How is the Jazz Fest period for you if you're a New Orleans musician who's not playing the Fair Grounds?
“After-hours shows are just as important as the festival slots,” she says. “Even if you don’t get hired for Jazz Fest, CD sales go up and the amount of work you have goes up.” The fans in New Orleans during Jazz Fest are not like those in town for spring break or Mardi Gras because they’re here first and foremost for the music. There is so much demand for talent that even Lake’s less promoted country and western side project, Magnolia Beacon has a gig at Siberia April 24.
Lake is right that the club scene during Jazz Fest has become a festival unto itself, and there are music fans who come to town solely for it. Because of that, left out of Jazz Fest doesn’t automatically mean left out, but some genres fare better than others. As the jam band phenomenon grew in the late ‘90s, funk bands weren’t as much part of it as fellow travelers as they shared values and fans with the bands. That and their fans’ nomadic willingness to travel led the then-New Orleans-based Superfly Productions to book jam/funk shows during Jazz Fest in the late ’90s and early 2000s before starting Bonnaroo. Now, the nighttime scene often looks like the Jam Cruise run aground, with paragraph’s worth of players with solid jazz/funk/rock credentials coming together on any given night in a kaleidoscope of configurations to play jazzyfunkyrock or funkyrockyjazz or rockyjazzyfunk. Musicians in that vein can be very busy. Ivan Neville has 13 gigs, not including three Dumpstaphunk shows, and George Porter Jr. has 17 including three on April 27 and three on April 28.
If you’re not a jam guy—generally—the scene’s not quite as lucrative. Dave Jordan of Dave Jordan and the Neighborhood Improvement Association think the shift toward jams has been detrimental. “It's good for the respective promoters and club owners, but not the local musicians,” he says. “Fest used to be a giant spotlight on New Orleans and Louisiana music, but the club scene is largely now dominated by national touring acts and spin-off collaborations. Really, people you can see anywhere in the country.”
Many venues get with the jam program and bump their regular rotation of artists during Jazz Fest, and when Jordan found himself out the gigs he usually plays, he got together with Honey Island Swamp Band, and Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes to create their own gig April 30 at Rosy’s Jazz Hall. The show is a way to make sure the bands have presence in the city’s clubs at night during Jazz Fest, but it’s also a way to have fun. “We are all really good friends, play in other bands with each other, and we thought it would be fun for us to offer this to our fans and for people that would like to see full time, working New Orleans bands, rather than the out of town acts and the thrown together collaborations,” Jordan says.
Some whole genres are displaced during Jazz Fest. Electronic dance music DJs and producers certainly find themselves on the outside looking in during Jazz Fest. Dubstep has only appeared at the Fair Grounds when played by the First Nations DJ trio Tribe Called Red, and the Gentilly Stage has rarely had fewer people at it than when Tribe played it in 2013. Things don’t improve much at night. A week before the start of Jazz Fest, one DJ doesn’t have a gig between the opening and closing of Jazz Fest. Another has two in one day and that’s it. Both are often much busier.
The Republic frequently hosts electronic dance music shows, but it jumps on the jam/jazz/funk train during Jazz Fest—or, to be more exact, it partners with CEG Entertainment and under the name Nolafunk Jazzfest Series they will feature Michael Franti and Spearhead, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Los Lobos, and a few jam shows. Big Freedia is the only mainstay of The Republic’s lineup to get a Jazz Fest gig there, but that’s with a live band. Winter Circle Productions present many of the city’s EDM shows including Buku, but the only electronic show they have in the works during Jazz Fest is the Lawrence, Kansas-based The Floozies, who combine live instruments with old school-flavored electronic funk.
Rock bands don’t fare a lot better. San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room presents a number of jam shows at the generally rock-oriented One Eyed Jacks including the Beavis and Buttheadedly titled “Worship My Organ” night (April 26 with organ players Marco Benevento, Robert Walter and Simon Lott). Many local indie rock bands have the rest of the month off in New Orleans, but some venues do counterprogram against the jam/jazz/funk/rock with rock, including Smashing Pumpkins at the Saenger Friday, former Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy at the House of Blues Tuesday, April 26, and Delicate Steve at Gasa Gasa April 28. Siberia has a couple of punk nights with MAGRUDERGRIND on April 27 and The Coathangers on the 29th, but much its lineup shares musical values with the festival, albeit with an emphasis on roots music, not jamming.
So is it jam or go home if you’re left out of Jazz Fest? Not exactly. There’s still money to be made and good work to do. Since many New Orleans musicians have limited tour schedules, the time around Jazz Fest represents one of the few opportunities that out-of-towners have to see local favorites. Tom McDermott’s Thursday night shows with Aurora Nealand at Buffa’s are always much bigger than usual during Jazz Fest he says, and “I have a steady Wedneday [with Marcia Ball and Joe Krown at Snug Harbor] between weekends, and that’s my biggest local paycheck of the year,” he says.
One way to deal with the competition for club dates is to pick up the non-standard ones that emerge during Jazz Fest season. Jordan has played crawfish boils and house parties in recent years, and Chaz Fest—which will take place for the last time Wednesday, April 27—began as a festival created to feature artists left out of Jazz Fest. Tom McDermott hosts a series of house shows, and Paul Sanchez’s solo career took a giant step forward when he played the annual Threadhead “patry” with John Boutte in 2005. A conversation with regular denizens of the Jazz Fest message board about what he needed to record an album led directly to the creation of Threadhead Records, which helped Sanchez record and release six albums and one DVD, as well as more than 50 albums by more than 30 artists.
“I have found that booking club shows with my band during fest season is less impactful than doing weird theater shows or in-stores at Euclid or shows at the Mudlark,” says Alexandra Scott. “I don't know why that might be.”
Scott has 11 performances during the roughly two weeks of Jazz Fest, including an in-store at Euclid Records on April 26 at p.m. with Kelcy Mae and a concert April 23 at the Theater on St. Claude. She’ll play Marc Stone’s all-star tribute to Layla and Assorted Love Songs at Southport Hall April 28 and a handful of other gigs in addition to her standing Wednesday night shows at Loa and her Thursday happy hour shows at Buffa’s. She didn’t have these gigs last year at Jazz Fest so she’s not certain of how they’ll go, but attendance was up for them during French Quarter Fest and that makes her optimistic.
“I'm already getting emails from fans saying they're coming to the shows, so I imagine I'll be seeing more faces,” Scott says.
Gigs like those give fans from other cities who rarely get a chance to see Scott in a place where they can find her, and it’s fun to see them, she says. “Lots of them have become friends over the years, and I like to get face time with them. Although I never have as much time as I want to talk to people at a gig, especially during festival season. They often bring new people with them, which is awesome, and that usually means merch sales.”
So does the rising Jazz Fest tide float all boats? Yes-ish. Not equally and with exceptions. The artists in genres that have always had anxiety about their places in the New Orleans musical story are reminded during Jazz Fest that their concern is justified. Otherwise, “It’s the best paying week of the year in town,” Tom McDermott says. “For many years, it was the best paying week of the year, all included. But you have to keep working. One week isn’t going to carry you that far, but it is significant.”
Updated at 10:18 p.m.
Alexandra Scott's Euclid Records performance is at 3 p.m., not 5 as originally written. The text has been corrected.