Dancing in the Street
Louisiana's Music Festivals
by Jeff Hoyt
Hitting a few music spots in L.A. could mean driving up Sunset Boulevard to catch acts at a few clubs. But hitting a few music spots in La. means driving across the great state of Louisiana to take in a few top music festivals. We were lucky enough to “laissez les bon temps roulez,” spending four nights at three festivals in three cities in the Sportsman’s Paradise.
Much of the world enjoys Christmas and goes back to work after New Years Day. But from January 6, when Christians celebrate the Epiphany, until the hot, humid summer hits, Louisiana is chock-a-block with festivals that are so much fun and so widely attended that it is extremely difficult to figure out how anyone gets any work done in the state for half the year. Although they don’t all celebrate music, it would be difficult to find one that doesn’t incorporate this art form. Even though Louisiana prides itself on being where Cajun, Creole, swamp boogie, swamp blues, swamp pop, and even rock and roll music was born and fostered, their music festivals are not parochial, but rather worldly.
Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country in southern Louisiana, is the home of the Festival International de Louisiane, which celebrates its 25th year in 2011. Despite showcasing 500 artists from fifteen countries on half a dozen stages spread throughout downtown, the crowd-pleasing five-day event is entirely free of charge. Except for the first two nights, the music starts early, and lasts until about 10:30 p.m., so children can enjoy the festivities. When the stages go dark, the downtown bars and restaurants in the fourth largest city in Louisiana are happy to keep visitors entertained with more music and merriment of their own. (Don’t miss the sweet potato pancakes with real cane syrup at Dwyer’s for breakfast!)
The festival celebrates the French cultural heritage of southern Louisiana, but that also includes African, Caribbean and Hispanic influences. We saw South Africa’s Ladysmith Red Lions make their American debut with their captivating a capella call and response, as the sun set. Columbian lead singer Itagui from Locos por Juana, who rocked the house with a funky Latin reggae beat, proclaimed, "We are official communicators of life, and we want to communicate life to you through music." That they did, along with other artists playing traditional folk, psychedelic rock, honky-tonk and world electronica. There’s something for everyone, and if you don’t like what’s playing in front of you, a short walk to a neighboring stage will offer you more to choose from, with plenty of people-watching along the way. It was electrifying to hear Corey Ledet and his Zydeco band playing “Dancing in the Street” surrounded by throngs of people doing just that.
Most of the attendees are local, but pity the poor people of the suburb Arnaudville, who were hosting an etouffeé festival with plenty of live music the very same weekend. That small burg is interesting to explore due to its location on the Bayou Teche (a 125-mile long waterway once the primary means of transportation) and its burgeoning arts scene. As far as its bed and breakfast that used to be the town jail: it’s a nice place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to stay there!
During the Spanish domination of Baton Rouge, Repentance Street got its name as convicted criminals walked along it on their way to receive sentencing. Those jailbirds certainly sang the blues, which made neighboring Repentance Park a fitting location for the one-day Baton Rouge Blues Festival. Along with numerous families attending free of charge, we grooved on blues harp by Charlie Musselwhite and legendary local Percy Sledge emoting on both his songs ("When A Man Loves A Woman") and the hits of his contemporaries ("Sitting On the Dock of the Bay," "My Girl") dressed in an electric blue double-breasted suit complete with pocket square despite the 90-degree heat.