Jazz Fest’s Thursday opening has local flair

Published 1:41 pm Friday, May 6, 2011

As Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys performed Thursday under blue skies and bright sunshine, couples danced to the distinctly Cajun sounds as the second — and final — weekend of this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began.

Karen Nelson, of New Orleans, and her friend Brenda Lackey, of Dallas, sat in a field nearby to enjoy Gal Holiday & The Honky Tonk Revue and await Cajun fiddler Amanda Shaw’s show on a stage not far away.

“This is an experience you can’t get anywhere else,” Nelson said of the jazz fest. “I can walk here from my house, listen to great music, eat great food and meet great people. It’s the atmosphere.”

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Lackey said she enjoys people-watching and gets a lot of it during the festival.

“Nothing’s too outrageous out here,” Nelson added. “Kind of like the city of New Orleans itself.”

Lackey said, “It’s also a chance to get away from it all for a few days, hear live music and hang out. It’s a great escape.”

Kerri Zeil, of Chicago, agreed.  “We have a ton of fun when we come. My friends are huge music fans and they turned me on to this festival. You can get all genres of music here in one setting. I love, love the gospel tent, but we’re headed over to hear Lucinda Williams.”

Zeil also marveled at the 75 degree temperatures and slight breeze. “It’s the most perfect day ever,” she said. “I can’t remember a more perfect day at the fest.”

Hundreds of elementary, middle and high school students flooded the festival grounds as well on the day traditionally set aside for mostly Louisiana-based talent.

Donyette Love, a social worker and chaperone for a group from Bethune Elementary School, said they come every year. “The children really enjoy it and it’s an opportunity for us to expose them to the different cultural elements of New Orleans and south Louisiana,” she said.

Dianna Banks, a chaperone with Esperanza Charter School, danced to the rhythm and beat of Chief Iron Horse & The Black Seminoles, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe who parade in New Orleans during the Carnival season leading up to Lent.  She said the festival was a definite learning opportunity for both the students and her.

“We’re learning about different countries,” said sixth-grader Larrencia Smith. “We saw the people from Haiti.”

The festival this year spotlighted the earthquake-ravaged country in an effort to help its musicians and artisans recover.

Jeanne Davis, 74, of Metairie, acted as tour guide for her sister, Marian Vocke, 89, and their friend Irma Maggio, 82 —  both first-timers to the festival.

“We’ve lived here all our lives and never came,” said Maggio.

“It’s been great,” Vocke added, “much better than I expected.”

Davis had worked in the festival’s poster booth for 13 years, but recently retired. She said the three of them are known as the “good time grannies” and the outing is just another adventure for them. Dressed in the same festival shirt and sipping on iced tea, the trio said they ventured to the fest Thursday because they knew it wouldn’t be as crowded as the weekend.

Joe Tell of London Ontario, Canada, snapped a photo of Chief Iron Horse in all his regalia, and said the tribe’s chanting and drum beats drew him like a magnet. “It’s my first time here,” he said, smiling. “Friends have been telling us to come for years. I’m glad I finally listened.”

Outside the Gospel Tent, Shari Mirgon and her husband Richard, of Lafayette, said the Joseph S. Clark Senior High School choir’s singing drew them inside. While there, they were also treated with a performance by the Heavenly Melodies Gospel Singers. “We always try to visit the tent at least once during the festival and we’re glad we stopped by,” she said.

“I’ve been to a lot of festivals but this one is absolutely the best,” she said.

Sprinkled in Thursday’s mix of performers are nationally known acts like Wilco and Cyndi Lauper.

The festival, presented by Shell, runs through Sunday at the Fair Grounds Race Course.