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Celebration Stations

Despite the one-two punch of Katrina and Rita, cities and towns across south Louisiana are gearing up for their traditional fairs and festivals.

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Like most every conversation or behavior these days, everything we do is tinged by the relationship with the hurricanes -- be it Katrina or Rita. When calling all the events on my list, they were always foremost in my mind. Will the phone number work? Will they be having the festival? Will they think I'm callous for even calling to ask about a goofy festival?

Now, after spending the last month tracking down all these festivals to inquire about their events I'm feeling full of love and admiration. Over and over again I heard "absolutely," "you bet," "definitely," their voices filled with determination and pride.

Back in October, when my days were consumed with the new usual -- calling insurance companies, adjustors, gutting my house, driving the dark streets to my dark apartment, I ran into my friend Gigi, who sells ads for Gambit Weekly. She caught me as I was rushing around in my apron, which I like to wear because it shows I'm a kitchen dude, at Surrey's Cafe. For a couple of weeks, owner Greg Surrey and I washed all the dishes. It had to be done so we did it. Not that I mind washing dishes, I find it sort of soothing. But after a few hours, I'd start thinking about all the other things I should be tending to -- going to SBA, caring for my sick cat, drinking. So I ran into Gigi, and she enthusiastically asks if I'd be doing a festival section for Gambit. I don't think I actually sneered. I think I brushed her off with a casual "I really don't know," but my internal dialogue was saying, "I ain't thinking about no stinkin' festivals. Whatever." But give it four months and we are thinking about festivals. We are thinking about keeping alive our way of life and our traditions.

When I first started calling, I was really surprised by how many festivals said, "Hell yeah, we're coming back." I couldn't help but think, Jeeze, take a little break. It seems like there's so much work to be done that it just adds to the list to create a festival. But now I really look at it as a metaphor for rebuilding Louisiana. If we all take care of our little parts of the world then the big picture of Louisiana will be just fine. If I take care of my house, my jobs, pitch in with helping my friends and look after my area, and everyone does the same for their little piece of the world, then the big picture will be fine.

Unbelievably to my mind, back in the fall of 2005 there were a number of festivals that persevered. Among the dozens of festivals that took place -- Gretna presented its Heritage Festival, the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City took place, Festivals Acadiens in Lafayette drew large crowds, the Frog Festival in Rayne took place, Molly's staged its Halloween Parade. Even hard-hit Chalmette felt it a point of pride to celebrate the Battle of 1812 Commemoration this past January.

Overall I've found that Cajun country from Ville Platte through Lafayette to Morgan City came through rather unscathed and are planning to have practically every festival as previously scheduled. Feel free to take a road trip to the Crawfish Festival, Festival International, the Crawfish Etouffee Cook-off or the Zydeco Festival. Festival International in downtown Lafayette will be back for its 20th anniversary with five days, six stages, 18 countries represented, 30 food booths and 125 musical performances. And admission is free.

St. Bernard, as we all know, one of the hardest hit parishes, got its Tourist Information Center up and running mid-Februrary with one of the few working phones in the parish. My buddy Elizabeth, who heads up the tourist office, tracked down information, letting me know that the Los Islenos Fiesta is taking place in March, albeit not in its pretty, oak-filled historic site. This year it'll be held at the St. Bernard Government Complex, but that's OK. The big LA Crawfish Festival will not take place this year, but the Tomato Festival at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church, the first church to open in St. Bernard, will happen in May. Ones we were not able to confirm include May's Blessing of the Fleet in Violet and Chalmette, and the San Pedro Pescador Blessings in Delacroix and Yscloskey, usually held in August.

Plaquemines Parish, which is not just damaged but physically less than they were before the hurricanes, held its December Orange Festival in 2005 and will be back with its Oilfield Chili Cook-off in March and the Heritage and Seafood Festival on Memorial Day weekend. Non-working phones are the answer when trying to track down information on its annual Civil War Days (April) and the Empire South Pass Tarpon rodeo in August.

To answer the more immediate question that comes to mind concerning many of the New Orleans-area festivals -- Are they taking place? A big ol' yes to Super Sunday, all the St. Patrick's Day (or here, the week) events, the Strawberry Festival, the French Quarter Festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, the Greek Festival, Back to the Beach, Freret Street Festival, the Zydeco Festival and Festival International in Lafayette.

Expect no slowdown for St. Patrick's Day festivities. In fact, since March 17 lands on a Friday, it's even more intense than normal. The big Irish Channel Parade, complete with its cabbage and vegetable throws, takes place on the Saturday before, on March 11. On Friday, Parasol's will have its usual block party, as will Bourre's on the West Bank, with food, live music and green beer. In an unusual twist this year, Molly's French Quarter Parade and the Downtown Irish Club's St. Patrick's Day Parade through the Bywater and Marigny will take place the same evening. Check out the listings for the complete parade dates.

Trinity Episcopal Church is holding its annual "Bach Around the Clock," a 29-hour continuous music marathon starting March 24 at 7 p.m. and ending at midnight on Saturday. But feeling the need to recognize the post-Katrina world and desiring to add more joy and cheer to our lives, the event this year will be "Bach Around the Clock and Elvis Too" with a bit of Pink Floyd. That should be a hoot.

You might want to take note, the Freret Street Festival will be taking place this year but moving from April to June.

The French Quarter Festival, which usually takes place two weeks before Jazz Fest, will take place the immediate preceding weekend because of how Easter falls this year. Always emphasizing local musicians and food, the stages will still be on the streets of the French Quarter, Jackson Square and along Woldenberg Park overlooking the Mississippi River. The stages around the damaged U.S. Mint will not be erected this year, but there will still be plenty of music. Speaking of the Mint, the Satchmo Summerfest is still taking place in August. but the location will most likely be someplace else, which may present new opportunities.

An article came out in The Times-Picayune back in November with the headline stating the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival would be back "Bigger and Better," as quoted by a Jazz Fest official. I like to joke that "dudes, it doesn't have to be bigger and better, all I needed to know is it will be back." So yes, the mighty Jazz Fest will be back, and I think many a person sighed with relief and gratefulness. I suspect there will be some cutbacks, those factoids will be released in time, but we will have our great food, music galore and the great spirit that Jazz Fest brings to the city. I really feel that the impact of this event on our recovery psyche cannot be over emphasized. And, poor things, I'm sure they will still have to deal with all the whiners nitpicking about the production and prices, but I'm going to focus on the fact that organizers worked really hard to pull this festival together and I'm going to shake my booty and enjoy it. You can go to its Web site to check out the musical lineup which was released Feb. 15.

One of our most beloved festivals, the Greek Festival, is coming back Memorial Day Weekend. Despite a severely flooded site and no phone as of yet, an abbreviated version of its tasty food festival will be back for two days at the end of May. More details will be forthcoming on its Web site.

One amusing hurricane phenomenon I found while calling festivals was that a few have had to make some adjustments because of FEMA trailer parks. In this age of acceptance of strange things as common, it was very understandable. The village of antique booths erected during Abita Spring's All Town Garage Sale will be relocated a mile down the road because FEMA trailers have overtaken the original site. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council's Super Sunday will start at Washington and LaSalle but will find a new, to-be-determined, final ending spot due to FEMA trailers at A.L. Davis Park. The Duck Festival may not be able to hold its festival in the Duck Festival Park in Geuydon because of FEMA trailers. But that's OK. Gerald, Duck Festival honcho, said they'll just have it on Main Street if the trailers are still there in August. It's all about going with the flow.

Some of the larger events that will not be happening in town this year include the MO Fest, Ponderosa Stomp and the Essence Festival. Feeling somewhat foolish, yet needing to ask and get answered the question in my anal need for completeness, I spoke with Mr. Ernest Collins with the Mayor's office about the status of the MO Fest. He was very gracious as he chuckled that the city just wanted to pull off a successful Mardi Gras and chances are MO Fest would have to be on the back burner. Yep, I'm thinking they got a few things on their plate to deal with.

The Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau's fiith annual Ponderosa Stomp, the nighttime music extravaganza held between Jazz Fest weekends at Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, has moved to Memphis. Scheduled for May 9-10, the lineup is just as retro and impressive as the last four years with the likes of Warren Storm, Rockie Charles, Little Freddie King, Rebirth Brass Band, Lazy Lester, plus dozens more. Proceeds will help benefit the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. Visit www.knights-maumau.com/stomp_5.php for details.

And as most people have heard, summertime in New Orleans will be a tad slower tourist-wise this year with the move of the Essence Music Festival to Houston.

So at the end of weeks of sleuthing and asking questions, I'm in awe. If I weren't so lazy I'd feel like I should try and go to all the festivals this year to show my support. I'll try a few. I really want some crawfish -- big, hot, spicy, sweet as butter crawfish. That can be my motivation. Let the good times roll.

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