Bear Creek Bayou didn't draw the crowd that organizers likely hoped for. Was that because New Orleans is tiring of festivals?

lettuce photo

On the weekend, a friend on Facebook thought that the thousand or so people who showed up at Mardi Gras World for the first day of Bear Creek Bayou might be a sign of “festival fatigue.” It’s a possibility that seems to be in the air, that New Orleanians may have hit the festival saturation point. New Orleans has made festivals part of its identity in recent years, but have we had too much of a good thing? At Bear Creek Bayou certainly and probably other underperforming festivals, the reasons may have more to do with the planning than the audience. 

Bear Creek Bayou began in Florida and if this year’s lineup is indicative of what it the festival used to be, it has been a Jam Cruise on land with a limited pool of artists who play a number of times in a variety of contexts. In Florida, that lineup may have been a draw, but everybody who played Friday performs at The Howlin’ Wolf, Tipitina’s, or one of a handful of clubs during Jazz Fest. Not even headliners George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic are too big to play New Orleans clubs, so the move to New Orleans may have weakened the allure of the lineup. Saturday drew better with headliners The Flaming Lips, but there’s no way organizers got the size of crowd they needed or wanted. If they expected people to travel to New Orleans for the festival, they would have been better off not scheduling Bear Creek Bayou opposite ACL in Austin. If they wanted New Orleanians to be the audience, charging more than Voodoo for one fewer day and one fewer stage was an improbable lure.

That’s not a reflection on the talent. On Friday night, The Budos Band was more to my taste than Lettuce or Foundations of Funk. As much as I respect the performers involved and appreciate how funky they can be, I need better defined songs or compositions. Too many “songs” felt like chord progressions matched with grooves instead of actual songs, but that’s a jam/funk thing. Where I heard Death By Blue Note, others heard a level of tightness that was its own reward. The Budos Band’s psychedelic, African-influenced funk powered by congas, fuzzed-out guitar riffs, and a baritone sax didn’t stretch out, but the songs themselves were rewarding before the first solo took place.

The current ParliamentFunkadelicThang takes some getting used to because the front line is so much younger than you’re used to if you haven’t checked in for a while. When Clinton began the youth movement, the hip-hop seemed forced and the young men and women simply paled next to the legends who were also in the lineup or whose roles they assumed. Now, they’ve grown into the gig and the band remains funky, heavy, and reasonably anarchic. Newer material didn’t always catch, but the endless procession of bodies across the stage including Nicolas Payton kept the show lively between classics. 

Festival fatigue is certainly possible, but judging by photos from the Treme Festival, which also took place this weekend, the issue is more likely festival-specific. The Louisiana Seafood Festival in September hung its advertising hat on a lineup that would have been right at home in a sad casino or the Gretna Heritage Festival: Zebra, The Producers, Village People, The Romantics, and Blood, Sweat & Tears (featuring American Idol contestant Bo Bice!). If Satchmo SummerFest drew fewer fans than expected, it might be because the festival throws the same party every year with the same musical guests, the same chips and the same dip. No one can be surprised if on a hot August weekend in Jackson Square, people passed on the opportunity to pay $5 to do it all over again. 

We’ve also had successes recently. The crowd at the new Fried Chicken Festival swamped the ability of the vendors to fry chicken quickly enough to serve everybody. Festivals aimed at things people want can certainly succeed. People aren’t tired of things that they want. Where fatigue may be setting in is for festivals that offer New Orleanians another chance to hear or taste things they can already hear and taste.