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Aretha, Van Morrison, Canned Wine at Nola’s Jazz Fest: Review

Jonny Lang
Guitarist and singer Jonny Lang in the Blues Tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Lang has been playing guitar since the age of 12 and released his first album at the age of 14. Photographer: Catherine Smith/Bloomberg

I’ve been to New Orleans enough times to hit almost all the hot spots, from the Christmas tree bonfire to the Pal’s Lounge Mardi Gras parade.

But you haven’t done Nola until you’ve notched up the Jazz Fest.

More formally, this is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival started 41 years ago by George Wein, the man behind the Newport Jazz Festival.

A culture, food and music extravaganza, it stretches over two weekends. Weekend number two starts today. I arrived last Friday in torrential rains and found a wet Deacon John on the Acura Stage. By the time I left, there was sunshine and Jonny Lang rocking in the shadow of a Stevie Ray Vaughan poster in the Blues Tent.

I spent the worst part of the Friday downpour in the Gospel Tent listening to the Irma Thomas tribute to Mahalia Jackson. The Queen of Gospel Music played with Duke Ellington at the first Jazz Fest in 1970.

Back at the muddy area near the Acura Stage I watched Grammy Award winner Lionel Richie play in a steady mist. I hated missing the U.K. reggae band Steel Pulse; both artists were big in the ‘80s, but I had promised a friend I would call him during “Dancing on the Ceiling.” I did, and he promptly hung up on me. My singing off-key couldn’t have helped.

The big draw Saturday was Simon & Garfunkel, who kicked off their 2010 tour with me standing out of the fray on the right side. Garfunkel’s voice wasn’t in top shape and he bowed out on a few songs. I wished I had seen Tab Benoit, the blues guitarist and singer-songwriter. Such are the choices we make. I also wished I had two stomachs and an extra liver, of course.

Allman Drummers

The Race Course Grandstand is a great place to take a break, bask in air conditioning and get a drink without standing in a long line. It’s also where you can catch interviews with artists at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage on the third floor.

I heard conversations with Sam Bush, who plays bluegrass mandolin, fiddle and guitar; Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, drummers for the Allman Brothers Band; and Keely Smith, the jazz singer who collaborated with and married the singer Louis Prima.

On Sunday the temperature climbed to at least 85 degrees, making some of the muddiest areas usable again.

Some people go to the festival for the food. Seafood, especially crawfish, shows up in lots of recipes. Crawfish Strudel ($6) from Coffee Cottage was a favorite in my crowd. I particularly liked the Pheasant, Quail & Andouille Gumbo ($6) from Prejean’s Restaurant. Top of everyone’s list is the Cochon de Lait Po-Boy ($7), a suckling-pig sandwich with horseradish slaw from Love at First Bite.

Frozen Margaritas

Daytime drinking is something I, of course, live for, at least on weekends. I admired the practical aspects of sipping Sofia Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine ($9) out of a can and inhaling Miller Lite ($7) from a plastic bottle with a convenient screw cap.

My favorite kiosk, though, offered sweet, potent frozen margaritas that reminded me of the drive-through daiquiri joints that add so much to local charm.

Today starts the second weekend of Jazz Fest and I wouldn’t care who I missed to see Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Other top acts include Buckwheat Zydeco, Aretha Franklin, Trombone Shorty, Blues Traveler, Wayne Shorter Quartet, Van Morrison, the Neville Brothers, B.B. King -- the list goes on and on.

The weather isn’t looking good, so be prepared with a poncho and rain boots. Oldtimers come with a folding camp chair with shoulder strap.

The 2nd weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival runs April 29 to May 2. Tickets are $45 a day in advance, $60 at the door. Information: +1-504-410-4100;

(Catherine Smith is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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