JASS FEST! 2023
It’s the first day after Jazz Fest 2023, and the streets are still hot, with lots of after-fest shows at the Maple Leaf and various venues. I’m preparing for the upcoming Cure concert, of which iv been a lifetime fan. There’s nothing better than Robert Smith, the creator of Goth (which he’d disagree with), starting a tour in New Orleans, the most gothic city in (The USA?)New Orleans. Yes, once upon a time, mostly in high school and while at Full Sail, I was a Typo-Negative, Bauhaus, Cure raving goth, meaning multiple shades of black. Now I’m a little more colorful, and my favorite observation after Jazz Fest is that it is undoubtedly the most colorful festival of all. It’s hard to describe to others, but my lighting friends would agree. Even though Jazz Fest is during the day, the mental light show and the colorful crowds are spectacular, much like Electric Daisy Carnival during the daytime.
Attending a seven-day music fest takes planning ahead of time and studying both the weather and the music schedule. I mostly avoided the two, if not three, large stages and opted for the smaller stages. I also took it easy on my ear drums until the last two days.
While Bill Hanley is the father of festival sound, he worked for a gentleman named George Wein, who passed away at 95 years old last year. George worked with local Quint Davis to found Jazz Fest in 1970 in Congo Square, which is historic and still exhibited today in Louis Armstrong Park. As Quincy Jones would say, the beats of Africa have been passed down from generation to generation on the streets of New Orleans. You want Afro beats; New Orleans has it all. Jazz Fest for me started on Wednesday, April 19th, bicycle day. A typical New Orleans gathering in Lafayette Square with George Porter Jr headlining, I would later make my way to a new venue competing with the Maple Leaf called the Rabbit Hole. I returned from NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) and NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) just days prior. I had one last weekend before the festival started, so I took it easy. The first day of the festival was on Friday, April 28th. Tools of the festival trade for me included a small backpack, lightweight hiking umbrella, sunglasses, an outdoor research hat, cell phone, and yes, in New Orleans, an actual handkerchief. Mostly beer and wine with lots of good food, I stuck with only one Soft Shell PO Boy. It was a long week, so one tends to pace themselves. By the last day, I mainly drank water, coke, and iced tea. My mornings started around 9-10 to cook breakfast, make coffee and gather the troops before making a pre-flight check-off list to ensure everyone in my group had what they needed; Mostly a hat, a festival pass, and a credit card. After that, everyone was on their own.
As a live sound engineer and local trumpet-playing musician, I was just a spectator and only knew of a couple of visiting guest audio engineers. For ingredients in the mix, most of the stages remained the same from the previous year, which was my first year attending. I’ll likely attend every fest for the rest of my days or as long as my ears last. My Uncle Charles Frosty Horton attended for many years. Last year was special because it was the first after two years of being canceled due to Covid. I come from a musical family as my parents met at Band camp as teachers for marching band focusing on Trumpet, Flags, and Piano. Both of them have played in church for almost their entire lives. Marching bands in Texas, by the way, are a big deal. Loudspeakers on hand include but not limited to Clair, D&B, L-Acoustics, JBL, and VUE. After hours offsite, you could hear systems from DAS and Void Acoustics. There were some Allen and Heath consoles, Midas, and lots of Digico’s> I didn’t see any Yamaha consoles, but I assume some were there. The cool thing about digital consoles is that instead of eliminating consoles and having artists share them, the opposite happened; FOH has grown from Bill Hanley’s mixer on a scaffold at the original Woodstock to fortified fortresses with security guards.
On the first day, my headliner was Allison Krause and Robert Plant. Being in their presence was literally incredible. Allison is a big big big deal. I’ll say that again, Allison is a big deal, even more, significant than her rock star co-singing partner Robert Plant who made a guest appearance at Preservation Hall, an honor the city only allows for certain folks. Preservation hall would later open up for Dead and Co, which ill get to in a bit. The first day was perfect; I got to see some friends, no one got lost, no arguments among friends, lines were short, and no rain. The following day was an easy off day on Saturday. Steve Miller band headlined, and my festival feet were just getting broken in as I wimpled out early after enjoying a large L-Acoustics rig. I possibly should have gone to hear Ed Sheeran, but the house was packed, and I don’t do well with crowds. After all, I am a FOH engineer and typically chill safely with personal space behind a desk, or at least used to. Long ago, I was one of many engineers who had a house gig at a large church, and my last house gig was at Poodies Honkey Tonk (Willy Nelson’s road Manager personal venue in Lake Travis). Something I’m still honored to have on my resume.
“No bad days,” as we’d say at Poodies, good advice for the touring soul. No bad days indeed are what we had at Jazz Fest. Sunday, we started early to hear a very traditional Jazz band at the AARP tent, where the ushers were more than helpful. The first weekend was really about getting the lay of the land and acoustically tuning into the environment. I caught the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for a show on Frenchman Street at DBA with a nice sound system from Presonus, the local music manufacturer for Louisiana. Those boxes sound great, by the way! They recently upgraded from the point source equivalent to the line array.
Monday, May 1st, was a big day for me. To celebrate, I ordered some Jazz art from a local artist in NOLA, Georg Luttrell, and my trumpet-playing father shipped me a Blesson Artist model Flugelhorn. Tuesday, I spent some time playing on Magazine Street, which is typical for me, and tried to go to the Zildjian 400th anniversary party, but it was sold out, and I was super tired, so I opted to go home rather than be cranky at a concert. Lots of respect for Zildjian, as they picked the perfect venue with a nice d&b rig and a SoundCraft console. Congrats to the house crew at Tipitinas, or Tips as we call it. They always have a good mix, and the staff has the right attitude.
Wednesday was an off day, but we still had music at the square. So I saved my ears for the upcoming four days and wimped out early. So let’s just say Wednesday was my day to hydrate with water.
Thursday was the first of the second week, being a four-day event, and it was locals’ day. Proof of local residency got you a discount, so the festival was packed with locals from the North Shore and Baton Rouge college kids who would later make a massive comeback, rumor has it, for the Lumineers. I was thankful to find my friend in the middle of a sea of people for Santana, who delivered hit after hit. No joke, they didn’t stop. Carlos has the right spirit of, dare I say, the world Cindy, the drummer, was likely the first of prominent impressive drummers, at least from what my ears heard. Seriously she equally matched the guitarist on stage, and David Mathew’s on keys killed it. Before Carols Santana, I sought out Bonerama, which is made chiefly of Trombones. As a former double base, F-Attachment, and tenor Trombonesman, they were a lot of fun and have been around for a long time. The last time I saw them during Mardi Gras, there were at least a dozen bones on stage covering Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant song; let’s just say those guys rock!
Friday was another big day for me and the city. Trumpet Mafia played their first set and featured a double bass Trombone who seemed to have an infinite air supply. Several locals often found playing on Frenchman Street are in the band, something for me as a beginner trumpet player to aim for. Closing out Friday was Jon Batiste, local to Metarie. Shout out to my New Orleans family from Metairie. I’m lucky to have spent most of my Thanksgivings in NOLA.
Jon slayed it. No, seriously, it was the best performance on stage. He commanded the audience, had a representation of nearly every genre of music, and did a Jazz exit standard in New Orleans. So many people bragged about his success, and later word of mouth spread thru the city of his after-hours performance at the Maple Leaf, one of the best venues in the city. Seriously Jon, good luck in all that you do, not that you need it. After the performance, I texted a friend at FOH to say he got my best mix award. Later I’d find out Rob “Cubby” Colby was mixing, so that goes without saying. I don’t actually know Cubby except for running into him years ago as a stagehand on what now is a largely outdated system. Matching an awesome PA and a fantastic band with excellent talent and perfect weather is rare. Exiting after Jon, I caught the end of Big Chief Juan & Jockimo’s Groove. At festivals, I’m a big fan of catching random acts and listening to what I call a cheater stage, meaning while waiting to hear one band, one can hear another. Being from Oklahoma initially, I never knew what to think of the Mardis Gras Indians. After a couple of super Sundays, I must say they are yet another reason to love living in the Crescent City, aka the city of “Second Chances” or even “The City That Care Forgot,” as my uncle would say. Returning home, I only had one thing to do. Rest up for Dead and Co, my only Saturday appointment.
Waking up Saturday to a full-on Rain Storm blowing in from the west was concerning but never once a concern. For those with hearing difficulties, rain is a really, really calming. I had my trusty bedrock sandals that I took climbing a 14er on and my Outdoor Research Helium Rain gear. I’m a technical person and a technical trad climber or used to be, so I’m a gear geek nonetheless. I jump in it like a Jazz set rather than avoid the weather. I went straight to the front line to get a good spot for the Dead and Co. I’ve literally been saving them audibly for way too long. And, well, they did not disappoint. Mickey Heart was maybe the best drummer I’ve ever heard. Oteil Burbridge Brought out the first six-string bass (at least that) I heard at the festival. Let’s just say I fully understand now why the live recordings were and are such a big deal. My high school principal on the marching field introduced me to the Dead when Jerry passed. No less than a dozen Dead-themed local bands play in New Orleans. Mixing at FOH was Derek Featherstone on an Analog Gamble, which features zero capacitors amongst a few other specialties. I wish I could have stopped by FOH, but I was being called elsewhere, and I hope to hear the Dead on tour very soon. It was a lifetime monumental event, for which I’d say I’m Willy-Nelson Grateful.
Honestly, I’m just happy and grateful for my hearing and the environment of musicians, let alone attending my fifth music festival; Two ACL’s, Two Jazz Fests, and one Sasquatch Fest, which featured lots of hail and a burned-out generator. Saturday was a long day from 1:30 to 7:30. I didn’t move once, not for food or drink. I stuck to my guns in the rain with my fellow concertgoers and made friends by sharing local swag in the form of a couple of Ra-Shop branded lighters. Audibly I was ignoring everything to save my personal LEQ for the show. I might be the only one to plug my ears when there isn’t a performance. This performance was exceptional. Preservation hall opened for them, and Quint Davis himself was the MC. I hope to find a set list, live video, or maybe even a board tape; We’ll see. Returning home, I was starving and played a little on the Flugel, only to pass out.
Sunday was the last day of the festival. I spent the whole day in the WWOZ Jazz tent waiting for Herbie Hancock but certainly equally enjoyed David Torkaowsky, The Uptown Jazz orchestra with Delfaeyo Marsalis (fellow Trombonesman). Finally, returning home, I got to rest my back and let my ear drums rest in a quiet atmosphere.
So that was the festival; now let’s get down to business. If no one died or complained, then it was a good gig. We had perfect weather and not a single technical issue or safety concern at all. The Festival staff was awesome, with mix engineers on top of everything. And Jazz musicians can throw in some thought challenges on stage. I do wish the Blues tent had delays external to the tent, but as others would say, “You should have gotten there earlier” lol.
In my own style, I’ll give out my made-up awards. First is best sound. The exterior of the WWOZ tent had VUE point sources with Kevlar woofs and Beryllium HF’s. Sadly the audio world lost a legend and amazing engineer Mike Adams who designed VUE along with Ken Berger. The WWOZ tent had the best sound quality, featuring a trusty Avid SC48, and two LAKE LM26’s driving d&b with VUE delay speakers. That was the place if anyone attending the festival needed open space to sit and chill with excellent audio. Seriously that tent sounded awesome, and Herbie Hancock closed it out with an amazing Bass performer and likely the best trumpet I heard at the fest.
My next favorite tent was the AARP tent, which had the spirit of New Orleans powered by two Meyer UPAs in a small tent. Also, the kid’s tent as well as it featured a small stereo set of dv-dosc or what I guess they now call Kiva II double 6.5″ with a Dosc Waveguide, also common in New Orleans at venues such as Chick Wa Wa’s, another local favorite. Not to mention Covid again, but Dale, the owner of Chickies, passed from Covid. Covid impacted Jazz Fest as there have been 54 New Orleans Jazz Fests in 56 years.
The next best sound award goes to the delay stacks on the main Acura stage, using a mystery prototype box I’m told is by Clair. As I mentioned, I avoided the big stages, but I got to hear a trumpet player from Puerto Rico, which was AMAZING! While I enjoy building and designing massive systems, I rarely listen to them. The upcoming Cure concert is a rarity for me. In all seriousness, I have heard the Clair Cohesion system indoors several times, but this was the first time outdoors in a mostly anechoic environment. Literally, the scaffold build and three stacks consisting of cardioid subs, mains, and out fills were works of “acoustic art.” Previous mentions of other “acoustical art” include the Showco Prism, L-Acoustics K2, and Outline GTO. The subs for some of the opening bands might have been a bit much, and Santana’s subs were pretty heavy. The first set of Dead and Co was a relief as the attendees’ chests weren’t beaten to subwoofer death, something I’m not a fan of. I’ve had three chronic pneumothorax’s, two from big sub-exposure and poor diet, one required surgery, etc. As a former double bass trombone player, I appreciate good solid LF, but I’m cautious. Those subs were far from one-note wonders and sounded amazing. I can see why so many tours use the Cohesion system; much like a Shelby race car, it was fun, and the HF was not fatiguing. One could listen to that rig all day long, as long as the subs weren’t too loud.
Next was the Blues tent with a solid JBL VRX900 on delays and d&b for the mains. The Blues tent also had new cutting-edge Prodigy DSPs from DirectOut. System techs should become familiar with those and their SMAART generator control built-in. The VRX 900 is a favorite cabinet of mine as it accomplishes economical wonders. The Lagniappe stage had a great-sounding JBL 4889 box, and I appreciated that small point source box behind the rig as that’s what I listened to most of the festival. The mix on the Midas M32 was perfect all seven days and wasn’t too heavy on the subs. Economy hall tent also had an excellent JBL design with split-wide 4889s flown and a short center stack. I liked that design the best, as the left and right stacks were larger than the center array. That represents the spirit of New Orleans, as a lot of the venue’s audience ends up being outside of the venue rather than inside. Economy Hall and WWOZ had good exterior coverage.
Celebrating Puerto Rico was honestly the most fun you’d have at the show, and along with the Blues tent, it became my staple tent for when (I didn’t know what to listen to) had a cool horizontal array from d&b I think they were Q’s; I’m not familiar with all of there offerings. The FAIS Do-Do stage also had d&b, if I recall. However, that stage mainly had local Creole artists, of which I enjoy the accordion and zydeco music sparingly. Actually, no, seriously, while I respect Zydeco, I’m not such a fan, so I listened sparingly.
The second to the largest stage was Gentilly featuring an ooh, la la, L-Acoustics French rig. After the Spanish got bored of New Orleans, the French picked up the city, and the entire city loves all things French, from French food to French loudspeakers. Of course, nothing beats a clean, crisp K2 rig which was also found at Congo Square. It was as crisp as Leidenheimer’s local German made French bread.
With that said, here come the awards:
- The band most appreciated by the city of New Orleans Award: (Dead and Co) the third invite was the charm.
- Best Jazz Set Award: Herbie Hancock
- Perfect Performance Award: Jon Batiste
- Kitchen Aid Mix Award: Dead and Co, runner-up Jon Batiste
- Biggest fan base Award: Lumineers
- Local vibe Award: AARP stage, runner up Kids Stage with the Trombone Shorty Academy
- Best of the Blues Award: Sue Foley
- Favorite performer I didn’t get to see Award: Maggi Koener (Louisiana is in her soul!)
- Local Lagniappe Award: Margie Perez
- Best cheater stage band Award: Mumford and Sons
- Sound of NOLA Award: Kermit Ruffins “We’re partying!”
- Most appreciated band Award: Preservation Jazz Hall
- The best song Award: “Im a queen bee” by Sue Foley
- Best pianist performance you didn’t know about Award: Christoph Jackson
- Spirit of the fest award: WWOZ stage, for handing out set lists to concertgoers
And with that, folks, I’m back to practicing scales on flugel and trumpet. But, again, shout out to everyone who made the festival the best ever, including Quint Davis and the ushers and security, for making everyone safe!
I’m very spoiled and lucky to be surrounded by so much good music. I look forward to seeing the Cure in a couple of days and supporting them in their battles with Ticketmaster, and thank Jazz Fest for keeping prices reasonable.
PS: for those that don’t know JAZZ was originally spelled JASS but people kept covering up the J spelling…. 😉