All of the city’s historic neighborhoods have their own character, but the sense of place in Bywater feels particularly intense, and this weekend brings an entertaining opportunity to soak it up.
This Saturday, Nov. 6, marks the annual Mirliton Festival in the heart of Bywater at Markey Park. Sure, the event is named for that unsung staple of New Orleans casseroles (better known elsewhere as the chayote), and some of the food vendors will do their best to work the vegetable into their festival offerings. But the Mirliton Festival is really more about celebrating Bywater and its ongoing revival. Naturally, the party features music from an array of Bywater-based performers, arts and crafts items from their neighbors and food from nearby eateries.
The Mirliton Festival has become Bywater’s signature public event since 1989 when it was conceived, fittingly enough, over a potluck dinner to celebrate the end of that year’s Bywater Home Tour. Here’s an excerpt from the official festival history: “Friends and neighbors converged on Bud Rip’s bar at Piety & Burgundy streets with casserole dishes full of homemade delights. Several of the entrees were made from mirlitons, the local vegetable that is as unusual and beloved as Bywater. Someone (his or her name now lost in the haze of time) joked about the abundance of mirliton dishes. ‘Hey,’ said the unwitting prophet, ‘we should host a festival! Louisiana has festivals for everything, so why not mirlitons?’ Thus the Mirliton Festival was born.”
The event has grown a lot from these humble roots, but it’s still a fairly small one-day neighborhood festival, and that intimacy is part of the appeal. Markey Park is a natural neighborhood gathering spot and the venue for the monthly Bywater Art Market as well as the occasional cabbage ball game. During the Mirliton Festival, the porches and rooflines of shotgun houses across the street provide a backdrop behind the small music stage, leaving no doubt that you’re at a neighborhood event.
Things generally start off a bit slow as Bywater wakes up on Saturday, but soon there’s a steady flow of people through the park gate. General admission is $5 (free for kids), so it’s easily accessible. Well-seasoned veterans of local festivals lug in their folding camp chairs, and soon these sprout all over the grassy park between the vending booths and the stage. Thus encamped, the day is about grazing through the local food options, checking in with friends wandering the grounds, keeping a draft of Abita beer within reach and following the music lineup, which, naturally, is heavy on local Bywater talent. That means it’s also wildly diverse.
Get there for the 11 a.m. start and you can hear how Alex McMurray, Jonathan Freilich and Washboard Chaz resurrect 19th-century American folk music as the Mirlitones. Luke Allen’s refreshingly original country-rock combo the Happy Talk Band follows, and then Ryan Scully, the original front man for the Morning 40 Federation, will lead R Scully’s Rough 7. Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue put on their retro country swing act, and there will be a solid dose of Mardi Gras Indian funk from 101 Runners. Next, it’s revved-up vintage jazz from the New Orleans Jazz Vipers and finally the unrestrained joy of the indigenous New Orleans trumpet from festival headliner Kermit Ruffins.
Many of the performers on the schedule know each other not just as fellow travelers along the club circuit but also as partners in other music projects and as friends and neighbors from the Bywater scene. I expect this will lead to some interesting collaborations on stage this Saturday. Given the setting, I also think this annual celebration of Bywater will continue at neighborhood bars long after the festival officially wraps for the evening.
You can find more festival details here.