B y J i m N i n t z e l
WE ARRIVED IN town the same night as the giant rats. Known as nutrias by the natives, the vile rodents, easily the size of beavers, were swarming New Orleans, madly gnawing on any vegetation they could get their bright orange teeth on.
Nutrias were first imported to the swamplands decades ago--for reasons unknown--by the McIlhenny family, well known as the Tabasco sauce barons. But about two dozen breeding pairs of the rats broke loose from their pens during a typhoon that rocked the McIlhenny plantation in the 1940s. Free at last, the creatures set about doing what they do best--eating and breeding.
Now, hundreds of thousands of the relentless beasts are loose upon the swamplands, voraciously consuming everything in their path. And as they began to close in on the French Quarter last month, armed lawmen stalked the local parks, shooting as many of the vicious creatures as they could.
Oblivious to the danger posed by the rats, tens of thousands of music fans also made a pilgrimage to the Big Easy for the two-week music marathon known as the New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Festival.
Even if they had been aware of the rat infestation, most of them probably would have made the trek to hear hundreds of musicians blending jazz, blues, zydeco, reggae, rock, folk, Creole, Cajun and gospel--a blissful stew of music as rich as the heritage of the bayou country itself.
With 10 different stages at the grassy fairgrounds, there was so much music you couldn't swing a dead nutria without hitting a great line-up. Over two four-day weekends, hundreds of acts performed, including the subdudes, Al Green, Michelle Shocked, Alex Chilton, The Neville Brothers, James Taylor, Buckwheat Zydeco, Little Feat, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ray Charles and Dr. John.
Even a raging thunderstorm one Thursday afternoon couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of most of the spectators. The deadheads and earth cookies danced in the rain and slid through the mud, while older or more retrained folks were like my new friend Martin, who had the foresight to bring a backpack with an umbrella and raingear.
As I huddled under Martin's umbrella and sucked down the beer he had packed along, he talked about the importance of being prepared. Martin is the consummate Jazz Fest aficionado. His pack was filled with essentials: the aforementioned raingear, beer, plenty of drinking water, sunscreen and a few other incidentals meant to make his afternoons all the more enjoyable.
He made his reservations at the stately St. Charles Inn some six months before coming out, because he knew there wouldn't be an empty hotel room in Orleans Parish during the festival. Fail to take that simple step and you'll end up like my pal Dr. Brooks, who last year couldn't even find a flight into the Crescent City and had to drive down from Baton Rouge and spend his evenings sleeping on park benches alongside the Mississippi River.
Not that you really need to sleep--this is a 24-hour town. Even as the music ends at the fairgrounds around sunset each day, the bars are just starting up. Taverns like the House of Blues and the Mid City Lanes feature acts like The Iguanas, The Meters, Majek Fashek, The Radiators and many of the bands from the fest, as well as that fine local ale, Abita Purple Haze.
Down in the warehouse district at the Howling Wolf on Friday night, Dr. Brooks and I caught the Continental Drifters, who were briefly joined onstage by Tucsonan Paula Jean Brown. Paula Jean rocked the house, wielding her axe like some time-lost Zirrilian dwarf battling a horde of misshapen goblins.
As we left the warehouse district in a lightheaded state around 2 a.m., we quickly got lost and found ourselves in a giant parking lot which we knew could only belong to a riverboat casino. God had clearly intended for us to try our luck. But that's a whole 'nother story....
Cutlines:Photo 1: The mud people relive Woodstock during a torrential rainstorm at the New Orleans fairgrounds.Photo2:Alex Chilton was one of hundreds of acts to perform at the festival.Photo 3:The dreaded nutria.Photos by Dr. Brooks
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