Cedric Ellsworth

Sound of Our City: French Quarter Festival Veterans Talk About What the Festival Means To Them

17:00 April 18, 2022
By: Sabrina Stone

We have all been waiting patiently for festival season to return and it finally has! How fitting for the first massive one, French Quarter Fest, to be one that is so open, welcoming, beloved, and synonymous with the sounds of our city.

We're ready for music to come back in a big way, for it to be as much in the air as it has been in our hearts and on our minds. I reached out to several veteran French Quarter Fest performers and, for once, it sounds like the artists are even more excited to attend than the fans are.

"Playing the French Quarter Fest feels like freedom again. I don't even know if I can put it into words. It's like New Orleans comfort food. You play it and it's like, 'That was so satisfying.' When you're out of New Orleans for a while, you come back and eat a beignet and think, 'Man, I'm back home.' That's what it feels like. It feels like I'm back in my community." - Lou Hill (Water Seed)

Cinese and Jentleman

"I'm really looking forward to playing at French Quarter Fest this year. I'm so happy for the return. It is, just, one of the most special festivals here in New Orleans. I look forward to it every year. I've had the privilege of performing for the past 10 years and it's just so great every single [time]. I love it. Hope to see everybody this year." - Lena Prima

"It's one of my favorite festivals to do in the entire year. It is home. It reminds me of family, of New Orleans, of the local love. I've never had a bad French Quarter Fest set. It's almost like everybody comes out, ready to absorb and love everything. You can do any song, any cover, any original. It's where I started my call and response, 'Feeling Good?' 'Feeling Great!'" - Robin Barnes (Robin Barnes and the Fiya Birds)

Courtesy, Robin Barnes

"It's always a highlight of the year because, to me, French Quarter Fest, it's where the world comes to you. I swear, every time we've played out of town, somebody has said, 'I saw you perform at French Quarter Fest.'" - Louis Michot (Lost Bayou Ramblers)

Cedric Ellsworth

"French Quarter Fest has been wonderful to me, always, over the years. Wonderful to my friends, wonderful to my community, just wonderful all around." - Sophie Lee

"Just to be able to go and play for the past couple years, we feel super lucky. There's so much acceptance, love of the culture, and appreciation for musicians. It's like no other festival. We're really excited to go back, especially with our new music." - Babineaux Sisters

Courtesy, Babineaux Sisters


When I say these artists are veterans, I mean it. Some of them have played so many French Quarter Fest performances that they've lost count.

"The first time I played French Quarter Fest was back in '02. Crazy, 20 years. It's been really interesting, watching it develop. My early shows were with Trombone Shorty. The festival and Troy's career were expanding at a rapid rate. They were some of the largest audiences I had ever performed for, at the time. I remember this moment of blowing my horn and hearing that sound echo from the Mississippi River. It was a pretty cool experience. I'm really excited to be playing along the river with my own band again this year." - James Martin

John Boutté actually has lost count, "I've been doing it for so many years now, I can't even tell you. It's gotta be well over 20, maybe 30 years. It's just a great festival. My sister, Lillian [Boutté], performed at the first French Quarter Fest ever [in 1984]."

Sophie Lee began guesting with the Jazz Vipers in '06 and has played with her own band for 10+ years. Louis Michot remembered it as a whirlwind of performances, "[Lost Bayou Ramblers] used to do so many gigs. It'd be morning, noon, and night, nonstop throughout the whole French Quarter Fest weekend. I'm pretty sure that one year we did seven gigs in 24 hours around our French Quarter Fest gig."

Alex McMurray has lost count as well. "I really have no idea how many times I've played. The first time that I remember was '02 or so. I'd routinely play out there three or four times a year. So, I guess 50-70 times? The jazz guys, they'll do two or three gigs a day, every day. Ask one of them and you'll get some astounding number."


A big part of what keeps performers coming back and giving their all to the French Quarter Festival is the feeling of family and community that it promotes.

"What I loved about it was I could bring my mom and my dad. They would come out. My mom came out every year, every year she could. She missed maybe one before she passed but she was there, supporting us 'til then. It made her so proud to see us. It was a family affair. Two years ago, watching my sister Lillian, I thought, 'How is she getting better? I've been listening to her my entire life. She cannot be getting better.' Yet she was." - John Boutté

"My favorite memory is of my son, who's now eight years old, I guess he was five years old then, running around with his little buddies, horsing around. It was just a nice mellow scene. There was crawfish in the back, not this huge level of security. I was able to just drift backstage. It's definitely my speed." - Alex McMurray

"One year, my family lost my daughter. My oldest was two years old and I was pregnant with my youngest. I was up on stage. My husband was too. His mother and sister and my best friend were in town and all three of them were in charge of watching our two-year-old. When my set finished, I got off stage and I'm looking around and I see them and I say, 'Where's Eleanora?' And they all go, 'I thought she had her. I thought she had her.' In a full-on panic, I go back up to the stage and say, 'Stop the music. Stop everything. I am looking for my daughter. She's two years old. Has anybody seen her?' All these hands raise up, pointing towards the police station, so I run there in a panic and there she is, on the counter of the NOPD station, giggling her butt off, being entertained by all these officers. I don't know if it's my favorite memory, but it's definitely my most indelible. - Sophie Lee

Courtesy, Sophie Lee

"As a New Orleanian, growing up here, French Quarter Fest was always the special festival I would go to with my family. Being able to look up and admire all these local artists onstage, wowing the crowd, I thought, 'I can't wait to be that one day.' Now my husband, Pat Casey, plays up there with me too in the Fiyabirds." - Robin Barnes

"Every time we make the trip to New Orleans for the French Quarter Fest, every seat in the car is full and there's a car behind us with every seat full and then people are coming from all over the state. We have teachers from Covington High that take off of school every year to watch us at the festival. It's kind of like a family reunion. To see all those familiar faces in the crowd looking at you and smiling and being so proud of you. That's a great part of it." - Babineaux Sisters

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