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Preview: French Quarter Festival 

Will Coviello on what's new at the 30th annual free music fest in the Vieux Carre

click to enlarge Music fans pack Jackson Square during French Quarter Festival. - PHOTO BY ZACK SMITH
  • Photo by Zack Smith
  • Music fans pack Jackson Square during French Quarter Festival.

The French Quarter Festival was originally created to bring locals back downtown to the historic district. After needed repairs to sidewalks and infrastructure in advance of the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, the inaugural event was meant to showcase the improvements.

  "The idea (for the first festival) was to celebrate the end of construction," former mayor and Urban League president Marc Morial said at a February press conference announcing changes for the 2013 festival. "It might have been a one year event, but look what we have today."

  The festival grew steadily over the years, and finding new ways and spaces to grow has marked the six-year tenure of director Marci Schramm.

  "We're in a massive transition stage," Schramm says. "We've gotten wonderfully big, but the question always is, 'How can we grow more?'"

  The 2013 festival features four days of music by mostly local bands on 21 stages spread throughout the French Quarter, making it one of the largest free music festivals in the South. Headliners include Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Donald Harrison, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, Soul Rebels, George Porter Jr. and Runnin' Pardners, Seguenon Kone and Ivoire Spectacle, Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, Eric Lindell, Honey Island Swamp Band, Hot 8 Brass Band, Bonerama, Raw Oyster Cult, Rotary Downs, Rockin' Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters and many others.

  Performances begin at 11 a.m., and outdoor tents and stages feature entertainment until 7 p.m. Thurday and 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Indoor venues, including Preservation Hall and Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse host festival performances until 10 p.m. and midnight, respectively.

  The largest stages along the riverfront and Jackson Square have always hosted a mix of rock, funk and jazz while traditional jazz bands played on many of the stages on Royal and Bourbon streets. Brass band music is still featured in Woldenberg Park in front of the Aquarium of the Americas, but there is more traditional jazz this year, including a dedicated stage at the French Market, and many stages have developed their own niches. There's a stage for singer/songwriters at the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St.). One of the new additions is cabaret music inside the Palm Court Jazz Cafe (1204 Decatur St.), with performers including Philip Melancon, Tom McDermott and Becky Allen. Classical music and opera performances are presented at the Ursuline Convent (1116 Chartres St.).

  Last year, the city agreed to close most of the historic district to traffic during festival hours. This year, street closings allow the festival to place a stage featuring Cajun and zydeco music and night concerts on a stage at the triangle formed by the split of North Peters and Decatur streets. The concerts feature Dirty Dozen Brass Band, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet and Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience.

  Organizers also added film screenings at the Old U.S. Mint. Timecode: NOLA is presenting documentaries and features focused on Louisiana music and culture Friday through Sunday. Some of the highlights are Dance for a Chicken: Cajun Mardi Gras, Stevenson Palfi's Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, featuring "Tuts" Washington, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint, and Aaron Walker's Mardi Gras Indian documentary Bury the Hatchet.

  Annual events include a second line parade on Friday, a crawfish eating contest Saturday, dance lessons by the NOLA Jitterbugs, a fun run, a juried art show and more. A festival gala celebrating the 30th anniversary is Thursday.

  The kids' area also is growing. The New Orleans Ballet Association is partnering with the festival to offer dance and movement lessons. Chevron became a major corporate sponsor for the festival, and the oil company is setting up a tent called STEM Zone (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Activities for younger children focus on art and science with a theme built around butterflies. Older kids can compose songs on computers in a program integrating math, engineering and music.

  Erecting all the stages, tents and food and drink booths throughout the French Quarter is a massive undertaking that almost demands a longer festival. But the event strikes a balance in trying to please the district's businesses and residents. Like the neighborhood, the event has crowded areas, like the larger stages along the Riverfront, and quieter pockets where there's more room for dancing in the streets.

  "We're all about enjoying the neighborhood," Schramm says. "We're not looking for a stadium experience."

For a full music and event schedule, visit www.fqfi.org.

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