He and She Said:
Welcome to the 2012 French Quarter Fest.
Remember that story about the ant and the grasshopper? The one where the ant busted his ass on trips to Home Depot and Wal-Mart while the grasshopper partied at every festival in town, trusting that things would just work out? Winter came, the liberal arts degreed grasshopper shivered, froze and starved, and the organized, plan-centric ant did just fine, letting the grasshopper know that starvation was the predictable result of his frivolous ways.
As we approach the Fest the lesson for us in that story is obvious, isn’t it?
Ants are a-holes. Avoid them at all costs. I mean, what kind of smug, self-righteous weenie crowns himself king of the I-told-you-so parade and lets a guy who committed the unforgivable sin of attending one too many Wednesday’s at the Square freaking starve to death just to prove a point? Feel free to mercilessly crush any anthills you encounter at the Fest, because you can feel confident those guys aren’t listening to the music.
But we can learn, even from our enemies, can’t we? In that spirit, here for your reading pleasure is our marginally popular, nearly critically acclaimed guide to the logistics of the French Quarter Fest, revised and updated for 2012 with new maps, tips, flotsam and jetsam . A sundry farrago of navigational curiosities designed to make your festing journey more rewarding. We’ll help you steal a bit of the ant’s planning expertise and incorporate it into your glorious grasshopper routine.
Let’s dive right in:
Why to go: Are you kidding me? You do know your pockets are about to get vacuumed by two weekends of Jazzfest, right? Quint Davis could give Walt Disney tips on how to turn people upside-down and shake until their pockets turn inside-out. If you don’t have the spare change to mingle with the tie-dye gentry at the Fairgrounds this is the place for you. A weekend packed with more music than you can imagine, and every bit of it free. You’ve read our primer on this year’s best bets, right? And by the way, every bit of it’s local. No chance here of standing elbow to elbow with 100,000 people listening to someone who hasn’t been relevant since 1974. By the time Sunday night comes, you’ll feel like someone’s poured a barrelful of WWOZ over your naked body. And then there’s the food, a NOLA cornucopia of everything imaginable. And yes, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you on that topic as well, putting ourselves at caloric hazard to provide a Mardi Gras Indian themed guide to the can’t miss selections.
And then there’s the Quarter itself, at its marvelous best this time of year. A spring morning or afternoon on Governor Nichols, Royal, Barracks, Burgundy, and many other streets is a real treat. If all you ever see of the Quarter is Bourbon you’ve really sold yourself short. Despite our occasional snarky comments, we do love Jazzfest, but the Fairgrounds cannot match the living scenery of the French Quarter.
What to Bring: FQF is not Jazzfest. The geography is much larger, and you really need to take that into account. As with Jazzfest, be sure you have a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, a camera, and comfortable shoes. Cash is king at the festival booths, but the mighty plastic is enthusiastically accepted at most fine FQ establishments. Many bars have ATMs with the typically usurious withdrawal fees and there is an actual, like, real Regions bank at the corner of Toulouse and Chartres as well.
Travel light. As light as you can. The set up your camp at the Acura stage and wander to return later deal doesn’t really work here. So unless you plan to hang at one stage all day (a practice we strongly discourage) pack as little gear as you can. Consider leaving the festival chairs at home and opt for a blanket instead. We cannot stress enough that exploring FQF the way you should will involve much more walking than at Jazzfest, so plan accordingly. But, the other side of this coin is that shade is readily available all day (check out our new map for the 411 on shady music below), in stark contrast to the blast-furnace conditions that can sometime prevail at Jazzfest. And if it rains, no big deal either. Just a hunch, but we think you’ll not have trouble finding a cozy dry watering hole happy to have your custom. That’s a far better thing than standing miserably in a Fairgrounds deluge watching hippies mud-surf as animals walk by two-by-two on their way to the ark. (Anyone out there remember Billy Joel?)
Parking: So, you show up at 1:00pm and can’t believe there’s no place to park. Seriously? FQF is really not an in-and-out event. Our advice: Get there early and make a day of it. The lots on South Peter and Decatur (and pretty much everywhere else) fill up early, and you have to negotiate fifty thousand pedestrians playing alcohol-fueled Frogger to get to them. Believe it or not, we’ve actually parked legally on the street in the backside of the Quarter once or twice, but that was probably before 9am. If you must drive, consider the Marigny or even the CBD.
Your best stress free option is a cab or public transportation. If you drop a few bucks on a cab, so what? After all, it didn’t cost you $50 just to walk into the Quarter. But why not consider a bus or a streetcar? Our very smart friends over at Just Off the Red Streetcar Line have done a terrific job of cataloging the various ways to get your ass to the Fest, and you can help yourself to the fruits of their labor right here. Just remember, there are many better options than leaving your Escalade across some Quarter resident’s driveway. There’s one number to call to have the offending carbon-footprint towed, and everyone who lives in the Quarter has it on speed-dial. Trust us on this.
Surviving the Woldenberg Stages: Virtually everyone at the Fest makes their way to the Riverfront sooner or later. Sadly, the Woldenberg stages represent the entirety of FQF for some. First piece of advice: Get around to the other stages. We’ve got details on the ins and outs of each below. But, you’re going to get to Woldenberg sometime, and this is where the complaints about overcrowding really escalate. A big part of that is poor planning. So check out right here our illustrated for surviving the Riverfront, including how NOT to get there, how to manage the most challenging stage at FQF, how to best manage the Abita Stage, and our guide to the Secret Stage:
First things first: Note the location of the Woldenberg stages on the map above. More importantly, note the streets, Saint Peter, Toulouse, and Saint Louis, that the vast majority of festival attendees use to access these stages. Let’s take a look at what happens after that:
In essence, the entire traffic flow for three of the largest stages at the Fest is compressed into a single walkway about 25 feet wide. This is usually where people start to complain about it being too crowded. Tip number one: Don’t use St, Peter, Toulouse, or St Louis to access the Riverfront. Which leads us to our next tip:
The most challenging stage at FQF, and how to navigate it:
Take a look at this view of the lovely Harrah’s ‘Louis Louis’ Pavillion:
One glance should tell you enough. This is a major stage with some very good acts, but it’s tucked away in a corner with limited green space, and almost everyone accessing the big Abita Stage passes right through the same area. As if that weren’t enough, Harrah’s is surrounded on two-sides by the dreaded food booth gauntlet. Think hard about this Stage. It will always be crowded, and if you want to see one of the late acts it might be best to just camp out there. Tip number two: As the arrow indicates, if you’re going to do this stage, access it via Conti Street, loop through the field behind the food booth gauntlet and come in from the opposite side of the running of the humans. And now on to our next topic:
Beyond the Point of No Return: The Abita Stage
This is the biggest stage, and chances are you’re gonna want to get there sometime during the fest. But, this is also the home of what we call the dreaded point of no return, the place where some throw in the towel and declare French Quarter Fest too crowded for their tastes. After you force your way through the running of the humans and pass the giant bottleneck created by the confluence of the Harrah’s Stage and the Food Booth Gauntlet you’re confronted by another even narrower walkway lined with more food booths before emerging into a meadow with what looks like a tent city occupying every square inch of grass. It’s at this point that some folks give up. But, there is a secret here. Check out this map:
The bottleneck at the front of the meadow approaching the point of no return is so intense that most fest-goers don’t realize that the Abita Stage is actually less crowded near the front than it is near the back, because people get frustrated and give up, assuming it must be utter madness further forward. Tip number three: Access the Abita Stage from Bienville Street, avoiding the bottleneck completely, and snuggle in closer to the front of the stage. Which brings us to our final segment:
The Secret Stage: The Best Stage at Woldenberg
The Riverside Legacy Stage, or as we will always call it, The Brass Band Stage, is tucked between the Abita Stage and the Children’s area in front of the Aquarium. It goes without saying that you need more brass bands in your life. If you just finished a twelve-hour Hot 8 marathon, you still need more brass band in your life, if you take our meaning. Even better than that is the impact the bottlenecks at the other stages have on this one. Tip number four: Take Bienville Street, avoid the crowds, and hang a right turn directly into the small field alongside the Aquarium and in front of the Brass Band Stage.
Spread a blanket and do what you wanna in the absolute best crowd to music ratio at the entire fest.
There you have it: Four essential tips for navigating the Woldenberg stages. Follow this advice and we promise you’ll improve your FQF experience.
The other stages
And finally, a few notes on the other stages at the fest:
The Mint: Several interesting secrets here: First, the backside stage along Esplanade gets afternoon shade, so this is a terrific place to spread a blanket. Also, inside the Mint are actual real bathrooms. Enter from either side and go up the stairs. For winos, the absolute most underrated wine list in New Orleans is just across Barracks at Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, of all places. And a few doors down from there is our favorite sangria in town (along with great margaritas) at El Gato Negro. For the visually oriented, check out this illustration of the joys of the Mint:
The French Market Stage: Steps away from El Gato Negro is also the French Market Stage. Another good spot to catch the swing dancers with plenty of room to take a shot at it yourself if you’re brave enough.
Royal Street: These are among our faves and often overlooked. Nice places to set up early and catch a set or two of gypsy jazz. In case you didn’t know, NOLA is a swing-dance hotbed, and this is a great chance to see National Championship caliber dancers grooving to the music.
BMI Singer-Songwriter Stage: This is a find: a cool respite from the heat and crowds and another good bathroom location. As the name suggests, this stage features intimate 30 minute solo sets emphasizing the songwriter’s craft. Get here at least once.
Jackson Square: A good place to get to early in the day to stake out some grassy space. Tip: Have you ever noticed the alternate Roman numeral 4 on the Cathedral clock? Check it out and you’ll see what we mean.
Dutch Alley: Secluded and shady; a perfect stop when you want to turn down the volume a bit.
Made in the shade: It can be hot and steamy out there, and you’ll want to take a break from the sunshine every now and again. As we mentioned above, there are like 1000 bars happy to help you out with that. But if you can’t bear to miss the music, check out this new for 2012 map noting all the shady spots and indoor stages, very important items to add to your strategic plan. As noted previously, the back side of the Mint at Esplanade and Dutch Alley are both terrific shaded outdoor venues. And the BMI Stage in the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal is a shady courtyard that feels like a secret hideout for grownups. We wouldn’t necessarily use the adjective ‘cool’ to describe Preservation Hall, but it is indoors and thus meets the shade criterion. For the trifecta of music, shade, and A/C, consider both Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse on Bourbon in the Royal Sonesta and the new for this year stage at the newly renovated and always legendary Carousel Bar in the Monteleone Hotel on upper Royal. Here are all the locations:
So that’s it: Our guide to the logistics of our favorite festival. Let us know if these tips help, and let us know if you have any questions we didn’t address. And, here are our comprehensive guides to the food and the music to complete your planning!