Reflections on the Year the Music Paused

As we have all observed lately, things are finally beginning to officially and systematically reopen across the globe. And in a mass exodus to escape our domiciles, we are returning to restaurants, gatherings with old friends, live entertainment venues, and vacations to far-away lands.

We’ve experienced that last one “big-time” locally, with Maui being singled out as one of the top destinations worldwide. It’s quite a culture shock after an almost two-year global lockdown.

Stevie Nicks performing in 2017. Ralph Arvesen / Wikimedia Commons

Just witnessing those 20,000 rental cars parked in the fields behind the Kahului airport for more than a year was a stark reality check. It reminded us how many tourists normally share our island’s roadways and beaches. The shutdown was truly a local wake-up call that was mind-bending to witness.

For some, the lockdown was a respite, where we honed our gardening skills or finally baked the perfect loaf of sourdough. But for others whose livelihoods depend on tourism, it was more of an Orwellian nightmare wherein all the unknown repercussions are just now beginning to surface.

If you are a musician or relied on the live entertainment industry to survive, all your off-island tours or local bookings instantly hit a very hard zero. Perhaps you migrated to Facebook or Zoom as your main creative outlet. At least there, fans and followers could tap into a random “live home music session,” contributing with a Venmo or PayPal link. Things have been so bad, such digital entertainment actually became the norm. Different, and cool for a while—we were always amused to see a meandering cat strolling by a random living room webcam, hello kitty!—but ultimately, it was not like live music being played right in front of you, in person, beer in hand.

We had been teased for so long that things were beginning to open up that I was actually craving some sort of massive musical event, an extravaganza. And that’s why I decided to roll the COVID dice and hit New Orleans for the Jazz & Heritage Festival, which had already been canceled twice due to the pandemic.

I was, apparently, not the only one in search of such extravagance. The first sign that others had the same idea was when I called in to make a last-minute flight reservation. The wait-time on hold was four to five hours. I now know the human tolerance for on-hold music (approximately three hours) unless of course your phone dies first. Damn, and I was so close.

If you don’t already know, Jazz Fest is one of the largest and best musical and cultural festivals on the planet. Featuring 12 stages of live music—
including all genres of indigenous world music along with folk, rock, funk, Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass, African/Caribbean, R&B, rap, hip-hop, country, gospel, blues and even a little jazz—it all happens over a two-week period at the beginning of summer. With thousands of artists and almost half a million tourists like me pouring into NOLA to join the locals, Jazz Fest is truly a one-of-a-kind event.  

Although I’ve been on Maui for many decades, my musical roots in production began in New Orleans as a kid in the mid ’70s. I got my start in the music biz at Jazz Fest. So, this trip was extra special for me. Besides having not traveled in several years, getting back to the Big Easy where I first cut my chops in engineering live audio and stage managing felt like an overdue visit home.

I flew in on the first weekend, initially settling in on the quiet West Bank just across the river from the French Quarter in Old Algiers. I took the ferry across the muddy Mississippi and cruised in with the masses on a new Costco E-bike through the dozens of impromptu street parties, crawfish boils and front-yard BBQs.

An old friend and mentor, Quint Davis, who’s been the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival director and producer since its inception over 50 years ago, welcomed this island boy back home with some major southern hospitality. 

The weekend’s weather was perfect: blue skies, puffy clouds, mid 80s. The 145 acres of the Heritage and Cultural Fairgrounds was filled with hundreds of hand-picked artisans in their booths and local food was offered up at every turn. It was all good company for the 12 strategically-placed stages with their non-stop music from 11 a.m. until sunset. The opening weekend was beyond my expectations. It was like the biggest and coolest backyard party in the nation.

The Whoʻs Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend. Courtesy Pete Townsend /Facobook

I found myself onstage with The Who and a full 60-piece orchestra, which was truly unexpected. Both Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend enthusiastically greeted the massive crowd and started with the upbeat intro to “Who Are You?” whipping the crowd into an early frenzy that said, “Yes world, we are back.”

They continued on a “Who’s who” through their musical catalog, performing dozens of their hits and a full 90-minute set. Townsend’s younger brother, Simon, was on rhythm guitar accompanied by Ringo Starr’s son, the amazing Zak Starkey, on drums.

Some of the other 2022 Fest headliners included Stevie Nicks, appearing beautiful and refreshed after being on stage for her first show in front of an audience in over two-and-half years. She dedicated “Landslide” to Taylor Hawkins, drummer of the Foo Fighters. The Foo Fighters had  canceled their appearance at Jazz Fest just six weeks prior due to Hawkins’ untimely death.

You could tell all the artists were as excited to be there as the audience. Other high energy sets were delivered by The Black Crowes, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jimmy Buffett, and Ziggy Marley. Guitar virtuoso Billy Strings brought his A-game along with classic performances by Randy Newman, Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello, Trombone Shorty, Norah Jones, Boz Scaggs, Buddy Guy, and dozens more.

Maui’s own Lukas Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, played an inspired set to a capacity crowd at the packed Gentilly Stage. Visiting with the POTR guys backstage, all were feeling the local spirit. Lukas said it was great to be back out on the road again and passed along an “aloha” to Maui.

Lukas Neslon & Promise of the Real. Courtesy Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real / Facebook

The Willie Nelson Family Band and Melissa Etheridge band were forced to cancel last-minute due to COVID cases in their ranks. 

There is truly no other city in the United States quite like New Orleans, especially when it comes to food and music. It felt like everyone was finally coming out of the cave. With spontaneous street parties and live brass bands seemingly popping up on every other corner and front porch surrounding the festival, everyone seemed joyful to be getting out after a huge worldwide shutdown and our global paradigm shift.

Being off-island and away from home for a couple of weeks brought me to the beautiful realization that the aloha spirit—and southern hospitality—are alive and well. And despite any of our unspoken differences, Jazz Fest was a joyful and beautiful experience. 

As Mark Twain once said, perhaps after cruising down the Mississippi, or rolling boulders down into Haleakala Crater in the 1860s: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts…”

All in all, it was great to be out and about again as a cultural ambassador, sharing some of our sweet aloha. 

William Reeve Pie