NEW ORLEANS — Not far from one bank of the Mississippi River, the sidewalks of Canal Street stretch past Wendy's and Burger King as well as Thom McAn and Kinney shoe stores, all offering pretty much the same fare as their counterparts throughout the country.
Although commonplace in most cities, those icons of assembly-line merchandising are more likely to catch the eye of a first-time visitor here for the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a celebration of the unique music, food and atmosphere of an area so culturally rich it's fattening.
That painful choices are inevitable becomes immediately apparent to the newcomer upon entering the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track, where daytime festival events are held over six days and two weekends. Yet for anyone with an interest in blues, R&B, gospel, soul, jazz, country, Cajun, folk, rock, African or Caribbean music, it's a refreshing problem to face.
For instance, playing simultaneously on different stages last Sunday afternoon--the closing day--were soul singer Wilson Pickett, New Orleans-born saxophonist Branford Marsalis, folk singer Pete Seeger, master guitarist Thumbs Carllile sitting in with the latest incarnation of the Band, and gospel's Greater Macedonia B.C. Choir.
Like the contrast between new and old seen in the clashing architecture around the city itself, tradition and innovation are frequently juxtaposed at the Heritage Festival. Yet the connections among the myriad strains of folk-derived music were clear.
For instance, you could sit in the Gospel Tent on Saturday morning listening to the LaPlace, La.-based Providence Tones of Joy, then hear similarly joyful harmonizing and relentlessly rhythmic call-and-response vocal choruses an hour later at the Fess Stage when O. J. Ekemode and His Nigerian All-Stars thundered through extended workouts in African pop.
An effortless cross-fertilization of gospel, R&B and rock 'n' roll was demonstrated by the Crown Seekers, a gospel group whose guitarist played a flying-V electric guitar that could have been borrowed from Eddie Van Halen, while the bassist popped out propulsive licks that wouldn't have sounded out of place at a Shalamar concert.
Compared to the average rock festival, the feeling of the Jazz and Heritage Festival is considerably more polite and less structured. Even so, some veterans of festivals past complained that some of the charm has been lost as it has gone big-time in recent years with corporate sponsorship and police barricades at some stages and backstage areas.
One New Orleans radio station even seemed to have missed the point of the whole affair, blaring Billy Joel's "Piano Man" from its small booth at the fair grounds. But the corporate input had its benefits. A small but widely appreciated gesture was the donation of hundreds of bottles of refrigerated spring water by a local bottled water company. According to one of the water concession's staffers, thirsty festival-goers consumed more than 10,000 gallons of water during the hot, moist and sticky afternoons.
Although the outdoor concerts ended each night around 7 p.m., the music continued unabated a few miles away from the race track in dozens of clubs and bars in and around the French Quarter.
For those with enough energy left at day's end to walk through bleak neighborhoods back to their French Quarter hotels, the city's economic depression was as obvious as the "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs on nearly every other building--once-beautiful structures that now stand decaying.
Because New Orleans has been hard hit by the turmoil in the oil and gas industries in recent years, the festival is anticipated as much by local businesses as by roots-music fans. It ranks as the largest tourist attraction after Mardi Gras. This year's estimated total attendance of 260,000 is the best in the festival's 18-year history, a publicist said.
Even the fabled Bourbon Street has become so geared to tourists with souvenir shops and sidewalk vendors that it closely resembles Disneyland's New Orleans Square--except for the numerous live sex shows and the fact that public consumption of liquor is legal on the real Bourbon Street.
The dark side of the local culture could be explored at the Voodoo Museum, which supplied several artifacts used in the film "Angel Heart." The only thing missing in the small shop's cadre of voodoo accessories was a sound track of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." Psychic readings were also given on Bourbon Street by "The Chicken Man--Voodoo King of New Orleans."
Another post-festival option exercised by hundreds were the evening concert cruises of the Mississippi River aboard the river boat President.
Nearly 1,000 people crammed aboard the President for a Saturday cruise featuring New Orleans' favorite sons, the Neville Brothers, as well as the percussive rock of Nigeria's King Sunny Ade.
Undaunted by the lack of a formal dance floor, enthusiastic fans simply collapsed dozens of fold-up chairs toward the end of the Nevilles' performance to create their own space for dancing. It proved once again that in New Orleans, at least during festival, inspiration always triumphs over convention.