It used to be that the weekdays between Jazz Fest weekends were the downtime – get back on track with work, salve that sunburn, fumigate the guestroom, recuperate those eardrums. But that was back when it was still possible to understand Jazz Fest as essentially just a big festival. Now it’s a mini-season unto itself, and the days between the weekends have taken on a life all their own. The prime example is Chaz Fest, which is happening today in the Bywater from noon to 10 p.m.
Chaz Fest is a homemade music festival, and it had its first inspiration in the best possible response to being excluded. A bunch of accomplished local musicians who found themselves without invitations to play Jazz Fest in 2006 decided they’d stage their own festival instead. They named it for washboard virtuoso and frequent collaborator Chaz “Washboard Chaz” Leary, because they love him and also because his name rhymes helpfully with jazz. They didn’t plan Chaz Fest as an annual event, but that’s how it has turned out as it morphed into a happening.
The result is an experience more like a house party that’s spilled out to become a backyard bash than of anything you’d expect to find on the tourist commission’s calendar. That feel is part of the magic that makes Chaz Fest such an anticipated part of the Jazz Fest season.
The whole affair is held behind a row of St. Claude Avenue homes. For newcomers and motorists passing by the only real sign from the street that something is cooking here is the profusion of bicycles locked up around the Chaz Fest entrance, which is just a driveway between shotgun houses. Follow this passage down, however, and you enter sort of a mezzanine of connected backyards with people milling about and food, drink and merch booths set up under canopies and in the vestibules of a decrepit shed. Go just a little farther and the yard opens into a verdant and bafflingly large urban meadow. Hidden completely from the street, it feels as though you’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole and into a rural setting very far away from wherever you might have parked a few minutes prior.
The roster of talent playing here on two stages (well, one stage and one shed) is a showcase of some of the most interesting acts in town right now. These are the hungry ones making their names and expanding the ideas of New Orleans music, the bands that make Frenchmen Street come alive and keep things hoping wherever they turn up. There’s the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus for faithfully spirited anthems from the age of sail and steam, the updated vintage New Orleans sounds of the Palmetto Bug Stompers — featuring Washboard Chaz himself — the multi-ethnic energy of the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, the endearingly quirky songwriting and accordion styling of Schatzy and the irresistible eclecticism of cellist Helen Gillet, to name just a few. The New Orleans music community is tight-knit and you can see this at Chaz Fest in the interactions of the bands on stage, the crowd in the field and the other bands getting ready or coming off.
There’s a DIY aesthetic worked into every part of Chaz Fest, and that’s no put on. It’s a group effort produced, organized and promoted entirely by a group of musicians, artists and whatever friends can be drafted to fulfill specific tasks, from getting City Hall permits to hanging outdoor lights. Beers are sold from coolers, slices of homemade crawfish bread come direct from an apartment oven and little hand-painted signs hang from trees, directing visitors here and there around the grounds. Show up, get into the Chaz Fest spirit, and it’s easy to feel like you’re part of the recipe for this homemade festival too.
Wednesday, May 4, from noon to 10 p.m.
3020 St. Claude Ave.
Day of show tickets: $30