Producers of the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival have altered its footprint and regulations in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year’s Elton John-induced gridlock at the Acura Stage.
In 2016, no chairs, blankets or tarps will be permitted anywhere on the dirt track that encircles the Fair Grounds infield.
Additionally, the “standing room only” areas in front of the three main stages — Acura, Congo Square and Gentilly — have been expanded.
And perhaps, most noticeably, large bleachers have been added to the back of the Acura Stage field and the side of the Congo Square field. Unlike other elevated seating areas closer to the stages that are accessible only to purchasers of premium ticket packages, these new bleachers will be open to all Jazz Fest attendees on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The bleachers will extend from the grassy infield, over the drainage ditch that borders the field, to about halfway across the dirt track. The outer section of the dirt track will remain open for pedestrian traffic.
Because the stages won’t be visible from behind the bleachers, in theory there will be little incentive for people to hang out behind them and block traffic on the track.
The dirt track has traditionally functioned as the festival’s “expressway,” producer/director Quint Davis said during a Tuesday news conference at the Fair Grounds. The new measures are designed to “make sure that we leave the highway open and everybody can get to every stage at any time.”
Being able to “flow” from one stage to another, sampling multiple acts that are performing simultaneously, is essential to the Jazz Fest experience, Davis said. The new bleachers and the ban on tarps, chairs and blankets on the track “will help maintain our flow.”
Tens of thousands of people crammed the Acura Stage field during the second Saturday of the 2015 festival to hear Elton John, one of the most popular artists Jazz Fest has booked. With the infield packed, fans set up camp on the dirt track. Well before John arrived onstage, the track was impassable.
Overflow crowds at the Congo Square Stage also have spilled onto the dirt track, making for a difficult passage there as well.
Davis had said after the 2015 festival that he and his team at Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans would consider ways to alleviate gridlock going forward. He said the Fair Grounds site should be able to comfortably accommodate as many attendees as showed up for Elton John, but only if adjustments were made.
The new rules seem to strike a balance between attendees who like to claim a piece of ground and those who would prefer a prohibition on reserving chunks of real estate anywhere at the festival. The new rules significantly reduce the space available for chairs, blankets and tarps, but they stop short of a total ban.
Jazz Fest, presented by Shell gets underway on April 22 and ends May 1. At Tuesday’s news conference, the festival also unveiled the “cubes” with the full schedule of daily performance times and stage assignments.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.