POSTED Wed. Jan 15, 2014

Jazz Fest or Coachella?

Jazz Fest or Coachella?
Adam Karlin
Written by ADAM KARLIN
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A friend recently threw a question into the social media-o-sphere: ‘Jazz Fest or Coachella? Or both?’

Well, both is possible – Coachella is April 11-13th and 18-20th, whereas Jazz Fest is the last weekend of April and first weekend of May. But budgets and time commitments mean most people will have to opt for one or the other.

Now, I could go on to write a piece wherein I state that Jazz Fest and Coachella have their respective strengths and weaknesses, and you cannot go wrong with either choice, and one should follow their personal tastes and heart in such matters and enjoy whatever celebration speaks to their soul.

But the hell with that. Coachella is a sandy douche canoe full of bros in neon pink tank tops and shrieking airheads whose hippie headbands have squeezed out their taste, many of whom do not even know how good their festival’s own headlining act is. Jazz Fest, on the other hand, is a celebration of not only individual artists and bands, but the legacy of pop music, which can be, to one degree or another, traced in all its myriad evolutions – hip hop, rock, gospel, blues, and of course, jazz – to the streets of New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana. Let’s get into it…

1 The lineups

On the face of it, Coachella’s lineup, with Ellie Goulding, Pharrell and Lorde, is a nod to youth, while Jazz Fest. , with Santana, Springsteen and Fogerty, is a tribute to age.

But when you dig an inch deeper, those easy associations fall away. Millennial mascots Vampire Weekend and the Avett Brothers are playing Jazz Fest, while Gen X holdouts like Fatboy Slim, Beck and Nas are hitting up Coachella. Yes, the New Orleans crowd plays more to roots, but Jazz Fest is at heart a roots celebration, and in the case of guys like Santana and Ellis Marsalis, some roots are just temporally closer.

In any case, you don’t see the big gap in fest focus at the headliner level. Headliners, by their nature, have a mass appeal that puts them into a neighborly corner of the pop music spectrum. Sure, Skrillex isn’t Clapton, but on the other hand, Arcade Fire is getting top billing in New Orleans and Indio.

No: the difference in lineups manifests in the supporting acts. In Coachella, you have a sonic mush of dubstep drops and mediocre electronica. At Jazz Fest? Shorty. Rebirth. Freedia. Terrence. It’s easy, living here, to take those names for granted. We forget that this much talent should not rightly exist in such physical concentration, that it is not normal to have some of the world’s best musicians playing the regular corner gig at your neighborhood bar. But these artists are concentrated here, and even more so when their sets abut throughout the duration of Jazz Fest. Missing this sheer level of focused musicianship is damn near criminal.

True, the above names don’t have the name recognition of Chromeo or Pharrell, partly because the work they create has been appropriated and mass released after a thorough scrubbing of its muddy New Orleans origins. From contemporary jazz to MTV twerking, the heart of New Orleans beats pop – but the version the world gets, which includes many Coachella acts, is New Orleans music that has, at best, been diffused across time and distance, and at worst, preened and prepped by a salon staffed by major label executives. Either way, at Jazz Fest you see the coal before it became a diamond, and while diamonds are pretty, coal is real.

(PS I don’t want to give the impression New Orleans music is static and doesn’t change. It absolutely does. But there’s a difference between seeing roots music that organically adapts, like Freedia sampling Soul Rebels, and a cleaned up single that bears no resemblance to its raw components).

2 The crowd

First: let’s be clear, Jazz Fest doesn’t lack for assholes. Pushy frat bros, the tourist who drank eight frozen daqs in the hot sun and just puked on your foot, and my favorite, the mouth breather from Bogalusa who’s been setting up his lawn chair smack in front of the Acura stage for a decade and gets mad at you for daring to stand in front of him and watch a set.

Those people suck. But as bad as they are, they’re not this crowd the Coachellites who treat the event as a fashion show first, Yelp check-in second, rave third and chance to watch music somewhere vaguely fourth. Bogalusa might step on your feet in his Mossy Oak crocs in his rush to go see Better Than Ezra, but at least the guy cares about his band. I’ll take an aggressive but dedicated fan over a bunch of social media obsessed duckfacing Instagrammers any day of the week. (Image from Shit Coachella Girls Say).

3 The eats

At this stage, Jazz Fest is as well known for its food as its music. Some arguments you have to back up, but some stand on their own self-evident logic and brevity. To whit: a cochon de lait po’boy always beats an unfrozen taco shell filled with Grade E chicken beak and horse scrotum meat. Always.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

4 The setting

I’m not going to dis the surreal magic of the Southern California desert. If you do end up going to Coachella over Jazz Fest – you deluded fool – I’d recommend skipping Coachella and heading directly to Joshua Tree, because that park is one of the world’s natural treasures and enriches the soul of anyone lucky enough to experience it, and also, @#$k Coachella.

With all that said, the best thing about The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is it (surprise) takes place in New Orleans. So when you’re not watching a show, instead of counting the scorpions in your boots, you can avail yourself of the Garden of Earthly Delights that is the great city of New Orleans. Besides, where Coachella is two weekends, at this stage Jazz Fest is basically a solid two weeks of music and surprises. I can’t guarantee this, but I am 99.99% sure that before, during or after Jazz Fest, a famous musician will stroll into a New Orleans bar and perform the kind of impromptu set you’l tell your grandkids about.

Also, play your cards right and you can do Jazz Fest and Festival International in Lafayette – arguably the best free music event in the country.

5 All of the things

I’ve been seeing a bumper sticker around town, and if anyone knows who makes them, please put them in touch with us and we’ll give them a big shout-out. Anyways, the slogan on the sticker is, “This is LA. Not L.A.” And I think that gets to the heart of the gulf between Coachella and Jazz Fest.

Indio, CA is not Los Angeles either, but it’s safe to say Coachella is the music festival embodiment of every tanned shade of Southern California culture. On the flip side, Jazz Fest is intimately South Louisiana. To be fair, being an ambassador of South Louisiana is writ into Jazz Fest’s mission statement, and the event has not always been the best guardian of the state’s culture, as evidenced by the success of hyperlocal Chaz Fest. But for Jazz Fest’s failings, it is far more rooted in her local soil than Coachella. Maybe this is a natural outgrowth of how California does things versus Louisiana. One state is more cutting edge yet cut off from sense of place, while the other is intensely local to the point of (occasional) provincialism.

In that case, I suppose Coachella is as of her setting as Jazz Fest is. I just like one setting better, and I think this preference is best expressed by two defining sets from the respective festivals.

Friends, acquaintances and music critics tell me Major Lazer’s set was a highlight of 2013 Coachella and I don’t know what to think. Watch this, or at least a few minutes of the hour long show. Look, I think Get Free was one of the best songs of last year. But there’s no musicality to this performance. There’s no heart. There’s a guy yelling and lights and backup dancers (I know, I’m being this). Yes, the crowd is jumping, but mix a few thousand attractive under-30s with a boatload of drugs and you’ll get a party anywhere.

Compare that to Bruce Springsteen’s now legendary performance at the 2006 Jazz Fest – specifically, the Rise Up moment. When thousands raised their hands in unison and chorus, transported by music, yes, but also by the knowledge the music was derived from an event that celebrated the place that was the genesis of said music. That’s something. That’s a guitar and gas lamps versus glow sticks and a mixing board. I’m just saying, I know what I prefer.

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