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Dancing in the Field

It is that time of year: Jazz Fest is in the air.

In my first couple decades of living in New Orleans, I used to treat this season the same way I did as an 8-year-old anticipating Christmas: with giddy and wiggly excitement, unable to even think or focus on anything else.

But things have changed. I have changed. More pertinent, I believe, Jazz Fest has changed.

Jazz Fest has developed a strange – and some might even say strained – relationship with locals in recent years. Annual price hikes and regularly booking bands that generally play stadiums has certainly stretched the patience – and safety concerns – of lots of folks.

Do not get me wrong: Bruce Springsteen is my favorite act of all time. My rock god. But the last time he played the Fair Grounds, I truly was concerned about the press of the crowd, the looks on my kids’ faces and, more than anything: How long it took to go pee and get a beer!

Of course, some of this has as much to do with the customers as the institution. These people who set up mini-camps like they’re getting ready for the Endymion parade at Mardi Gras and then leave them abandoned for most, if not all day, are a real pain. Their chairs and tarps and whatevers create complete blockage of passageways for anyone simply trying to relieve themselves or move onto another stage, another act.

But a weird animosity between the community and the festival has developed; it’s inescapable to see.

I think that adding the “Big Chief VIP Experience,” the “Grand Marshall VIP Pass” and the “Krewe of Jazz Fest VIP Pass” and other elite perks definitely created a public rift. (Krewe of Jazz Fest?)

One of the great things about the festival over the years has been its sense of equality and equanimity. We were all in it together. No matter how hot. Now matter how much rain or mud or hay stink. No matter how nasty the port-a-potties.

But now there’s a social divide. It is sort of like Gallier Hall at Mardi Gras. The rich folks get the spoils. Everyone else eats cake. Pay more money, get cleaner toilets.

And then an oil company stepped in to sponsor the festival a few years ago and everybody lost their minds. It could be argued, and has been in many bar rooms on many nights, whether Shell saved the festival or ruined it.

Many folks claim every year that they’re going to boycott. But they (we) all go anyway. After all … it’s Jazz Fest!

That is the final irony in all of this: Every year everyone says it’s too expensive, too crowded, too commercial. And yet, we all go. We have to. How could you not?

It is Jazz Fest. It has been part of our lives for what feels like forever.

And the food is out of this world.

Sure, it’s like the kid you raised who has disappointed you with his or her life’s choices, but the love is inescapable. Almost unconditional.

You just wish they would do better. You wish they would do what you want them to do; make better decisions; abide by your values, your wishes; dial it down; don’t be greedy. Do not charge an 11-year-old $80 to attend. (For me to take my three kids to the festival this year, for one day, will cost $320. That is insane.)

But it’s like that Rebirth Brass Band song goes: Do whatcha wanna. And we go.

And as we trundle out the gates at the end of the day like a herd of cows; you look around and almost everyone is chattering and smiling and laughing. And badly sunburned.

And yes, a few are griping that the experience was a hot mess, that they’re never coming back.

But you’ll see them the next year in the Blues Tent, rocking out to Sonny Landreth and John Mooney, having forgotten how much they hate Jazz Fest.

Because it’s our thing. The best we present to the public and the world. But we all know it should move to City Park. We all know that if they want to keep to their stated mission – keeping Louisiana culture alive and relevant to our youth – they wouldn’t charge teenagers $80 to attend.

But it is what it is.

But what it isn’t is Christmas anymore.

Sure, I’ll go this year. As I always do. But mostly to get Crawfish Sacks and softshell crab poor boys. Because I don’t know where else I can get them. See you there! In a long line.



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