Spring in New Orleans… don’t you just love it? The air is still pretty cool, the skies are blue, and thank the Great Spirit, we are still here and enjoying our music.
April kicks off our festival season with the French Quarter Festival, still one of my favorite spring pastimes. It’s surprising how many people still don’t know about this under-appreciated festival, although it’s certainly grown in popularity in the past five years. A couple of years ago, French Quarter Festival’s one weekend attendance topped that of the Jazz Fest’s two weekends.
The beauty of the French Quarter Festival is that only local bands are booked; it brings people into the French Quarter to relax and have a good time and enjoy our music and culture (rather than to simply drink themselves stupid). And, it’s free.
This year, we’re simply grateful that the French Quarter Fest is still around and there are musicians who are in town who can play it. Check out the FQF schedule in this issue of OffBeat and be sure to come see us at the Zatarain’s/OffBeat stage at the Hibernia Pavilion and at the Southern Comfort Stage in Jackson Square.
Then, of course, there’s the Jazz Fest to look forward to this year. Die-hard fest-goers might consider coming in for the French Quarter Fest and staying the next weekend for the first weekend of Jazz Fest 2006. Bar none, the Jazz Fest is the reason that most of our readers make it down to New Orleans. Thank you, New Orleans lovers, for coming to our great — albeit flawed (yeah, we know!) — city to spend some time with us. We need your moral and financial support so badly. New Orleans still has a lot to give, despite the stupid politics (obviously not confined to the city and state level), the litter and our slow way of getting things done.
I just returned from Austin for the 20th annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. It was certainly refreshing to be in a city that’s booming, where there are people living and working in normal circumstances; where there’s no garbage and debris in the street; where people have actual houses to live in, not trailers or “Katrina Cottages.” A successful festival with 10,000+ attendees devoted to music and the music business helps, too.
Louisiana had — for the first time — a major presence at SXSW. OffBeat has been a media co-sponsor of the event for 19 years, and we’ve had a booth for many years. Scott Aiges and his Louisiana Music Export office organized a large multi-purpose booth that housed interested businesses from around the state: Basin Street Records, Balance Studios, the Lafayette Music Space, Louisiana Hayride, the Tipitina’s Foundation, New Orleans Musicians’ Hurricane Relief Fund and many more. Louisiana also showcased the Hot 8 Brass Band on the streets of Austin, a crawfish boil co-hosted by Bug Music, and presented a day of music at Town Lake including performances from BeauSoleil, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, the New Orleans Social Club (see feature, this issue, page 25) and Allen Toussaint.
I was on a panel with Aiges, Keith Spera of The Times-Picayune, Toussaint and Cyril Neville to discuss what happens to music in New Orleans post-Katrina. Neville and Toussaint were counterpoints in their opinions on New Orleans music’s future. Both lost their homes and belongings to Katrina, but Toussaint was more upbeat and proclaimed that New Orleans’ spirit and music is more important than physical things, and that we must move on and make it better.
Neville has opted to leave the city — reluctantly, he says — to live in Austin. “Musicians in New Orleans can’t make a living,” he says. “No one can live on what they pay in some of the clubs.” But there’s more to it than that. Neville’s wife Gaynielle told me that they were tired of the city’s ingrained poverty, politics and violence. Cyril admitted that he’s lucky that he can work with his brothers and has steady gigs in Austin, where he feels he is getting the respect that he deserves.
A lot of New Orleans musicians have gotten a lot more work post-Katrina than they handle, but much of that work is outside the city. Let’s face it: if you’re a musician, you’re always probably going to make a lot more money on the road than you do in your hometown. I think a key word, though, is respect.
The underlying basis of New Orleans culture is its music, but music and musicians have never received the respect they deserve. The city has not nurtured or tried to perpetuate its musical culture. There was a time when it was relatively easy to find good music on Bourbon Street, but over the past few decades, Bourbon Street’s music scene has degenerated into cover bands, DJs and karaoke bars. Whose fault is that? The bar and club owners on Bourbon cater to the market’s demand. This is the time when a strong government — oriented towards preserving a cultural resource — should step in. It’s certainly impossible to eliminate the crap, but giving some sort of financial incentive to businesses who present live traditional music that perpetuate our culture isn’t really a stretch.
If there were more careful attention paid to improving the city’s music scene, there would be less opposition from the residents of the Quarter who want to prevent another Bourbon Street from happening on South Rampart.
Did you know that there is a moratorium on any new venue that offers live music in the French Quarter? How stupid is that?
THE POLITICS OF MUSIC
About three weeks after this issue of OffBeat hits the street, we will have voted for leaders who will hopefully take the city out of its “velvet-lined rut” and into the 21st century. We had high hopes for the Nagin administration, and admittedly there was some progress made in eliminating the useless, patronage-ridden New Orleans Music Commission and establishing a Music Development Office. But that office was eliminated post-Katrina. It’s interesting that New Orleans music and musicians have received so much ongoing attention after the storm, but there’s no one at City Hall who’s carrying the torch. Dumb move.
In this mayoral race, we’re supporting the only candidate who has tried to improve our cultural economy: Mitch Landrieu. We look to him to put our music in a prominent place in his plans for a new New Orleans.
We have mixed feelings about the Louisiana Music Commission. Chairman Ellis Marsalis resigned. Executive Director Bernie Cyrus has finally resigned as well: that’s the good news. But there’s talk on the state level of eliminating the commission entirely. While the Louisiana Music Commission has been relatively useless over the past 20 years, we still feel that the music industry around the state needs a lobby, or a group that can advocate for its improvement.
BACK IN THE POP LIFE, AGAIN
Alex Rawls, OffBeat’s new esteemed editor, now has a weekly column called Pop Life that’s available online only. Get a reminder to check out his opinions when you sign up for OffBeat’s weekly email newsletter, the “Weekly Beat,” at offbeat.com.
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See ya at the Fest!