David Michael Miller
The new setting should be cooler and more comfortable.
La Fête de Marquette is going home. On July 10-13, the annual celebration of French-speaking cultures will head back to its original spot between Baldwin and Ingersoll after six years of sweating it out on a patch of blacktop off East Washington Avenue. But the rocky lot La Fête made do with in 2006 has been replaced with the new Central Park.
Festival organizer Bob Queen says the site was basically a capped landfill with no soil structure for the first two Fêtes. Back then, with the stage sitting on top of a gravel pad, temperatures hit 105 degrees. But now, with grass under everyone's feet, he anticipates a much cooler experience.
La Fête will largely take place on the Great Lawn in the center of the new space. Around that green gem in the middle, Central Park features pedestrian and multi-use plazas, permanent restrooms and a small amphitheater, which Queen says isn't big enough to accommodate La Fête.
That means the event's big stage will return, put up in roughly the same spot as in 2006. But with an abundance of clean, quiet energy available in Central Park, the noisy, gas-powered generators that crowded into previous events won't make the trip.
Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center executive director Gary Kallas says that compared to last year, the organizers will have roughly 10,000 to 12,000 additional square feet at their disposal in Central Park. Ingersoll will be closed so the stage can be set up there. In other words, attendees and vendors will have much more room to stretch out than in fests past.
The surroundings will feel new, but there won’t be an overwhelming amount of change to deal with since a large portion of this year's lineup is standout acts from previous editions of La Fête. Marcia Ball returns to close the fest on Sunday, July 13, Le Jour du Monde. Queen says the blues-singing pianist has become the event's "den mother" over the past several years.
Before Ball performs on Sunday, Haitian singer Emeline Michel will make her first appearance at the festival, bringing her bubbly mixture of traditional compas and merengue music. French and Algerian rap squad HK & Les Saltimbanks recently became the protest soundtrack for French workers striking against the government's attempts to raise the retirement age. The pro-union vibes in Madison should be a good match for the band's politically minded reggae-chaabi sonic collage.
Le Jour du Monde will also see performances from Parisian-Trinidadian pop singer Naila, San Francisco's Fishtank Ensemble and the Limanya Drum and Dance Troupe on the Great Lawn. After not only surviving but thriving in the intense heat at the 2006 La Fête, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys will be back for both Saturday and Sunday.
Le Jour de Louisiane on Saturday, July 12, amplifies the fest's Cajun and Creole flavors. Anders Osborne returns to headline the day. The wooly ax-man will shred through the psych-tinged blues off 2013's Peace. Queen says Cindy Cashdollar, who performs on Saturday and Sunday, will sit in with Osborne's band, along with Shannon McNally and John "Papa" Gros from New Orleans' Papa Grows Funk.
Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas will chip in some fast-tempo washboard and accordion jams for dancing in the midday sun, and Mama Digdown's Brass Band, a local group, will fill out the Saturday schedule.
Friday night culminates in Raw Oyster Cult, which is what you get when you take the Radiators and add Gros on Hammond organ. Queen calls the Radiators "pound for pound, the best drinking band there is." Warming up the crowd for them on Friday is Dengue Fever, L.A.-based Cambodian surf rockers who've frequented other Wil-Mar festivals in the past, as well as Le Vent du Nord, a traditional Québécois band from Canada.
As usual, La Fête kicks off Thursday, July 10, with Willy Street Co-op night. Honey Island Swamp Band and Soul Rebels Brass Band will cap off that evening. Queen says the two acts often play together as a "swamp and soul revue."
There will be a whole other tent for La Musique Electronique, a mini-fest featuring DJs and electronic artists. Its music and dancing move to the High Noon Saloon after La Fête closes at 11 p.m. House music authorities Derrick Carter and Mark Farina headline both the tent and the afterparty, and 74-year-old acid house guru Charanjit Singh will make his live U.S. debut. There will also be a costume-filled, Nick Nice-led Kids' Masquerade.
La Fête now has room to grow, and Kallas says planning for next year will likely start on Saturday night. But for now, he and Queen simply sound excited to head back to the festival's newly revitalized birthplace.