French Quarter Festival 2017
New Orleans, Louisiana
April 6-9, 2017
Photographer/Writer: Bob Adamek
The 34th annual French Quarter Fest (FQF) made a magnificent mark last weekend in New Orleans. This is an incredible festival for anyone with an open musical mind. The festival nestles 23 stages throughout the French Quarter including several stages right along the Mississippi River. The music encompasses a wide variety of genres from classical, Mardi Gras Indian music, every shade of jazz in the spectrum and a lot of what you would expect from New Orleans, a large helping of funk, R&B, zydeco, Cajun music and rock and roll.
As the stages are spread out and fit into unique settings, each stage has its own vibe. Backgrounds can be some of the centuries old French Quarter buildings, with their gorgeous curved iron railings, balconies and hanging potted plants, or the Mississippi River itself, with giant tankers, cargo ships and cruise ships passing by.
This is really a New Orleans centric festival, featuring the immense talent of the musicians that call the city home. You won’t find the big name acts like you would at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) or Voodoo Fest. But what savvy music fans from all over the country already know is, you might travel to Jazz Fest on the promise of the big name acts, but the festival’s center is the local music, and that’s where so many music fans spend their time.
Some of the musical highlights of this year’s FQF included an overflow crowd for Saturday night’s set by Tank and The Bangas. Fresh off their contest victory and show at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, Tank delivered a high energy set that mashed up poetry and performance with Hip Hop in a very fresh take. Tank has a highly stylized way of singing for most of the set, but occasionally unleashes a more customary voice so soulful it will raise your eyebrows.
Honey Island Swamp Band (HISB) brought another fantastic set, with the very powerful horn section of Brad Walker, Scott Frock and Jon Ramm, who ordinarily find themselves out on tour as the horn section for Sturgil Simpson. Then to up the ante Christopher Spies, son of HISB keyboardist Chris Spies joined in on sax for several songs. Walker’s skill at arranging on the fly gave an energetic backdrop to the great songs and playing of HISB.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation brings a high-energy rock and roll/funk show wherever they go, but closing out the GE Digital Big River Stage on Friday also brought a special treat for long time fans. Drummer Milk Williams spent 7 years manning the drummer’s seat for the Funky Nation until a family emergency forced him to leave the band. They invited him to sit in for the hometown gig and the love everyone has for him, on the stage and off, was clear.
Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers crushed their set on Sunday afternoon. The Dangers blend punk rock, theater, super smart writing and great playing to consummate a can’t miss experience. The stage was set near the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas which became the theme for the set, as Rory Danger (Aurora Nealand) wore a lab coat and horn rimmed glasses while reading off scientific findings from a clip board. The packed crowd marveled at the band’s offerings as some of the city’s best musicians put on a clinic on how to have fun.
Billy Iuso played an 11:00am set on Sunday morning that sounded much more like an 11:00pm set at Tipitina’s on a Saturday night. The band was super tight and hard grooving, showing off more of New Orleans’ seemingly endless supply of talent.
Funk Monkey was another band that pulled from a deep pool of funk players, lead by Bonerama band mates Greg Hicks and Bert Cotton. This band turned in the funk set of the festival, playing grooves so deep it was impossible to stand still.
Part time Sousaphone player David Silverman spent time playing with two bands, Debbie Davis and the Mesmerizers and Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show. Both sets were stunning displays of well crafted songs, playing and singing. You might know Silverman from his other job of lead animator, director and producer of The Simpson’s television show.
Other stellar sets were turned in by the Tin Men, Alex McMurray, Little Freddie King, Shamarr Allen, Brint Anderson, Kermit Ruffins, John Boutte, the powerful New Orleans Suspects, Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns and Walter Wolfman Washington.
Another treat kept almost exclusively in New Orleans are the Mardi Gras Indian bands, two of which had really great sets. First was Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles on Friday, then Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias on Saturday. The culture that these bands live in is so deeply rich in beauty, once seen in person, they leave a mark that you will never forget. Music fans that have seen it before flock to these sets, dance and sing and walk away with much more of a connection than just going to see a more usual show.
French Quarter Fest also does a great job at keeping the fans fed in style. Several vendors surround many of the stages providing much much more than standard festival fare. Most dishes cost between $6 and $10, in which you can walk away with Baked Alaska with Chocolate Sauce, Crab Cake Slider with Pinapple Slaw, Crawfish and Goat Cheese Crepes, Marinated Crab Claw Remoulade or any of a staggering variety of Po-Boys.
Adding to all this, the festival is free! This frees up some money to buy food and drinks and investigate the 100’s of art galleries and shops that typify the Quarter.