New Orleans is one of the top destinations in the United States for many reasons. Fabulous food, lots of libations and a myriad of music options makes for a great visit anytime of the year. In the springtime, the festival season cranks up and lasts the entire year, celebrating everything from jazz to oysters. With more than 100 festivals staged here annually, NOLA is truly the Festival Capital of the World, drawing visitors from around the globe. For the locals, the absolute favorite is the French Quarter Festival, which takes place each spring from Thursday through Sunday of the first full weekend in April. Several friends who are New Orleans natives have urged us to check out the “best of the fests,” so this year we did just that with a visit to the 2016 French Quarter Festival.
The festival is billed as the largest showcase of Louisiana music in the world, and that — and the fact that it is free — differentiates it from all of the other festivals that take place in this music-lovers town. Over the course of the four-day event, more than 1,700 musicians, all from Louisiana, appeared on 23 stages scattered throughout the French Quarter, with primary stages in the waterfront park along the Mississippi River and in Jackson Square. Did I mention this was free? And unlike some of the more crowded music festivals that are confined within a smaller space, you can actually get close enough to the stages to see the musicians, dance along if you want, or just take in the tunes. The whole fest had a relaxed laid back vibe, which belies the attendance record broken this year. Festival organizers report that more than 760,000 people enjoyed the 2016 French Quarter Festival. There’s something for every musical taste, from traditional New Orleans jazz, to zydeco, rock, funk and everything in between.
It was amazing to hear new young teen-age talent like the Babineaux Sisters, putting their own twist on Cajun music, to a legend like Irma Thomas, the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” who has been singing her heart out since her first record was released in 1960. Many famous musical names were scattered throughout the program, performers who have been delighting audiences for many years. One of the cool things available for fest-goers was a free app that offered a schedule of performances as well as brief bios of the performers and the bands.
As you might expect at a New Orleans festival, the food options were plentifully delicious. More than 60 restaurants had food booths scattered throughout the fest grounds. It was difficult to pace ourselves, but we managed to nibble our way through turtle soup, crawfish pie, a po-boy (or two!) and char-broiled oysters. In one afternoon! The volume of food and drink necessary to sate the appetites of this fun-loving crowd boggles the mind. As we strolled along the waterfront between stages, we spotted an Abita beer guy heading to a nearby booth to reload the coolers. “Thirsty crowd,” he laughed. “We sold five 18-wheelers full of beer on the first day!”
At the Royal House food booth, Chef/Manager Steven Young was working up a sweat dishing up the restaurant’s signature dish of char-grilled oysters just as fast as people could order them. “We ordered 200 cases of oysters this year,” said Young. “That’s 144 oysters per case, and we expect we’ll go through all 28,800 of them before the weekend is up.”
The people-watching and visiting were just as enjoyable as the music and food. Everyone we stopped and talked to had a story to share. Bernard Walsh has been coming to the festival since it started back in 1984. He doesn’t get around as good as he used to, so he’s created an umbrella-covered scooter contraption to get him from stage to stage. Ryan and Allison Rodriguez have been bringing their little girl to the festival since she was a baby. “We love festivals and it is part of our culture,” said Allison. “This time of year is really special, and we want out daughter to grow up appreciating music as much as we do.”
Near the stage in Jackson Square, I couldn’t help but notice a charming woman literally dancing in her chair. “I love living in New Orleans and music festivals are just one of the reasons,” said 87-year-old Dottie Liberto, who was there with her family enjoying the music.
It’s easy to understand why this festival is the local favorite. On Sunday morning, we stopped back in at Jackson Square to check out “the world’s largest jazz brunch,” which lived up to its billing with special offerings from New Orleans’ favorite restaurants. As we made our way back up Royal Street, we passed balconies, bars and yet more music-filled stages surrounded by appreciative crowds soaking in all that the French Quarter Festival has to offer. We’ve already made plans to return next year!