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Blazing Through the 2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

A lot has changed in the world since Steve Diamond first reported on the New Orleans Jazz Festival for the January 1st, 1979 issue of High Times Magazine.

Back then, current Jazz Fest juggernaut Tipitina’s was in its infancy—the historic music venue having only operated for a year at the time of Diamond’s piece—and the New Orleans music scene as a whole played host to a variety of different sights, sounds, and flavors that, for certain folks today, remain a distant memory—and for others—something they’ll have to read or hear stories about to experience.

“Jazz Fest is an annual celebration of the people of New Orleans, like Mardi Gras,” Quint Davis, longtime producer/director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, said. “It’s one of the most powerful economic drivers for the city—like the New Orleans Saints and tourism itself—generating over $300m in economic impact. For hotels, restaurants, music clubs, and musicians it’s an essential part of their annual income.”

While a lot has changed, many aspects of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival remain the same—including some of its most heralded performers gracing both Festival and local stages around the city throughout the decades.

Two such musicians to hail from the Crescent City, George Porter Jr. and Ivan Neville, both of whose prominence spans multiple decades—Porter Jr. with The Meters in the 60s and 70s and Neville with his father Aaron Neville and Uncle Art “Poppa Funk” Neville’s group the Neville Brothers in the 80s and 90s—remain as relevant then as they are today, continuing to serve as pioneers of funk and melodic freedom with the distinct funkiness of New Orleans.

The recent announcement of The Rolling Stones toplining the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2024 is of particular relevance to Neville—a member of Keith Richards’ band the X-Pensive Winos, keyboard player on The Stones’ albums Dirty Work and Voodoo Lounge and whose band Dumpstaphunk could be a contender to be occupy the stage time prior to The Stones’ performance.

To better understand how Neville and Porter Jr. made their mark on the New Orleans music scene, I embarked on a journey to the May 2023 New Orleans Jazz Fest to witness their individual and collective musical output firsthand. Sometimes the best way to understand the legacy of storied performers is to engage with them at the source—and there’s no better way to tap into New Orleans’ legacy of food, music, culture and cannabis than at the Festival itself.

In order to accomplish my mission, I enlisted the help of longtime friend and music manager—founder  of Silverback Music, Jon Phillips—whose work with Porter Jr., Dumpstaphunk, Slightly Stoopid and a host of other talent through the years—notably the OG incarnation of Sublime—has made him a fixture in the California reggae and New Orleans funk and dub scene.

If there’s anyone who could help provide a behind-the-scenes look at the Festival, it was Jon—and given his pedigree and affinity for cannabis, he’d also be able to provide a window into the local nightlife following the Festival sets—those historic late night performances you hear about fading only when the sun rises.

What follows is a detailed account of our 2023 adventures around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s second weekend, and the unique experience of the Festival as seen through a Silverback lens—an experience providing a recap of this year’s fest and a look at what can be expected in 2024.

Wednesday, May 4th: Crawfish Fest: Technically, the Jazz & Heritage Festival doesn’t pick back up for its second weekend until the next day, but you wouldn’t know it from the summer concert crowd at NOLA Crawfish Festival—an unofficial prelude to Jazz Fest that has all the hallmarks of a mini festival—art, culture, cuisine, cannabis—and of course—music.

2023 NOLA Crawfish Festival artist placard. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

When I meet up with Jon, he’s already vibing to the sounds of Anders Osborne ripping the guitar alongside George Porter Jr. and Ivan Neville on the one stage. It’s as if someone threw a banger in their backyard, bought food and drinks, and allowed their extremely talented friends to populate the lineup.

As we catch up over beers, Jon introduces me to Crawfish Fest’s pioneer, Chris “Shaggy” Davis, who provided insights on this local offshoot event’s origins.

2023 NOLA Crawfish Festival poster and Abita Strawberry Lager. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

“I’ve been boiling crawfish for 25 years, dabbled in the music scene and I’m friends with all of these people,” Davis said. “I started doing this as a backyard-boil kind of thing—having Anders and Ivan play my backyard—and it just grew.”

Besides the handwritten signs with the name of the band onstage that’s swapped out each act (an ode to the Jazz Fest tradition that continues to this day)—and the long table beset with boiled crawfish, corn, and pasta sides—Crawfish Fest could definitely be mistaken for your uncle’s backyard barbeque that happened to include the entire neighborhood. According to Davis, that level of intimacy is kind of the point.

“That’s the whole plan,” Davis said. “You can go to any other gig around this town, but this is the one you’re going to feel like you’re in the backyard. You’re not seeing some bullshit band from out of town—you’re in New Orleans right here.”

Thursday, May 5th: Locals Night: During the first official day of Jazz Fest’s inaugural second week kick-off, we swung by Santana’s set, having just interviewed Carlos Santana for the August 2023 issue of High Times Magazine. Privy to a fantastic backstage viewing of his performance, he and his band rocked hits from decades past to the present in front of a massive crowd.

Santana rocks a packed Main Stage at New Orleans Jazz Fest 2023. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

After taking a puff of Select Cannabis Sativa Lemon Haze vape, we snagged a Jazz Fest culinary staple—The Crawfish Sack, Oyster Patties, and Crawfish Beignet Trio—which, according to locals, is a dish out-of-towners specifically visit the Fest for. It packs a serious flavor profile and is quite rich, so we were satisfied on the food front for the duration of the day.

The classic Crawfish Sack, Oyster Patties, and Crawfish Beignet Trio. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

Later that evening, we caught up with Silverback Music at Toulouse Theater and witnessed the impressive harmonies once again on display by Ivan Neville and his bandmates in Dumpstaphunk, this time playing songs from Ivan’s new ‘Touch My Soul’ album. The intimate crowd loved the energy of the new tracks  and flocked to the band following their set—the scent of weed smoke lingering in the air.

“I did a lot of smoking back in the day—as it was everywhere—and I guess it still is since you can’t help but smell it any given night inside and outside the venues we play,” laughed Ivan Neville. “And most of my band enjoys the benefits of cannabis.”

One member who’s all about the benefits is Ian Neville, Ivan’s cousin and rhythm guitarist.

“For me, the pre-show pow wow smoke hangs bring a kind of cohesive energy to the overall night,” he said. “It just adds another layer of interconnected energy on top of how music already does that—and after all the music is done—edibles to help me sleep like a human.”

Friday, May 6th: Orpheum and The Civic: With the first day of the second weekend officially in the books, we took Friday to explore the sights and sounds of venues beyond the Fair Grounds.

Our first stop was the Orpheum Theater to witness George Porter Jr.—as a guest artist with Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule—drop a trippy vibe of tunes to a packed house. The psychedelic-inclined audience was punctuated by a woman “shimmying” to the beat of Porter Jr.’s basslines and Warren’s phenomenal lead guitar, teleporting her and other members of the crowd to another dimension.

It was a long way for a man who—in the ‘70s while playing bass in The Meters, also worked Jazz Fest as a stage manager before rocking crowds on those same stages.

“When I was first working as a stage manager, I was also working as a full-time musician,” Porter Jr. said. “A lot of times I’d be running from my stage to play bass on another stage because someone was late.”

George Porter Jr. ripping at the Orpheum Theater. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

“I remember one year, Quint Davis said, ‘Whatever stage I go to, Porter is on that stage. Why am I paying him to be at his stage?’”, Porter Jr. said with a laugh.

As Porter Jr.’s music career evolved and blossomed from stage manager and musician to full-time artist, so did his appetite and intrigue for cannabis.

“Cannabis was my drug of choice ‘til I met cocaine in 1975, and I wish I would have stayed smoking pot,” he said. “While today in my 35th year of sobriety, I fully support the legalization of cannabis.”

Porter Jr.’s drummer—Terrence Houston—is much more immersed in the 2023 cannabis scene and enjoys a puff or two before hitting the stage.

“I’m naturally hype so I like strong Indicas to calm down before a show,” Houston said. “I usually smoke about a KD (Kevin Durant) 3.5 of OG Kush in a Natural Camo Wrap to get me in the zone.”

Dumpstaphunk with George Porter Jr. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

We then followed Jon as he packed up Porter Jr. and brought us to The Civic Theatre, where Porter Jr. reunited with Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk to perform “Poppa Funk & The Night Tripper”, a groovy tribute to legendary New Orleans musicians Art Neville and Dr. John, both of whom passed away in 2019. Much to the delight of the tie-dyed crowd, Grammy Award-winning musician Jon Cleary also joined the ensemble to help jam out a mix of Art Neville and Dr. John covers.

“The music scene in New Orleans is on fire, and is somewhat contagious, seeing that all of our musical friends from around the world can’t get enough of New Orleans especially around Jazz Fest time,” said Ivan Neville. “Everyone’s trying to get a taste because there’s nowhere else like it.”

And that’s what makes Jazz Fest such a unique experience—almost everything at the festival is homegrown in New Orleans.

“Mostly everything is New Orleans and Louisiana based,” Quint Davis said. “The food, traditional Jazz, 2nd line marching brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians on parade, Cajun and Zydeco music—all traditions unique to New Orleans and Louisiana, where Jazz was born. But mostly unique is the overall grooving vibe of the gathering.”

Saturday, May 7th: Jazz Fest: Tradition is that at least one day of Jazz Fest will provide rain, and that day was Saturday. The drops came early and often as we followed the Silverback Music crew to shelter backstage and witnessed George Porter Jr. playing to a sea of raincoat-covered fans.

Jon Phillips’ mud-soaked New Orleans Saints Crocs. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

While the rain did not let up, Porter Jr.—as well as following act Anders Osborne—kept the music flowing. Osborne left absolutely nothing in the tank, letting his guitar shred with the same intensity as the monsooning pellets.

The watering continued through the evening but fortunately let up briefly following Osborne’s set and we were able to snag gumbo and a shrimp quesadilla before shuffling beneath a food tent.

It was impossible to move without becoming completely soaked, so we stayed beneath the trent and watched Dead & Company play one of its final shows (ever) to the resilient fans—who despite the rain—still managed to puff deliciously-scented gray clouds into the air.

Day 5: Sunday, May 8th: Jazz Fest: Sunday we were on our own, experiencing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as locals.

We began our journey wandering through the Heritage section, admiring the local craftsmanship of brass instrument light fixtures and wooden guitars.

A man  poses outside Folk Village. / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

Swinging by the refreshment booth, we decided to invite some adult beverages into our adventure in the form of white wine.

Our refreshing whites led us to the main stage, where Mumford and Son was wrapping its set. As we made our way through the crowd, the band brought out Jon Batiste and Trombone Shorty, both of whom accompanied the UK band on a closing cover of “House Of The Rising Sun.” You could feel the goosebumps throughout the crowd as they yelled “Down in New Orleans.”

We then made our way to Tom Jones, who rocked some new music in addition to his innuendo-laden classics.

After Tom, we made a quick stop at the Blues Tent to witness Melissa Etheridge earning the crowd with a riveting performance of “Come To My Window,” and then swung by the sounds of Herbie Hancock in the Jazz Tent—the only “seats” available being the standing room several yards outside.

Closing out the festival, the pride of New Orleans was on full display, with Trombone Shorty rocking the Main Stage and bringing out Batiste for a vocal and instrumental duet as the closing number. As the sun began to lower, the weed smoke began to rise and the crowd was in full appreciation of the local icons giving back to their city.

John Hale Art Lamps – Renegade Art / Courtesy of Stephen Laddin

2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Postmortem

Ultimately, the 2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was both a local and commercial success, one which proved that New Orleans natives care more about local artists than anything else. It’s why Dumpstaphunk is such a New Orleans establishment and why guys like Ivan Neville and George Porter Jr.—OGs of the New Orleans music scene—play deep into the night and have an air of accessibility to them: Because they care about the fan experience.

“New Orleans music is a cultural family,” Quint Davis said. “We celebrate our founders, such as Irma Thomas, Deacon John, and Cyril Neville, and keep the new generations coming—one connected to the other. Jazz Fest is a meeting ground for the entire New Orleans music community—traditional and modern Jazz, Gospel, Zydeco, Blues, R&B, Latin, Brass Bands, Cajun, Mardi Gras Indians—each celebrating their cultures and their family ties.”

In terms of celebrating the fans, the team behind the Jazz & Heritage Festival itself also does a fantastic job of making the environment immersive, engaging, and fun. There’s something for everyone. Whether you come for the music, the art, the pulled-pork po’ boys or the frozen daiquiris, experiencing all that Jazz Fest has to offer is to treat all of your senses. Add a little weed to the mix and you’re suddenly witnessing life in 4D: A tantalizing mixture of sounds, tastes, and smells that will leave you coming back for more year after year—with May 2024 now on the horizon.

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