Mardi Gras is definitely not for everyone. Though I had am amazing time overall, indulging in King Cakes, beer and colorful revelry (and apparently phoning my mother several times to thank her for the gift of life), I can distinctly remember attending the Endymion parade on Bourbon Street (despite prior warnings not to enter the heart of the downtown area on Saturday night of Mardi Gras) and actually being pinned between 2 people, lifted 3 inches off the ground, and transported for a good solid minute with the whims of the crowd. I had no control over my arms, legs, or personal possessions. There was no space to breathe.
Mardi Gras is one of those memorable, “once in a lifetime” experiences but is definitely not the best way to experience New Orleans. I always recommend to anyone interested in absorbing some of the culture, music, history (and cuisine!) of this amazing city to come in the Fall or late Spring, when they can actually walk through and appreciate the French Quarter…and breathe! Not to worry—the partying never stops—there is always something crazy happening on Bourbon Street. Always a group of middle aged men throwing beads over a balcony, always lots of Hurricane Cocktails to be consumed, always the odd tap dancer or quirky “statue” gracing your path and even, occasionally, a celebrity or two across the bar (Britney Spears, for example, is from nearby Kentwood and has been spotted several times in Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar).
For the adventurous, music-loving, party-going traveler, who wants a well-rounded experience of The Big Easy, I suggest heading down at the end of the month for Jazz Fest. This is arguably the best event that the city has to offer—many locals actually prefer Jazz Fest to Mardi Gras.
The festival takes place over 2 weekends on late April/early May at the Fair Ground Race Course, just 10 minutes outside of the French Quarter. Though there are doubtlessly hundreds of thousands that come to witness the diverse, extensive line up of performers (over 1000—jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, folk, Latin, rock, rap, country, bluegrass and more), there is also tons of open space, making the experience a lot more bearable than that of claustrophobic Canal Street on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday). Some will spend the day lounging on blankets to the tunes of Widespread Panic; other more energetic types may partake in some 3rd row moshing (as I did when L.L. Cool J started throwing $20 bills into the audience during his 2003 performance). This year, the headliners include: Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, The Neville Brothers, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw, Santana, Sheryl Crow, and Irma Thomas, among many others.
The Fest definitely doesn’t end on the fair ground at dusk. There are countless evening shows lined up at venues across the city—some advertised, some not. My personal favorite was a $5 Counting Crows “performance” that I stumbled across one evening on a French Quarter side street. Picture an intoxicated Adam Duritz belting Madonna covers to 40 drunks in a small room on a Tuesday night. It was fantastic.
Another highlight was the (sold out) 3am G. Love and Special Sauce jam session at Tipitina’s, followed by the ? ? ? . . .
(To answer the big, burning question on your minds, you can indeed view some of the worst hit sites of Hurricane Katrina on this guided tour.)
For those of you lucky enough to be venturing down to the Big Easy in the coming weeks, please do have some crawfish jambalaya and a drive-thru daiquiri (yes, a drive thru daiquiri) for me.
Enjoy the Fest!