The last couple of weeks have been pretty much dedicated to Jazz Fest. While the Fest itself only occurs on two weekends, those who have been or live here know that it really extends throughout the week leading up to it and the week in between. All the music venues are packed with talent, often splitting into a full early show, a standard time, and the late night show that doesn't even begin until two or three and ends sometime after sun-up. I think it was especially good getting out and seeing shows around town this year because a lot of displaced local musicians who weren't on the Fest line-up made it back to play shows around town. I, for one, was glad Lynn Drury showed up, though I only managed to get to one of the several performances she had. It's a long but glorious haul, and it's no wonder that I've been feeling a little under the weather the past couple of days.
The weather, by the way, was fanstastic the entire time - cool, by New Orleans standards, which means warm to everyone else, as in not unbearably hot. Even when it poured rain on the last day, nobody really minded. We took our shrimp po-boys and huddled under one of the little picnic tables by the food booths. Besides, the mud makes the hippies happy. After eating in relative comfort, we made a dash for the Gospel Tent and Pilsner Urquell.
Yes, along with the crawfish Monica, the crawfish bread, the shrimp etouffee, and the soft-shell crab po-boys (to name a few), I can get my beloved Czech beer (on draft, even!) at Jazz Fest, but it's only in one spot. Otherwise, it's Lite and Foster's in cans. And no, I'm not telling you where it is - the line is bad enough already.
The shows around town aren't the only extension of Jazz Fest, though, because it draws so many tourists, and that always means friends visiting from out of town, and this year that meant a few Tours of Destruction. I'm glad all the tourists come and spend their money on our hotels, restaurants, bars, and taxis, but unless they get away from the Quarter and the Sliver by the River, they come away thinking everything's normal. The Fairgrounds (where Jazz Fest is held) and its surrounding neighborhood did get flooded, so Fest attendees got a glimpse of what it's like, but it's nothing compared to the truly devastated parts of town.
Not until people get out and see The Suck (Lakeview, the Lower Ninth, East) for themselves do they realize just how bad it is. So I take them. Sometimes I show them my house and 'hood first, as a kind of warm-up, or I might finish with that, as a way to soften the blow at the end. People only truly grasp it when they see whole bent and crooked houses crushing over-turned trucks beneath them, and block after block of nothing but rubble where an entire neighborhood used to be, and a line of concrete stairs that used to go up to front porches leading to empty space, and a muddy, broken doll trapped thirty feet up in the branches of a grey and leafless oak. It's important, even necessary, that people see and understand it because, as I've tried to point out again and again, New Orleans can't rebuild itself on its own. It's going to take all of us - every American - to do it, and whether we manage it or not (and that's still a question) will prove, or disprove, our worth as a country and a people.
That's the context that we go to Jazz Fest with. While we're grooving to the music, to Coolbone, Keb' Mo', Eddie Bo, John Boutte, Dumpstaphunk, and Allen Toussaint (with a little Elvis Costello thrown in for good measure), or welcoming back Cowboy Mouth, World Leader Pretend, Galactic and Ani DiFranco, or catching people we might not see anywhere else, like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, we're doing it all with The Suck in the back of our minds. Whether the people on-stage acknowledge it or try to give us a break from it, it's always there.
And we're all there, too. That's another thing about Jazz Fest; even if I don't arrange to meet people, I run into everyone I know anyway. I guess that's what happens when you cram an entire city into a horse racetrack. Even so, strange and magical coincidences happen. A few of us were searching for the spot some more intrepid friends had staked out for Bruce Springsteen, a seeming impossibility in a crowd of thousands and thousands, an expanse of people so vast and so packed we had to wind our way through them like one of those hedge mazes.
We weren't worried, though, because we had the usual Jazz Fest kind of directions, "Close to the sound stage. There's a pole with a bunch of panties hanging on it. We're back and to the right of it."
When we finally found the spot, we discovered a different set of friends, unknown to the first, had staked out the spot right next to them. And then I glanced around and saw my neighbor not twenty feet away. Then followed much toasting and drinking while waiting for the music to start. Oh, and lots of raucous cheering when the plane trailing the "Impeach Bush" sign flew overhead.
I have never been much of a Springsteen fan, perhaps because I first became aware of him with "Born in the U.S.A." which got co-opted by knee-jerk nationalists before I actually listenened to the lyrics and realized how smart and even liberal they are. Nonetheless, I couldn't really pass up the chance to see him at the Fest, and he was amazingly good.
First off, the music was folky and all new to me, and he has that ability to make it feel intimate despite the huge crowd. The songs and his voice are so raw and real, you can't help but get caught up in it. He played one or two songs with a great zydeco sound, which I loved - bring on the accordions!
The show was fun, and true, and moving, and then he played this quiet song My City of Ruins and everyone's hands went in the air. He sang about destruction and despair and then faith and hope and exorted us all to "Rise up!" I looked around. The people in front of me extended so far I could barely see the stage, and there was no making out the edge of the crowd in any other direction. An immense number of people, endless, and each and every one of them, hands in the air, taking in the music and the message, and I was in the middle of them, of Jazz Fest, of New Orleans. The center of the country, even the world, the universe, everything good and right and true, had moved to that very place, and all the doubt and fear went away; in that moment I knew, truly knew, for the first time in eight long, bloody, exhausting, hellish, damned months, that New Orleans, that everything, would be okay.
I leaned over to my friend and said, "If he makes me cry, I will never forgive him."
So I drained the last couple of drops of whisky from my flask and blamed the tears on that.