Festivals are great places to get maximum entertainment value for minimal bucks, with many offering smorgasbords of music, food, drinks and eye candy, plus a chance to absorb the culture of the area. Through the end of the summer, there are several free or almost-free festivals in the New Orleans area — entire days or weekends of frolicking outside, listening to live music and sampling cuisine, all for about the price of a meal.
New Orleanians love parades (and celebrations in general), and second-line parades are staged throughout the year. Though not technically a festival, these parades are festive and include brass bands, costumes and music. To keep up with when and where these free events occur, look to Big Red Cotton on Gambit's blog www.blogofneworleans.com.
The four-day Seafood Festival at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville (www.seafoodfest.com) July 1-4 has two music stages, and admission is only $5 if you enter before 5 p.m. (seniors 65 and older, children 10 and younger and active military personnel always get in free). There are more than 50 dishes — lots of them made with seafood — from 20 vendors, arts and crafts, a midway of carnival rides, a car show, '50s night on Sunday and other activities to keep everyone in your group engaged until the festival closes at midnight each night. (It starts at noon every day except Friday, when gates open at 4 p.m.) The popular attraction draws about 10,000 people a day. Saturday and Sunday feature a Mandeville Idol contest for solo singers between 9 and 17 years old and a battle of the bands with first-place winners receiving cash prizes. The music lineup includes a variety of local acts playing a range of genres as well as a debut performance by Circle of Light, composed of the four original members of Louisiana Music Hall of Famers Lillian Axe. A fireworks show choreographed to music starts at 8:45 p.m. July 4.
The following week is San Fermin in Nueva Orleans (www.nolabulls.com), based on the weeklong celebration in Pamplona, Spain. In the five years since its inception, the event has grown from a group of 200 participants to about 8,300 and has a uniquely New Orleans twist. The enciero, or Running of the Bulls at 8 a.m. on July 9 features thousands of runners chased through the French Quarter by about 300 "bulls," in this case roller derby girls wielding plastic bats and making mischief. It's followed at 8 p.m. with La Fiesta de Pantalones (the pants party: white outfits with red accents) at 12 Bar. This party features music by Los Po-Boy-Citos. Admission is $5. The festival culminates July 10 with the free El Pobré de Mi (Poor Me), a brunch of Spanish tapas and drinks that features an Ernest Hemingway Talent Contest in which six teams perform readings of Papa's works (the hook is that before they arrive, no teams know what Hemingway piece they will perform).
The free Satchmo SummerFest (www.fqfi.org) Aug. 4-7 at the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter is a weekend of live local music, seminars, speakers, a traditional second-line parade and a jazz Mass, all celebrating the life of Louis Armstrong. The 11th annual event also includes food vendors, activities for children, a birthday party for Satchmo and, to close the festivities, a trumpet tribute.
White Linen Night started as a fundraiser for the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in 1994 (and it still serves that function), but it now is a huge four-block-long street party drawing about 20,000 people to the Warehouse/Arts District. Visitors, who are encouraged to dress in New Orleans' traditional pre-air conditioning beat-the-heat white linen garb (not required), can listen to live bands playing on stages along Julia Street, sample food and beverages from local restaurants and bars and visit galleries all over the district that open their doors to art lovers. The street party is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 6, followed by an after-party at the CAC featuring more live music, food, drinks and art displays. The street party is free, with a cash bar and food for sale; tickets to the party at the CAC on Camp Street from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. are $10 (CAC members get in free).
Inspired by White Linen Night, businesses on Royal Street started Dirty Linen Night 10 years ago as a way to reintroduce locals to the French Quarter arts district and give customers a chance to meet artists. On Aug. 13, about 60 galleries and businesses along an eight-block corridor of Royal Street, as well as on Jackson Square and other side streets, will participate in the art stroll/block party, keeping their doors open late and offering refreshments, conversation, special sales, wine tastings and more. There also is live music — and the event is free.
For those who can't wait a whole year between Carnivals, the Krewe of Oak Midsummer Mardi Gras parade Aug. 27 starts at the Maple Leaf bar about 8:30 p.m. Led by a brass band, decorated golf cart floats roll through the Carrollton area stopping at bars along the way, finally ending where they began for a party at the Maple Leaf. The parade is free, and costumed spectators can march with krewe members, but there is a cover for the party, which features live music.
To end the summer on a high note, Southern Decadence in the French Quarter offers days of free street parties and nights filled with dancing Aug. 31-Sept. 5. 2011 marks the 40th year for the festival, the largest gay event in the city. Not all Southern Decadence activities are firmed up yet, so visit www.southerndecadence.net closer to the festival dates to get full details.