By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is a marathon that every year for the past 47 spans consecutive weekends in late April and early May. Once the first weekend concludes, those lucky enough to enjoy the weekdays between the festival in New Orleans – known as “The In-Between” – get to experience the amazing food, history, culture and music of this unique American city. It can be a time of relaxation, or for those more adventurous, days can be filled with tours, food orgies and late-night live-music explorations.
The quiet mid-week days are a perfect time to take a walking tour. There are a number of expert guided tours available in the French Quarter, Garden District and above-ground cemeteries that explore the history of the city. More daring visitors can find self-guided tours in travel books and online.
The food at Jazz Fest is amazing. If you spend the entire day at the festival and sample some of the great delicacies available, there may not be room in the tank to enjoy the many great restaurants on festival days. That’s why the days between the festival weekends are a great time to explore some of the restaurants in the city.
Katie’s is a Mid-City eclectic restaurant that existed before the devastation of hurricane Katrina. That storm wiped out the original location, but the owners eventually reopened and now their comfortable neighborhood spot cranks out an assortment of traditional and modern twists on New Orleans cuisine. Their special fries smothered in crawfish etouffee and cheese was divine and nearly coma inducing. Another crazy fusion dish that has solidified their reputation is the heavenly cochon de lait pizza. It is slow roasted pulled pork spread over a thin crust pizza – insane and amazing.
Koz’s is another neighborhood discovery. They have three locations in the greater New Orleans area. Their casual comfort food includes daily specials that are a real bargain. We had the delicious pork-chop special that was served either fried or grilled and came with two sides. The chops were tender and loaded with flavor while the traditional sides were prepared perfectly.
Everyone loves happy hour and several restaurants in New Orleans offer a variety of good deals. We’re not talking about chicken wings and typical bar food. In New Orleans, happy hour often means deeply discounted oysters on the half shell and other regional specialties. Combine that with good deals on beer, wine and spirits and happy hour can easily turn into an extended dinner party.
Two of our favorite early evening spots are Superior Seafood in the Uptown neighborhood and Brisbi’s in Lakeview overlooking the boat basin. Each has big, delicious oysters for fifty cents during happy hour. Brisbi’s also offers most of their appetizer menu at half price. Add a few cold brews, glasses of wine or cocktails and everyone will be happy for hours.
Ask people what dish is distinctly New Orleans and you’ll get several answers. One restaurant is known for something so delicious that it should be on everyone’s list. Drago’s has a full menu of seafood-centric dishes, but their claim to fame are the chargrilled oysters. They take fresh gulf oysters still in the shell and place them on an open fire. The oysters are slathered with a mix of butter, garlic, parmesan cheese, herbs and some mystery spices. After a short time on the grill, the finished product is a steaming, smoky, delectable mouthful.
Famed chef Susan Spicer lives in Lakeview, the same neighborhood where her sublime restaurant Mondo serves up locally sourced, seasonal dishes. Her food is so inventive and delicious that even the finicky 11-year-old boy with us was happy as a clam when he dove into the spicy-creamy-smoky Peppershooters appetizer (Pappadew peppers stuffed with goat cheese and prosciutto) and then cleared his plate completely when the Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder, served with a tomatillo salsa, arrived. Spicer always has daily dinner specials of fresh gulf fish or pasta or a vegetarian entrée; and Mondo’s wood-fired 12-inch pizzas are legendary for their crisp dough topped with super-fresh ingredients like pears, pepperoncini or prosciutto.
The live music scene in New Orleans is always a great nighttime option. During the days between Jazz Fest weekends, club shows are often epic. There are so many world-class musicians in town for the festival that it is an embarrassment of riches. Just about every club in town has gigs scheduled. These shows are often a onetime combination of musicians that rarely play together. One of those shows took place Monday night, April 25, 2016, at Chickie Wah Wah.
The improvisational modern jazz/fusion show featured Nigel Hall from Lettuce and the Warren Haynes Band on keys and vocals, Eric “Benny” Bloom from Lettuce on trumpet, Cochemea Gustelum from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings on saxophone, Alfred Johnson on drums and Ron Johnson from the Greg Allman Band on bass. As the night progressed, several guests sat in. Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch, who was celebrating his birthday, took over the drum kit for a few songs.
Near the end of the show, a crazy trumpet throw down took place. Bloom traded licks with special guests Parris Fleming from The Heard and Maurice Brown from Trumpet Mafia and Tedeschi Trucks Band. Each blew an extended solo and then took turns blasting brief solos until it culminated with the trio improvising simultaneously. The show ended with several sweaty, spent musicians leaving the stage and many in the crowd stunned by the display of talent.
NOLA Brewery and crawfish boiling legend Shaggy hosted a Crawfish Fest on Monday through Wednesday at the Brewery’s home near the Mississippi river. Each day featured a different star-studded lineup of musicians, boiled crawfish, additional tasty food choices and a variety of the local beers. Admission each day was very reasonable for the entertainment.
On the Tuesday, April 26, edition of Crawfish Fest, Billy Iuso and the Restless Natives opened with a set of rock music. The George Porter Jr. Trio followed and their expanded lineup included Papa Grows Funk guitarist June Yamagishi in addition to local saxophone great Jimmy Carpenter. They played a set of funk including a few original Meters classics.
Papa Mali and Friends followed Porter’s Trio. Mali played a steamy set of southern rock and blues-infused originals mixed with some choice covers. The John Gros Band closed the day’s festivities. Gros is the former bandleader of Papa Gros Funk and his new band has an album coming out in June. The band played some new tunes as well as some familiar songs from his back catalog.
Wednesday is the last “in between” day before Jazz Fest begins again. It is usually loaded with choices, and this year was no exception. On April 27, Fiya Fest, a funk heavy all-day blowout raged at Mardi Gras World, while the NOLA Crawfish Fest continued near the river. Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers along with Trumpet Mafia also performed a free concert as part of the YLC Wednesday at the Square series at Lafayette Square.
For the third year in a row, the Oak Street residents and merchants presented a free street fair in their Uptown neighborhood. There was live music, crawfish and special sales at all the retail shops during the fair. It was called the Oak Street Free For All and ran from noon to about 10 p.m.
The street was closed to traffic and a stage was set up for the live performances. Tables lined the middle of the street for the crawfish boil. A violent rainstorm ruined the first few hours of the event, but once the skies cleared, crowds of people flocked to the street and stage. The New Orleans Suspects put on a lively show in the early afternoon. The band started in 2009 doing an occasional gig at The Maple Leaf, one of the Oak Street merchants sponsoring the Free For All.
After the Suspects, the Free for Allstars took the stage. In typical Jazz Fest fashion, this group was a one-time jam session consisting of several prominent musicians. The band included guitarist Luther and drummer Cody Dickinson from North Mississippi Allstars, guitarist Eric McFadden from P-Funk, bassist Doug Wimbish from Living Colour, singer/saxophonist Angelo Moore from Fishbone and singer/guitarist Brian J from Pimps of Joytime.
The band played some raucous funk, southern rock and shake-your-booty tunes. Moore was animated throughout and engaged the crowd in sing-a-longs. Luther Dickinson and McFadden traded scorching guitar solos. The band’s cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” was a show highlight. Once the set ended, the crowd dispersed, but many moved into The Maple Leaf club, where Honey Island Swamp Band played another free set of music.
The 2016 Jazz Fest “In-Between” once again proved that there’s nothing quite like being in New Orleans for the full Jazz Fest experience – and that coming to NOLA for only one Fest weekend is simply not enough.
All photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon 2016©.