Workers at the Fair Grounds said they had anticipated the huge crowds that packed Jazz Fest on Saturday, partly because of the weather and partly because of the billing, which included three widely divergent acts closing out the festival’s big stages: singer Elton John on the Acura Stage, rapper T.I. on the Congo Square Stage and British singer Ed Sheeran on the Gentilly Stage.
On Friday, Jannie Coleman, who oversees Jazz Fest’s bike corral on Sauvage Street, told her regulars to be prepared. “I already knew it was going to be a beautiful day in New Orleans, and I knew that the Fest had both Sir Elton and Big Freedia in the afternoon, with T.I. for the young people. So I told folks, ‘Come early,’ ” she said.
By noon on Saturday, Coleman’s bike racks were overrun, prompting her to put yellow caution tape across the gate with a sign that said, “Full.”
During the four years that she’s run the bike corral, she’s rarely seen it fill up so quickly, she said.
As sisters Gerri Clifton, 56, and Cynthia Bernard, 65, stood in a long line for iced tea, they debated whether it was time for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell to start limiting the number of tickets sold. “You stand in line for food, for drinks, even to get in,” said Clifton, a native New Orleanian who is visiting from St. Louis for the festival.
“And tomorrow is supposed to be even worse,” she said.
It was the mantra for the day, repeated by festivalgoers and workers alike: Saturday’s crowd may look like nothing in comparison to that on Sunday — the closing day of the 2015 festival.
On the plus side Saturday, there was none of the muddy misery of last weekend. People left rubber boots and rain ponchos at home and were able to walk across even low-lying spots, where the last few patches of horse-manure-laced mud had been topped with wood chips.
People carrying folding chairs and blankets were everywhere, crowding paths, jamming tents and stage areas and standing in long lines for bathrooms, food and drink.
The paths by the larger stages were so crowded that they were nearly impassable. “I am not going over there anymore,” one man said, rolling his eyes and pointing toward the crowded track that runs to the Acura and Gentilly stages.
Some festival fans shrugged their shoulders at the crowds and lines. “It’s just part of Jazz Fest,” Kit Melcher said as she stood in a bathroom line.
Melcher, a Kenner resident who attends one day of Jazz Fest each year, spent Saturday, her 64th birthday, negotiating crowds so she could see the Dixie Cups, Astral Project, Marcia Ball, Elton John and a special Fats Domino tribute by singer-keyboardist Davell Crawford.
Longtime festivalgoers Jackie and Rob Chauvin, both 48, drove in from Belle Chasse, just as they did last weekend when the grounds were what Jackie Chauvin called “the swamp.”
Crowds like Saturday’s require different coping skills. When some lines get too long, the Chauvins base their food and even music choices on shorter lines, they said.
Over the years, they have come to rely upon those unplanned moments because they can lead to new discoveries. On Friday, for instance, they headed away from the throngs and ended up seeing a tremendous set by Rosie Ledet at the Fais Do-Do Stage, they said.
In past years, on trips to smaller stages, they discovered now-favorite artists like Ingrid Lucia and Jeremy Davenport.
“So if we need a break, we just get off the path,” Jackie Chauvin said.