AP/Wide WorldIT IS NOT CLEAR TO ME, EVEN NOW, how I came to be imprisoned in the Hootie and the Blowfish crowd. For sentimental reasons none of my traveling companions could fully appreciate, I had ventured out alone to hear the Isley Brothers, fully intending to give Hootie a wide, wide berth. As I'd spent this day, the last of the 30th Annual New Orleans Jazz Fest, much like the two before it, eating vodka-marinated green beans out of everyone else's bloody marys and smoking whatever happened to pass through the crowd, it was perhaps not surprising that I got lost somewhere between the Fais Do Do and Ray-Ban venues and followed, like a sailor after a siren, the faint hum of competent guitar playing to the Fox 8/Sprint PCS stage. But by the time I recognized the voice crooning “Let Her Cry,” it was too late. I turned around to find myself engulfed in the sea of bodies straining to watch Darius Rucker's mouth move while his uninspired South Carolina bar band droned along behind.
I panicked. I headed toward what I took to be open space, only to find the mob packed solidly against a fence. I wove my way across the addled masses, scanning for an opening. Finally, I saw a glimpse of parking lot and applied my elbows to the task of clearing a route. “Claustrophobia claims another one!” one male Blowfish aficionado heckled as I pushed him aside — his point being, I suppose, that only the hearty can hang in for Hootie. “Do you even know how square you are?” I snapped back. He clearly didn't.
Before I escaped, the band's next selection, “Only Wanna Be With You,” had already lodged itself firmly in the part of my brain that stores tortuously repetitive tunes. Worse, I had missed the chance to find out whether the Isleys still perform “Harvest for the World.” My jazz-fest failures didn't end there. I missed the Al Hirt jazz funeral procession and barely caught a glimpse of Aaron Neville in the Gospel Tent (though what I heard of him from the sidelines sounded fine). I did hear Allen Toussaint's band do a hummable Al Hirt instrumental, and a band calling itself Dash Rip Rock perform an entertaining version of “Jambalaya” that verged on rap. I also added several more variations on the ever-popular riff that starts “Baby, don't you want to go?” to my blues lexicon, and I can now whistle a Cajun waltz in made-up pidgin French that sounds a lot like the one Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin danced to on the porch in The Big Easy. That I didn't get through it all without a Hootie encounter only goes to prove a New Orleans truth: Once a crowd catches you up, your life is no longer your own.
IN FACT, WERE I TO DWELL TOO HEAVILY on the misfortune of being sucked into the Hootie vortex, I'd probably never buy a ticket to another one of these contained, heavily populated outdoor festivallike events again. No more Gilroy Garlic Festival, or Carnaval in Rio, or Minneapolis Aqua-tennial; certainly no more Burning Man (where, come to think of it, I never once caught a single scheduled event I'd set my heart on, either). The New Orleans Jazz Fest draws some 80,000 visitors a day, which makes seating competitive and the outhouses rank, food lines long and shade scarce. It also means that anyone too hung up on scheduling perfection and comfort is bound to have a miserable time. In the miasmic Louisiana heat, within constant earshot of a scrub-board-and-accordion vamp, the best you can do is drink what you can, eat when you must and trust the rest to serendipity.
One early afternoon, I found myself too sleepy to stay alert for the Iguanas, and I napped peacefully through their set. When I awoke, Marcia Ball was warming up. I'd never heard of Ball, but it turns out she's a jazz-fest favorite who's famous for swinging one of her well-sculptured ankles to the music as she sits cross-legged at the piano, singing songs like Randy Newman's “Louisiana 1927” and Cajun standards in a big, loose, beautifully textured voice. Her fans attach decorated prosthetic legs to long sticks and make them dance in the air to the music. While she played, my friends got drunk on a bottle of whiskey offered up by some guy named John. Someone I never saw graciously misted my overheated body with a spray bottle, and when I stepped on a woman's toe she took my hand and spun me around, as if we'd been two-stepping together. I can't imagine having planned it better.