NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - In another city, 10 a.m. might seem early for a celebration, but this is Bourbon Street in New Orleans and a brass band is ambling down the street blaring a jazzy tune.
French Quarter resident Lisa Linscott said she didn’t have to think twice about coming out for the Friday parade that is part of the annual French Quarter Festival. “It woke me up,” she said with a laugh.
Linscott also came because the procession kicks off the second day of her favourite event: an eruption of indigenous music and food that continues through Sunday in one of the country’s most historic neighbourhoods.
In a city synonymous with partying, festivals range from weekend celebrations of local foods - the Creole Tomato Festival or the Po-Boy Festival, for instance - to blockbuster events such as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival or, the biggest of them all, Mardi Gras.
During its 29 years of existence, the annual French Quarter Festival - which began Thursday - has carved a role somewhere in between. As it has grown into a four-day event that draws an estimated 500,000 people, the festival has not only maintained its focus on home-grown music, but has also retained one of its most attractive features - it is free.
Karen King and her daughter Courtney travelled from Perth, Australia, to see New Orleans and attend the event.
Courtney King said music festivals she has attended in Australia are not as large or as long as this one. “They might be two days long, if you’re lucky, and they’re not free,” she said.
The roughly 100 square blocks of the Quarter mark the area along the Mississippi River where New Orleans was founded by the French almost 300 years ago. During one weekend each April, the narrow streets, lined with wooden-shuttered buildings and lacey iron balconies, become the backdrop for an increasingly large musical celebration.
From late morning until 9 p.m. each day, nearly two dozen music stages scattered from Bourbon Street to the riverfront promenade known as Woldenberg Riverfront Park offer Louisiana music, ranging from jazz, blues, Dixieland and R&B to Cajun, zydeco and swing.
Among the stages are tents where the city’s finest restaurants offer sampler menus - a plate of Oysters Bonne Femme from Antoine‘s, for instance, or goat cheese-and-crawfish crepes from Muriel’s Restaurant. Cold drinks run the gamut from lemonade to daiquiris and the locally famous rum drinks called “hurricanes.”
But music is the centrepiece of the French Quarter Festival, and this year’s line-up includes Cyril Neville, “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Irvin Mayfield, Deacon John, George Porter Jr. and 2012 Grammy winner Rebirth Brass Band, along with dozens of other popular home-grown groups.
Festival organizers are committed to keeping the music local and free, said Marci Schramm, the executive director of the nonprofit French Quarter Festival.
Schramm said finding enough performers to fill the stages is not a problem in talent-rich New Orleans, but offering the music at no cost to the public is a challenge. The nonprofit organization spends considerable time lining up sponsors who kick in as much as $20,000 to keep the music playing.
“It’s not easy, but our sponsorships are growing,” Schramm said.
So is the traffic coming from out of town.
As of Wednesday, the 26,000 hotel rooms in the downtown New Orleans area were 95 percent booked, according to the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association spokeswoman Mavis Early, who said the figure would likely rise.
Perched on the back of an iron bench where they soaked in the sun while enjoying a cool breeze, first-time New Orleans visitors Deb and Alan Anderson of Heber City, Utah, seemed entranced as they swayed to the bluesy tunes coming from a stage along the riverfront.
Deb Anderson ticked off the items on their local to-do list: a muffuletta at Central Grocery, a river tour on the Steamboat Natchez, a swamp tour, a gumbo-cooking class and a walking tour.
But first, the festival, she said. “The French Quarter Festival is just fantastic - and it’s free.”
Editing By Corrie MacLaggan and Colleen Jenkins