I made sure to take a moment last Friday night while I was standing in the middle of what many are calling Madison's "Future Central Park" to count my blessings.
I recently returned home from an eight-day road trip to New York, during which I saw some pretty desperate cities (Indiana's Gary and Michigan City) as well as some towns that seem to be clinging to one industry that makes it desirable (Sandusky, Ohio). I also listened to friends who live in the cultural capital of America, if not the world, kvetch about the lack of laid-back summer street fairs so common in their native cities of Chicago and Milwaukee.
Maybe all it takes is a little spin around the country to realize how nice we have it here in the 608, particularly during weekends when an enterprising neighborhood organization has organized three straight days packed with fine musical acts from all over the world at the too-good-to-be-true cost of zero dollars. So as I stood there among friends on the hard pan that will someday be Madison's Central Park, sipping my $4 Berghoff out of a plastic cup and snacking on a praline from Bab's French Quarter Bistro, I made sure to secretly toast my luck, along with the organizers of La Fête de Marquette.
Bob Queen helps organize four festivals every summer: the Marquette Waterfront Festival in early June, August's Orton Park Festival, September's Willy St. Fair and, starting last year, La Fête de Marquette in mid-July. Each is a wonderful event with a unique flavor, but due to sterling weather, this year's Fête will be hard to top. Just warm enough to make a cold beverage refreshing, but cool enough to keep the most energetic dancers from keeling over, conditions couldn't have been better if they were custom ordered.
We barely missed the Hot 8 Brass Band on Friday night and regretted it all weekend as, one after another, friends told us how energetic and talented they are. But Vieux Farka Touré, son of the legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, didn't disappoint. Malian music is considered by many to be the original blues and Vieux comes by it honestly, learning to play guitar in secret due to his father's strict refusal to allow him to study music. His band was followed by another musical heir, Aaron Neville's son Ivan and his band Dumpstaphunk. With the setting sun casting the sky above the east-side warehouse district in shades of violet, Dumpstaphunk motivated a dancing mob with its covers and politically-tinged originals.
Saturday night was dominated by Samba Mapangala & The Orchestra Virunga and, again, the area in front of the stage was filled with moving bodies of all ages. A friend observed dancing with a two-year old on his shoulders noted that "hippie dancing is a skill you can master early and it will stick with you for the rest of your life." But among the usual cast of twirlers and pogo sticks were some truly inspired movers who followed along with Mapangala's choreography.
By late Sunday afternoon, however, the aerobic dancers had given way to waltzers who were grateful for their opportunity to three-step along to the authentic cajun sounds of Feufollet. The fresh-faced band from Lafayette is anchored by Chris Stafford on concertina and Chris Segura on fiddle, who founded the group 12 years ago when they were eight and 11 years old, respectively. Despite their youth, they're able to craft a rustic sound with an infectious amount of energy. Their set served as a perfect warm-up for C.J. Chenier and the Red Hots, whose set of zydeco was almost derailed for the want of a 9-volt battery.
Should it be any surprise, however, that an appeal to the crowd for one by Sunday emcee Andy Moore was almost instantly productive? Who brings a 9-volt battery to a neighborhood festival? Then again, whose neighborhood throws a three-day French-themed music festival featuring world-class acts on a glorified gravel lot in the middle of warehouses and rail yards?
Jots with dots from LFDM: Holy bikes! The row of bike racks couldn't contain the volume of two-wheelers ridden to La Fête, many of which were seen locked to trees, guy wires and fences along the train tracks that run along the southern boundary of the park ... There was plenty of good eatin', including the MNA's brat stand, the aforementioned Bab's and Glass Nickel Pizza. But my favorite was the catfish basket I got from the Pat's Bayou Batter trailer, served with a secret recipe tartar sauce and plenty of sugar-sweet Southern hospitality throughout the weekend ... Kisser Nate Palan said the band piled into their van and drove straight back from a Saturday night gig in Warwick, New York, to see Sunday's lineup ... When my girlfriend returned after a considerable wait in the beer tent on Friday night, she remarked that the people in front of her held up the line while flirting with the servers. I turned to look, expecting to see some Gen. Y cuties working the taps only to spy a cast of 40-somethings holding the gray beards at bay. "I'm not even flattered!" exclaimed one volunteer bar maid ... I didn't spot a cop or any situation that would have called for one all weekend.