel.

SUNDAY

Sunday was our "magical" day (my brother still talks about it in hushed tones). We picked him up early at his hotel in the Quarter and headed for what we thought would be another miserably rainy day. We grabbed some beers (this drinking early in the day was getting much easier to do, now), and caught the Wild Magnolias at the Congo stage. As we stood there in the constant, drizzling rain, shin-deep in mud and water and rotten straw, we were a little dispirited. But the Magnolias announced a rain dance and got us all chanting. And what do you know – the sun started to actually peek out. We looked at each other in amazement and were instantly back in the mood for a final festival day. So we headed over to the Fais-de-dos stage to catch Balfa Tojours. A bunch of nuts dressed in crawfish costimes made out of brown paper grocery bags were having a great time dancing up a storm in the enormous puddle in front of the stage. To top it off, the sun came totally out and all of us in the crowd were transformed into one large, dancing, grinning, ecstatic unit. The rest of the day was one joy after another. We had had finally reached the state of "Fest Bliss"! The Funky Meters set was just icing on the cake at that point. Funky, funky groove music (they kept telling us "we put the unk back in funk") and we stood at the back of the crowd near the track, dancing and swaying and blissing out.

We finally parted with Mark who again decided to hang with his business buddies at night. Joe and I were actually tired of seafood (hard to believe), but Joe remembered a great little diner where we ate at with Mark many years ago when he lived here. We looked it up in the book, and sure enough, the Camelia Grill was still in business. So we headed out for burgers. When we got there - Lagniappe again - there was my brother Mark and a buddy who'd the same idea. 

Afterwards, we headed to the Rock n Bowl for the Boozoo Chavis vs. Beau Jacques showdown. The place was so densely packed that there really wasn't any room to dance. We just wish we could have arrived early enough to grab a lane. The folks who were dancing while they bowled look like they were having the most fun. We stayed awhile and caught a set by both of the Great Ones (upstairs and at the Bowl-me-Under downstairs) but just weren't in the mood for the mosh pit atmosphere, so we headed home.

MONDAY

For our last day in New Orleans, Joe (who is a full time musician - bass player) had made plans to attend the George Porter workshop at LMNOP. So after lunch in the Quarter he headed out and left me to enjoy an afternoon of shopping in the Quarter. We met back at an Irish bar, had dinner at a little Italian place on Rampart, and then went by the Funky Butt so that Joe could buy a T-shirt (which is the envy of all of our Atlanta friends to this day). We wandered around the Quarter together and found a great place for Hawaiian Shirts and purchased a "Joe's Pool Hall" Hawaiian shirt for the Big Guy, along with a Cajun Mudbug T-shirt. He was now set for "stage wear" for the rest of the year. After more Quarter shopping, we headed back to the hotel to pack up for an early morning departure.

When we planned this trip, we felt lucky and indulgent to be staying in New Orleans from Thursday night until Tuesday. But now we know just how short a time that is. We are slowly working our way up to doing the full 10-day marathon. And we're looking forward to adding time with the "Krewe" to our list of highlights for 1998.

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