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See (and Hear) Johnny Go 

For music fans, Jazz Fest season is usually characterized by two primary emotions: sheer exhilaration and sheer exhaustion. Between the days at the Fair Grounds, multiple night shows and the recent proliferation of late-night gigs (with some "breakfast" shows beginning at 5 a.m.!), it takes a combination of will, stamina and a little luck to take it all in and not miss a beat.

But when you're a local musician like drummer Johnny Vidacovich, you can't miss a beat. For Vidacovich and his peers, Jazz Fest time requires multiple gigs -- sometimes as many as four performances in a 24-hour span -- and an iron constitution to pull it off.

"Everything becomes compressed, so it's a matter of timing," says Vidacovich on the eve of Jazz Fest. "You have to make sure that you get the right amount to eat and the right amount of sleep. There's a whole lot of fabric in the air with all the people in town and all this excitement, and as difficult as it seems, if you can tap into the people's intense excitement and anticipation, you can flow with it -- if you're careful."

Consider Vidacovich's schedule at the start of the Jazz Fest. On Friday, April 25, he kicked off the day early by playing big band-modern jazz with Al Belletto from 11:15 a.m. to 12:05 p.m., then waited until 12:30 a.m. (April 26) to start his club gig with Stanton Moore at the Shim Sham Club. Getting home somewhere in the 5 a.m. range, he had to be ready to play with John Rankin at 1:30 p.m. at the Fair Grounds. At 9 p.m. that night, he was behind his kit with Astral Project for the first of two sets at the Funky Butt, beginning at 10:30 p.m. From there, it was on to the Maple Leaf for a late-night gig with keyboardist Johnny Neel, beginning at 3 a.m.

In that last flurry alone alone, Vidacovich was drumming for approximately eight hours in a 17-hour stretch. The physical toll adds up.

"Even though I'm sitting on the stool (at gigs), it's very aerobic, and sometimes I have to use all my body," says Vidacovich. "Because of the fact that I'm so skinny and light, I don't have the advantage that big guys do. I ain't built like Herman Ernest, who's got a backbeat from hell. It really hurts my back to be pounding that shit down. That part of it is really tough. I take hot baths after those gigs, and I'll probably get a massage in the middle of the festival. I do some yoga exercises, too, on a daily basis, so I won't sit around and get stiff."

After a quarter century of playing during the festival, Vidacovich has his share of war stories: "I got memories like sitting in the rain with Charles Brown waiting to play. When you're waiting to play and missing gigs because of rain, those are the ones that cause confusion. Years ago acts would come into New Orleans and they'd use more local sidemen, and sometimes I'd be out at the Fest whole days at a time, picking up gigs while I was there. Otherwise, back when I was in my early 30s, there were times when I'd go for two days without sleep."

The increased workload and hectic schedule also turns Vidacovich's usual daily routine upside down. During Jazz Fest, he has to cut back on his teaching duties at Loyola University, though he tries to see each of his seven students for at least one lesson during Fest season. Household chores also get shuffled to the back burner. "A lot of things get put off for two weeks," he says. "I'll cut the grass right before the Fest starts, and hope to do it again in the middle of the Fest, but everything moves so fast. As I'm talking to you, I'm trying to clean things up in the yard."

For Vidacovich, the logistical nightmares are worth it for the artistic reward of getting to use different musical muscles. "This is one of the main reasons I love New Orleans, and a lot of musicians here get to play so many different ways and styles. Last year I'd be backing up a singer and playing a lot of soft brush work, then do a slamming backbeat gig, then maybe trad-jazz, then modern jazz. I can use soft techniques and loud techniques and different colors, and I like changing it up."

While the festival ends on Sunday, May 4, Vidacovich has a gig on Monday, May 5. "It won't be until Tuesday that I have a day off," he says. "There's a tremendous exhale, like a jet landing and putting on the brakes. Then I can cut the grass."

Johnny Vidacovich's superb new live CD with bassist George Porter Jr. and guitarist June Yamagishi is titled We Came to Play.
click to enlarge Like many of his peers, New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich's gig schedule gets crazy during Jazz Fest. - JENNIFER BAGERT
  • Jennifer Bagert
  • Like many of his peers, New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich's gig schedule gets crazy during Jazz Fest.
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