NEW ORLEANS — This year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival began its two-weekend run on Friday, filling the air with the sounds of R&B, rock 'n roll, Zydeco, pop, blues, country, rap, gospel — and of course jazz.
Music fans poured into the Fair Grounds Race Course when gates opened at 11 a.m. They wandered among 14 stages or tents, many spreading blankets or tarps and setting up folding chairs, laying claim to spots where their favorite artists were to perform.
And some were dancing, particularly in front of the festival's Fais Do-Do Stage, where Zydeco rang out, played by Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie.
Retiree Joe Hulsey of Seattle said he and his wife have spent the last four months in New Orleans. A music festival veteran, Hulsey said Jazz Fest is his favorite.
“There’s just no comparison,” he said. “It’s just one of the gems about New Orleans that I love. It’s a whole vibe.
“You can’t beat the music, the food, the music,” he said, smiling.
Food was available from dozens of booths staffed by Louisiana restaurants. There was a variety of takes on traditional Louisiana fare — numerous seafood dishes or po’boy sandwiches featuring crawfish, sausage, pork or alligator. And there were other cuisines, like pan fried noodles from the Ajun Cajun.
Friday's music lineup included scheduled performances by Lizzo; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss; Big Freedia; Tank and The Bangas; Wu-Tang Clan + The Soul Rebels; Nicholas Payton; Mavis Staples; Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers; Charlie Musselwhite; and Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience.
It was Lizzo that drew Kalindi Cordero, of Dallas, and her best friend, Lana Zring, of Atlanta, to the festival.
“This city is just so special and when I heard Lizzo was going to be here, I started tracking the lineup and tickets and hotels and everything,” Cordero said. "It’s the city’s diversity and representation that shines through with this festival.”
Lizzo did not disappoint fans as she roared through a host of her hits including “About Damn Time" and “Grrls.”
“I've been on tour but it ain't nothing like being at Jazz Fest,” she told the crowd, which stretched from the front of the stage to the back of the track.
Jennifer Seagle, of New Orleans, said she is a huge fan of the singer who advocates for empowerment, self-love and body positivity.
“I absolutely love her,” Seagle said. “I love her energy. I love her attitude. You can't hear her music and not feel good about yourself.”
Big Freedia's bounce/rap show was set for the festival's main stage, before Lizzo and Tank and The Bangas. “I love that I get the opportunity to showcase my artistry before a bigger audience and there's a lot more room to do my thing. We're here to entertain and we're gonna bust it open," she said.
Freedia, known for collaborations with Drake on “Nice for What” and Beyoncé on “Break My Soul,” said there were no plans to join Lizzo's closing performance even though the two paired up for Freedia's 2018 hit "Karaoke."
“I support her either way,” she said.
Freedia dropped new music Friday — “$100 Bill” — a collaboration with R&B singer and songwriter Ciara.
This year's festival is also casting a spotlight on Puerto Rico with appearances Friday by two artists from the U.S. territory: Tambuye and Grammy-nominated Latin dance band Plena Libre.
“There's a whole vibe out there and people should come out and feel it. I'm thrilled with what's about to happen," festival producer Quint Davis said.
“We've got a lot of people coming in,” he said. “Lizzo, a phenomenal talent on Friday, and Ed Sheeran and Jazmine Sullivan on Saturday and Jill Scott on Sunday. And that's just the first weekend. We've also got H.E.R. coming next week along with Dead & Company, Kane Brown and Jon Batiste. Everybody wants to play the festival and everything just fell together to allow that to happen.”
Crowds were helped by sunshine, temperatures around 80 degrees (26 C) and cooling breezes. Davis said a good opening day forecast helped ticket sales. Spotty showers, however, may dampen Saturday and Sunday shows.
Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for New Orleans and Company, said hotel occupancy for the city's downtown corridor was above the 2022 Jazz Fest numbers — the first year after COVID-19-related cancellations in 2020 and 2021 — but not quite as good as those for 2019.
“We're at 83% occupancy for Saturday. In 2022, that was 78% and in 2019, pre-COVID, it was 92%,” she said.
Schulz said this was just a snapshot of how well the city's tourism industry is rebounding after COVID-19 forced a shutdown: “The numbers we're seeing for Jazz Fest is just another example of people ready to travel again and experience face-to-face connections again.”
This year's festival is also going cashless for the first time in its 52-year run. The festival will offer booths exchanging cash for prepaid cards. All major credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards, as well as Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay, were being accepted for tickets, food, merchandise, and more.
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