When the 2016 New Orleans Jazz Fest throws open its gates at the Fair Grounds on Friday, early arriving veterans will instantly recognize where they are. The consistency of Jazz Fest is one of its primary attractions, from the handwriting on the stage signs to the location of the Crawfish Monica booths.
But change comes when necessary.
This year, new rules and new infrastructure have been added to the 47th edition of what is now formally the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. In an effort to alleviate congestion, huge green bleachers, open to all on a first-come, first-served basis, have sprung up alongside the Acura Stage and Congo Square Stage fields.
Blankets and chairs are no longer permitted anywhere on the dirt track that it is supposed to serve as the festival’s circular pedestrian freeway.
And the standing room-only areas in front of the three largest stages have been expanded.
Otherwise, Jazz Fest should pretty much feel like Jazz Fest, at least in its latter-day, post-Hurricane Katrina incarnation, ever since AEG Live teamed with Quint Davis’ Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans to coproduce the festival.
Big stars from the constellation of popular music — Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Maxwell, Janelle Monae, Beck, Snoop Dogg, Nick Jonas, Flo Rida, J. Cole — now dominate the big stages on the weekends. Indigenous Louisiana acts fill in the majority of the undercard, as well as the top slots on the secondary stages.
For any festival well into its fifth decade, attrition is unavoidable. Seemingly every year, significant artists who have died in the past 12 months receive tributes at the Fair Grounds. This year’s honorees include drummer Smokey Johnson; pianist, producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint; and blues great B.B. King.
Even as it mourns the passing of elders, the New Orleans music community continues to groom fresh talent. Jazz Fest’s opening weekend includes Flow Tribe, the Deslondes, Cha Wa, Darcy Malone & the Tangle, Nigel Hall and Royal Teeth — all of whom have come of age in the past decade.
New traditions take root at the festival, such as Frankie Beverly & Maze’s annual warm embrace of the Congo Square Stage or the homegrown Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue’s final-day throwdown on the Acura Stage.
And you can still tour the history of American roots music by visiting the festival’s blues, gospel and jazz tents. Or dance to only-in-New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands at the Jazz and Heritage Stage. Or witness the splendor of a social aid and pleasure club as it parades around the infield.
The festival is owned by the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, which uses a portion of proceeds from Jazz Fest to stage smaller, free festivals. A successful Jazz Fest pays dividends throughout the year.
Neither Pearl Jam, who debuted at Jazz Fest in 2010 and returns to cap off the first Saturday, nor second Saturday closer Stevie Wonder, back for the first time since 2008, are likely to trigger the sort of mass gridlock that Elton John did in 2015.
But if the weather — the ultimate determinant of crowd size — cooperates, expect those new bleachers to be full.
Single-day tickets at the gate are $75 for adults. Not cheap, but considering the amount of music at the Fair Grounds, a relative bargain compared with the price of a ticket to most arena concerts.
The 10-day Jazz Fest season, bookended by the two long weekends at the Fair Grounds, is about more than the individual stage rosters.
It is about the variety of regional delicacies cooked and served on-site, just about all of them proven festival favorites.
It is about the abundant forms of vibrant creativity, in many different mediums and price ranges, on sale at the festival’s craft fair.
It is about impromptu communities and friendships that spring up across the grounds. It is the bustling street scene outside the gates. It is about the embarrassment of nighttime musical riches in the clubs and an ever-increasing array of reborn theaters across the city.
But the reason for the season is the music inside the Fair Grounds. And that hasn’t changed.