A festival founded 10 years ago in a Lower East Side New York dive makes its way to New Orleans for the first time. Founded by a group of musicians-turned-industry pros, Best Fest modeled its early incarnation — a one-off 60th birthday tribute to Bob Dylan, which became the first-ever Dylan Fest — after a similar scene of musicians, label reps and music writers at the scenes at Largo and Hotel Cafe.
"We'd all hang out and drink — a lot of drinking — and talk about music, but nobody was playing together," says founder Alex Levy. "In L.A., it was the same thing, except the guys were hanging out and drinking and playing together. We thought, 'We got to get this going on. We're sitting in this bar, there's all these musicians, they're all happening.'"
Best Fest now hosts annual tributes to Tom Petty (Petty Fest) and, coming to Tipitina's July 17, a tribute to The Rolling Stones, dubbed Stones Fest. The all-star lineup includes Ann Wilson of Heart, comedian Jason Sudeikis and members of Deer Tick, Dr. Dog, Wilco and a dozen other performers, including New Orleans' own George Porter Jr. and Walter "Wolfman" Washington.
Levy says he wanted the Dylan tribute to feel like The Last Waltz: "[P]ut a little band together and invite people to go up and sing a Dylan song." Now, Levy says, "It's like a circus. It's not like your normal kind of show." The house band — Levy on guitar, co-founders Austin Scaggs on bass and Matt Romano on drums — all are music business veterans. Levy was vice president of promotions for Epic Records and an artist relations director for Rolling Stone, and Scaggs is a contributing editor at the magazine. Romano, a former road drummer for The Strokes, also is a partner in exclusive New York dive The Cabin Down Below (named after the Tom Petty song of the same name).
"It's just one of those kinds of places," Levy says. "I met so many people in my life, including my wife, in that bar. A lot of the planning for these shows — we met at Matt's bar. It's a place where musicians and actors want to go to have their own little scene. They specifically wanted a clubhouse."
The first-ever Dylan Fest was held at Manitoba's, a small bar in the Lower East Side, and Best Fest quickly outgrew the space. After three years of Dylan Fest at dive bars, the event moved to clubs and became a sellout show at venues like Bowery Ballroom and Webster Hall. "Every year it kept getting bigger," Levy says. "We added a Petty Fest, and that was great, and that kept getting bigger. Then we added a Stones Fest, and that kept getting bigger."
Best Fest donates all of its ticket proceeds to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which helps support musicians in need of medical aid and other resources. Levy says all proceeds from Stones Fest in New Orleans will benefit New Orleans area musicians, and $1 from each ticket benefits the Tipitina's Foundation.
"That's something we've done before, and we're going to magnify that and really make sure wherever we go, the money is going to go specifically back to the community," Levy says. "It's not lost on us that it's a hard life. We wound up getting day jobs."
Early Fest lineups included the core house band and friends, though the group's friend circle also included The Strokes, Kings of Leon, Norah Jones and others. "We were really lucky," Levy says. "The word of mouth grew with the shows, how fun they were. We would pool our resources with who we knew, who we were hanging out with, who we were doing business with. And now we're at a point where we make a wish list, like, 'Wouldn't it be great to get Emmylou Harris to do a Tom Petty song?' Then we're a couple phone calls away and next thing you know there she is. We're very lucky."
Harris performed Petty's "You Got Lucky" at Petty Fest in Nashville with country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell. Mike Campbell from Petty's Heartbreakers sat in at a previous Stones Fest in New York to perform "Jumpin' Jack Flash." (The night before at the Beacon Theater, Petty gave the fest a shoutout.) "He gets a kick out of what we do," Levy says.
At one Dylan Fest, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band paraded through the crowd playing the opening notes of Dylan's "Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35."
"We hadn't even rehearsed with them," Levy says. "Ben Jaffe came to rehearsal and we talked about what song we were going to do, and he said, 'Let me hear the band play it.' We played a couple of bars and he stopped us and said, 'OK.'
"The crowd lost their minds. These guys walked in like parting the Red Sea. As soon as they hit the stage, the band kicked in. It was one of the most joyful experiences of my life."
Singer/songwriter Norah Jones also has performed at nearly every fest. "She's absolutely one of the greatest performers I've ever seen," Levy says. "Keith Richards said it too, so it must be true."