In the month of April, there are approximately 56 festivals throughout the state, forcing a choice between an oyster poor boy in New Orleans or boudin in Lafayette; strawberry shortcake or the world’s largest brunch; meandering the streets of the French Quarter, coming upon a jazz quartet or hitting the New Orleans Fair Grounds for a dose of Jazz Fest.
I don’t like to make such choices, so why not do it all? Alas, there are so many days in the month, pounds to be gained, a nine-to-five, five-day-a-week job, entailing a bit of strategy, so we’ve chosen four festivals in South Louisiana that mix music, food and lagniappe in a way that they should always be on your calendar: Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, French Quarter Festival, Festival International de Louisiane and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (aka Jazz Fest).
All four festivals overlap in some way: The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival and French Quarter Festival are the same weekend, and the Festival International de Louisiane and Jazz Fest share one as well, allowing dedicated festival-goers to double dip on those weekends. The only one of the festivals that isn’t free is Jazz Fest, which can be a deciding factor depending on how much festival-going you do before. As we all know, just because a festival is free, doesn’t exactly mean you’re not going to spend money. Each festival has its own personality: The Strawberry Festival has a county fair feel; French Quarter Festival is its brazen cousin with a bounty of food, music and libations (if you so wish); Festival International is an immersion into a global cultural lesson, but with a French accent; and Jazz Fest, the school assignment – you have to go, so sometimes it feels more like an obligation, but then you feel like you’ve missed something, and you have (like the year I missed Neil Young. Come back Neil!).
But it’s April – live and let live, as it’s time to enjoy the last breath of spring before the long hot summer bears down upon us. You know, the time of year when the best air conditioning can be more important than food or music. Fest up, while you can.
Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival. While we may seem blasé in south Louisiana about parades, the one that officially opens the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival has a truly unique, strike-up-the-band, small town appeal.
Now, how does a small town organize about 90 marching bands, multiple strawberry themed floats and King and a Queen? I would say only Ponchatoula, which has been hosting this festival for 40 years.
And, while the parade is alluring in itself, let’s talk strawberries – the Louisiana variety, not the bland Californian. Succulent and sweet, these strawberries beg to be eaten plain – and yes, I do that quite a bit during the spring. But for those of you who like a little whipped cream with your berries, there are multiple food booths offering strawberry concoctions and confections. (If you’re among the few who don’t have a sweet tooth, there’s more standard fair food available.) For a festival founded to support the local strawberry farming industry – a shout-out is a must for festival founders Charles “Doc” Gideon, the Ponchatoula Jaycees and Chamber of Commerce – there’s no mistaking that this annual event is something that encourages an almost Bacchanalian admiration of strawberries. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” Too many strawberries – and celebrating this divine berry – is definitely not a bad thing.
Rounding out the festival are Carnival rides, musical entertainment and Lil’ Farmers Row: a children’s area where there are Carnival games that are prize worthy, a petting zoo and other kid-friendly activities.
Of course, before you leave, you have to buy at least one, possibly two flats of strawberries to bring home. But don’t forget to save a few for me.
French Quarter Festival. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when I think of the French Quarter Festival, my thoughts turn to, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways …” OK, overly dramatic, but really, how can you not adore a festival that is throughout the French Quarter and along the Mississippi River, one that features food, music and great people watching for free? (Well, that’s until you start eating.)
Founded in 1985 as a way to bring residents to the French Quarter after the Louisiana World’s Fair, FQF now attracts more than 500,000 festival-goers over a three-day weekend. (I think the word’s gotten out about the festival, huh?)
My strategy for this festival is to pick one part of the French Quarter to be in each day. Granted, you can be ambitious and start at the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue, where the Latin World Stage is, then move through the Quarter, via street or Riverfront, encountering food booths, more music and end up at the new-this-year House of Blues stage on Decatur Street. But it’s a hike. A few well-timed stage stops will allow you to sample Dixieland jazz, brass bands, Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass, country, jazz, gospel, indie rock, classical – am I missing a musical genre? At last count, there are more than 115 musical acts this year. FQF added a day this year to the schedule – Thursday is now “Locals Lagniappe Day” – featuring New Orleans musicians such as the Preservation Hall Jazz All Stars and Los Hombres Calientes, among others. If you didn’t know already, FQF books local and Louisiana musicians, and restaurants serving food are local, too.
But the draw for me is the French Quarter – we’re lucky in New Orleans to have such a special place to live, love, work, feast and fest. Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville didn’t do half a bad job in 1718 when he chose a swampy spot on the Mississippi River to found a city.
Festival International de Louisiane. While you can find Cajun and zydeco music in New Orleans, there’s no better place than to head to its source: Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country. However, the Festival International de Louisiane isn’t just about celebrating these two indigenous musical genres, as this festival gets a dose of culture from its many Francophone places in Africa, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. As one regular festival-goer says, “It truly is an international festival.” He likes the fact that every year he can hear great African bands, as well as, he says, “throw down to some really great zydeco.”
The festival, which is free, encompasses downtown Lafayette with six stages, multiple food booths and arts and crafts – all with an international flair. Many music lovers come to this festival, which coincides with the first weekend of Jazz Fest, then head to the Jazz Fest the next weekend. Now that’s dedication!
For me, the allure of this festival is Lafayette and the variety of music (and being free isn’t bad either!). While seeing my favorite musicians is great, I also like to discover, by chance, new ones. What looks new to me this year?
Rad Baraat, Balkan Beat Box, Bomba Estereo, Remesha Master Drummer of Burundi and Keb’ Mo’. A less familiar name to New Orleans audiences, unless you went to last year’s Voodoo Experience (in October), is Toubab Krewe, which I highly recommend. For a more Louisiana feel, catch Sonny Landreth or Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience.
Like any festival, food is a major draw, and festival-goers can sample food from a number of Lafayette area restaurants that, to the best of my knowledge, don’t serve outside of the area: Fezzo’s and Poupart’s are two examples. As befitting an international festival, you can feast on everything from gyros and hummus to seafood étouffée and alligator bites. There is even vegetarian fare and snowballs. No, you won’t leave this festival hungry.
Another plus. You are in Cajun country, so after your festival-going duties, it’s a great starting point to explore nearby attractions such as Avery Island, where Tabasco sauce is produced, or Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing for a Sunday night of dancing (if you haven’t had your fill). You will find me at Don’s or Poche’s buying boudin for the drive home. Sometimes, I actually end up with a link.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. If there are two festivals that loom largely in the New Orleans festival calendar, it’s Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. No, they aren’t even remotely the same in theory, but in spirit they have the same go-for-broke feel. While Mardi Gras has big floats, big beads and big hangovers, Jazz Fest has Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson and Arcade Fire. But like Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest also has its smaller, less showy, yet still vital elements – locals Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, Jeremy Davenport and the New Orleans Bingo! Show are also on the Jazz Fest schedule, which is dissected more than a frog in a seventh-grade science class.
Personally, I think Jazz Fest producer/director Quint Davis quite likes the controversy that his scheduling allows. The Twitter and Facebook comments about Kenny G – I’m still looking for a complimentary one; sorry, Kenny – were nothing less than great publicity for Jazz Fest. Davis is, to quote the famous promoter P.T. Barnum, “a showman by profession … and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” Davis, gilding or not, does know how to create a buzz-worthy Jazz Fest schedule every year.
Like French Quarter Festival, it’s hard to do it all, but even with 12 stages of music, the festival is set in a more manageable space, the New Orleans Fair Grounds. One tip: Because hot weather can start in full-force during the festival, I like to make a stop into the Grandstand to cool off and to see what exhibitions they have on view.
This year the festival will focus on Haitian culture. Unbeknownst to some, New Orleans and Haiti have a deep cultural connection, going back at least 300 years. Featured musicians include Wyclef Jean and Tabou Combo; there will also be Voudou drumming performances and folk art demonstrations.
Speaking of crafts, I don’t think I’ve escaped a Jazz Fest without buying something. In fact, I usually take a half-day and ditch my friends so I can go to every art and craft booth. I’ve bought furniture made by a sweet Cajun man, jewelry, glass, ceramics and a multi-media piece of art. It may be less caloric than hitting every food booth – Prejean’s beautifully dark roux gumbo and Patton’s troika of the crawfish sack, oyster patty and crawfish beignet are on my diet-busting list – but no less satisfying.
There are a number of ticket packages from Big Chief VIP Experience ($925 – $1,025) to the last-minute, buy-at-the-gate $60 a day. That is a long way from my first Jazz Fest in 1984 when I paid $8 a ticket and there were no VIP stands. Yet, Jazz Fest really is like a school event – a prom, perhaps – you just have to go, because if you don’t there’s a good chance you’ll miss the performance of a lifetime.