It was a sign of things to come: Dancers twirling to vintage-sounding, swinging jazz on a French Quarter street.
On Wednesday morning at Royal and St. Louis streets, organizers of the 2016 French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron announced details of the 33rd edition of the free festival, which kicks off April 7. The fact that opening day is three short weeks away was not lost on executive director Marci Schramm.
“This makes it real,” Schramm said of Wednesday’s event. “The festival is happening.”
Planning for the 2016 festival is complete, Schramm said. But one crucial variable — the weather — is beyond organizers’ control. The 2015 French Quarter Festival was beset by three days of rain, including severe thunderstorms. The rain diminished attendance significantly.
No rain fell on Wednesday’s outdoor press conference. On a small stage erected on Royal Street outside the Omni Royal Orleans hotel, the Bad Penny Pleasure Makers swung out on a short set of acoustic jazz before and after a succession of speakers.
The festival’s new line of merchandise, ranging from bamboo-fabric T-shirts to a limited edition three-quarter-length-sleeve T-shirt bearing a new Vic and Nat’ly cartoon by Bunny Matthews, was revealed.
Reggie Toussaint and Alison Toussaint LeBeaux spoke briefly to express their gratitude that the French Quarter Festival booked their father, Allen Toussaint, in 2015 after a 20-year absence, and is honoring his memory this year. On Friday, April 8, the House of Blues will host an official French Quarter Festival after-party as a tribute to Toussaint. The event benefits a charity he cofounded, New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness.
The late local legend is also the subject of one of the festival’s “Let Them Talk” interview sessions inside the Old U.S. Mint, on April 10 at 2:30 p.m.
Schramm touted the French Quarter Festival’s advantages, from the barricade-free intimacy of its smaller stages to the business it generates for hotels, restaurants and shops in the area. The general manager of the Omni Royal Orleans said his hotel will likely be 100 percent full during the festival.
The big news was the release of the “cubes,” the schedule grids that reveal the stages and times for the hundreds of performers.
The festival opens with a second-line parade departing from the 100 block of Bourbon Street at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 7, bound for Jackson Square. That day’s soft opening, with music on only five stages, includes the French Quarter Festival debuts of long-running New Orleans rock band Cowboy Mouth and southwest Louisiana slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth.
Cowboy Mouth will close the festival’s largest stage, the Abita Beer Stage at Woldenberg Park, starting at 5:20 p.m. Landreth hits the Tropical Isle Hand Grenade Stage along the Mississippi riverfront at 3:50 p.m.
Other noteworthy acts on the festival’s opening day include jazz piano patriarch Ellis Marsalis, his son Delfeayo Marsalis & the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, legendary local entertainer Deacon John — performing uncharacteristically early, at 11 a.m. – keyboardist John “Papa” Gros and popular cover band Bag of Donuts.
That evening, the festival hosts its opening night gala at Antoine’s Restaurant. Gov. John Bel Edwards, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu are among the guests scheduled to attend.
The festival map expands to 12 stages on Friday, April 8. Texas-born guitarist Mason Ruffner, who enjoyed a long run on Bourbon Street before scoring a national hit with “Gypsy Blood,” will perform at the French Quarter Festival for the first time on April 8 at 5:45 p.m. on the Hand Grenade Stage.
Other April 8 performers include Irma Thomas, Susan Cowsill, Davell Crawford, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Walter “Wolfman” Washington & the Roadmasters, Sweet Crude, Monk Boudreaux & the Golden Eagles, and the Dukes of Dixieland.
The festival opens up to its full complement of 23 stages on Saturday and Sunday, April 9-10.
Highlights of Saturday’s schedule, which is heavy on the traditional jazz that was once the French Quarter Festival’s primary focus, include trumpeter Wendell Brunious, Orange Kellin’s New Orleans Deluxe Orchestra, Bonerama, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Little Freddie King, Flow Tribe and Tank & the Bangas.
On the festival’s closing day, April 10, attendees can catch Paul Sanchez, Jeremy Davenport, the Honey Island Swamp Band, Astral Project, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Glen David Andrews Gospel Tribute, and dozens more.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.