New Orleans: Just swinging in the rain

By Paul Gurney

The resilient city of New Orleans defies the weather and turns the music back on at its annual jazz festival, writes Paul Gurney.

A thunderstorm drenches the ground during New Orleans' annual jazz festival - a reminder of the city's vulnerability to extreme weather. But action soon resumed.
A thunderstorm drenches the ground during New Orleans' annual jazz festival - a reminder of the city's vulnerability to extreme weather. But action soon resumed.

It's midday on the second Friday of the New Orleans Jazzfest '07 and, with many other fest-goers, we are sheltering inside the jazz tent as a severe thunderstorm drops more than 10cm of rain on the city in the space of three hours.

Many roads are closed by flash floods, the fairgrounds are under water and a small lake forms in front of the main stage areas.

It is a stark reminder of how vulnerable New Orleans is to extreme weather, but also a testament to the stoic nature of its citizens, as by mid-afternoon the festival is back in full swing, despite the water and mud.

Happily, the other five days of Jazzfest were played out under beautiful blue skies and daily temperatures nudging 30C. Hats and sunblock are the norm at Jazzfest. But a rain poncho can be useful on the odd occasion.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is one of the world's top music events and is held over the last weekend in April and first weekend in May.

This year's festival was back with a vengeance, with activities spread across 11 stages and tents, after a reduced programme was run post-Katrina last year.

Crowd estimates for this year indicate an attendance of 375,000 for the six days, in line with a good year pre-Katrina, confirming that things are getting back to normal.

Part of the attraction was a stellar line-up of big name artists, including Van Morrison, Steely Dan, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, the Allman Brothers Band and Norah Jones.

But for many fest veterans, the acts they really go to see are the local Louisiana artists. Legendary names like Allen Toussaint and Dr John, or the new kings of funk, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk.

And this year featured a special appearance by the New Orleans Social Club, a group of musicians including ex-members of the Meters and Neville Brothers, who recorded a CD six weeks after Katrina to help restore the city's music heritage and get musicians living back there.

Although referred to as Jazzfest, the programme caters to a range of tastes that include rock, blues, Americana, country, zydeco, and of course jazz in its various forms.

The fairgrounds are actually the racecourse, where a mix of outdoor stages and giant blues, jazz and gospel tents house the various styles.

After the festival day closes at 7pm, a host of clubs and bars offer late-night gigs.

If the fairgrounds' schedule isn't compelling enough, then the food stalls serving spicy Cajun and Creole cuisine is a reason to go in itself.

The enticing smells of crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo and a variety of other regional dishes catered by some of New Orleans' top restaurants, waft around the festival.

Combined with the craft stalls and colourful merchandise stands, the feel is closer to Womad than the Big Day Out, as is the age of the average festival goer. And the locals are uniformly welcoming and excited to think that people would travel from as far as New Zealand to attend.

New Orleans is a city with a broad embrace, from the sheer decadence that is Bourbon St, to the elegance of the galleries, museums and flower-filled balconies of Royal St only one block away.

Traditional silver service and white linen restaurants intermingle with 1950s-style Po Boy Diners.

Dilapidated housing estates border the beauty of the French Quarter, and beggars work the footpaths outside the top brand hotels on Canal St. Then there's the contrast between tourist New Orleans, largely open for business, and local New Orleans, which has a long way to go.

All the big hotels have re-opened, with the exception of the Hyatt, next to the Superdome, which suffered major damage.

The French Quarter restaurant scene is also humming, and many of the top-name venues were fully booked during the festival. Landmarks such as the Acme Oyster House, established in 1910, have a permanent queue outside their doors in the evening, and with good reason. The oysters in their shells, either raw or chargrilled, are outstanding.

New Orleans is a foodie's heaven with an eclectic mix of local and international cuisines to choose from. And price ranges suit most budgets.

For example, a carefully prepared fish dish at the Bennachin African restaurant in the Quarter can be had for as little as US$12 ($15.80).

Transport systems are also gradually getting back to normal. Flights into the main airport are back to 75 per cent of the pre-Katrina levels, and taxis are easily available at most times. But the streetcars that used to plough up and down Canal St and St Charles Ave are still in short supply, as many of the damaged carriages have yet to be replaced.

Tour coach operators also offer their usual range of city, cemetery and plantation tours, and now include tours to the most devastated areas of the city, such as the Lower 9th Ward, where little rebuilding is in evidence.

We chose to visit this area in a cab for an insight into the damage wreaked, and saw first-hand the enormity of the task still ahead in replacing the houses ruined when 80 per cent of the city was flooded.

As well as housing, the biggest challenge facing New Orleans is rebuilding its population base. By March, the New Orleans Parish population was back to 255,000, just over half the pre-Katrina level.

The reduced number of city dwellers has put severe pressure on employers to find staff, particularly in service industries. It appears the gap is being at least partially filled by Hispanic workers coming from Mexico and Central America.

If these workers become long-term residents it will change the demographic make-up of the city.

The reduced population has had an effect on some attractions, such as the French Markets at the Mississippi River end of the Quarter, which are operating at only around half their pre-Katrina size.

But many galleries and museums are worthy of a visit, including the excellent D Day Museum in Magazine St, and the art shops on Royal St.

Safety can be an issue when travelling anywhere unfamiliar, and the crime rate is increasing again after a lull following the storm.

As always, common sense rules apply. If you stay in busy, well-lit areas of the Quarter at night, you will be perfectly safe but straying too far from the Quarter on foot at night is not recommended.

The festival grounds are extremely safe during the day and are an easy 10-minute bus or cab ride from Canal Street. I have attended three Jazzfests and never encountered a problem.

Some doubters still question the future of the city, but after attending this year's festival and sensing the spirit of its residents, it is impossible to believe that New Orleans won't recover, albeit in a modified form.

What the city needs more than anything is the return of its tourists to keep the economy kicking. Apart from Jazzfest, many other annual events are worth checking out, such as Mardi Gras and the French Quarter Festival.

But if you want to attend arguably the best music festival in the world, and have the stamina to stay the pace, then make a date for Jazzfest in 2008. Just don't forget to take your poncho.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand and Qantas both fly to LA. From there, a number of US carriers offer services to New Orleans, with fares starting around $500.

Accommodation: To do both weekends of Jazzfest requires a minimum stay of 11 nights in New Orleans, and hotel deals can be accessed through a number of travel websites, or the officialJazzfest website.

Paul Gurney is an Auckland-based musician and freelance writer who attended Jazzfest in 2004, '05 and '07.

- NZ Herald

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