In the last 10 years, I’ve covered nearly 100 music festivals, but have yet to attend a blues fest. This April, I rectified that slight by heading to the capitol of Louisiana and the annual Baton Rouge Blues Festival. Baton Rouge is frequently overlooked by the glitz and glamour of nearby New Orleans, but I found the city to have a charming, small town vibe.
About the Festival
The Home of Swamp Blues
Debuting in 1981, The Baton Rouge Blues Festival is one of the oldest free blues fest in the United States. Taking place over two days, alumni to the fest have included internationally recognized talent like Larry Garner, Charlie Musselwhite, and Buddy Guy. One of the best parts of this fest is that it also honors the home-grown blues talent with plenty of local representation across the weekend.
The Lay of the Land
The Baton Rouge Blues Festival takes place in the streets and parks in the downtown center. The main stage sits in a comfortable grassy bowl with a view over the Mississippi River. There’s a second stage at Galvez Plaza, along with a few smaller street stages and a busking stage inside the stunning old capitol building (worth a look inside even if you’re not there for the festival).
This is a friendly outdoors (mostly) festival, which has that easygoing vibe common to free fests. Chairs and blankets are welcome, and festies set up camp across the parks on Sunday to enjoy the beautiful weather. While the festival is completely free, you can support the organization by purchasing VIP tickets which comes with free food, premium seating, and one of the best open bars I’ve ever seen at a festival. Food trucks abound featuring local favorites like boudin balls with gouda cheese and crispy fried chicken.
“Rain Can’t Stop the Blues”
Rolling thunderstorms and tornado warnings led to the cancellation of Saturday’s planned outdoor activities, but the organization pulled together an abbreviated schedule across Baton Rouge’s downtown bars. The first stop was at Jolie Pearl, which also turns out to be the first stop if you’re looking for raw oysters. Just around the corner, the packed Register Bar also had a full slate of blues for the afternoon and even with the rainstorms outside, everyone was super friendly. The first people I met at the festival slapped a VIP bracelet on me and invited me over for some free drinks.
Music Beyond the Festival
Arriving early on Friday night, I stumbled across Live at Five, a weekly outdoor concert series (also free!) and a friendly introduction to the city. After that, I soon found myself in Happy’s Irish Pub listening to cover bands. Other places that I didn’t have time to check out, but came highly recommend included Phil Brady’s, a dive bar which has been hosting a 22-year long Thursday night blues jam, and Teddy’s Juke Joint, the last stop on the “Blues Highway”.
Acts I Caught Over the Weekend
- Mavis Staples
- Robert Cray
- Jonathon “Boogie” Long
- Cedric Burnside
- Quiana Lynell
- Deacon John
- John “Papa” Gros
- Killer Whale
- William Bell
- Smokehouse Porter
Rock and Roll and Blues Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy winner, Mavis Staples closed out the show Sunday night in outstanding fashion. She’s on tour this summer and stopping in at more than a few festivals, so make the effort to see this legend live if you can.
“I hope I’m that spry when I’m 94,” the man next to me said when Henry Gray took the stage for the afternoon. A five time Grammy winner, Grey has more than 58 albums to his credit and has performed with the Rolling Stones, and here I am watching him wind up the crowd in an oyster bar.
I was shoving yet another plate of raw oysters into my mouth when the couple next to me said, “you’ve got to leave in the next five minutes. Deacon John is starting!” The 77 year old band leader is a true showman bouncing around for 90 minutes, even sporting a colorful umbrella at one point.
William Bell brought a full backing band with him to play the main stage on Saturday night — until the rain forced them inside to the Register where they crammed onto a stage so tiny that the bassist was playing in the hallway. It was sweaty, packed, high-energy, and one of the best sets of the weekend.
Where to Eat
You may be shocked to learn that we don’t have a ton of Cajun Food up north, so I spent my three days in Baton Rouge eating my way through the local cuisine. From pulled pork and grits for breakfast at Magpie’s Café to Oysters Rockefeller at Jolie’s to boudin balls at the festival, I could not stop eating. My favorite spot was Mimi’s Café, which offers all the Louisiana food you might crave along with an incredible Vietnamese menu when you need some reinvigorating pho (aka hangover soup).
Jolie Pearl and Oyster Bar – Best oysters in town
315 North Blvd
Café Mimi – Breakfast and lunch with Louisiana/Vietnamese food
329 Florida S.
Magpie Café Downtown – Locally sourced brunch spot
333 Laurel St.
Poor Boy Lloyd’s – Best sandwiches in town
201 Florida St.
Where To Drink
The festival ended early enough to grab a few drinks before the end of the evening. Baton Rouge on the weekends is a lively place, although a bit quieter than normal this weekend with the students from nearby LSU on spring break. I spent most of Saturday at The Register Bar, a great spot to catch some live music. For quiet chilling and delicious whisky cocktails, the River Room was my late-night spot, along with the Bengal Tap for some locally brewed beers.
The River Room – Quiet whisky lounge
222 Laurel St.
The Register Bar – Live music every weekend and outdoor patio
143 3rd St.
Bengal Tap Room – Sports bar with local beer list
421 3rd Street
Happy’s Irish Pub– Lively backyard patio with live music
136 North 3rd Street
What To Do
You can’t festival all the time (although I certainly try), so here’s where I ended up doing when I wasn’t busy stuffing my face with food. In the spirit of the free festival I was attending, these activities all cost exactly nothing.
Louisiana State Capitol
900 North Third Street
Standing at thirty stories and claiming the title of the “largest state capitol”, this art deco inspired building is impressive on its own, but make sure to ride up 450 feet to the observation deck at the top for incredible views of the city. Check in at the tourist desk when you arrive, and they’ll provide you with a ton of information, like that fact that man responsible for the building, Governor Huey P. Long, was also assassinated here.
Mississippi River Levee Path
Head straight from 3rd Street to the river
Only a half block from my hotel, I walked this path every morning to town, taking in the views of the Mississippi River along with the New Bridge and barges working the river. Fun fact: the movie Battleship was filmed in Baton Rouge.
Louisiana Old State Capitol Museum
100 North Blvd.
I may have come for the busking performances in the lobby, but the Old State Capitol contains a beautiful museum inside. The National Historic Landmark highlights the history of the state with the strangest item in the the building being a set of trophy antlers won by the Robert E. Lee in the Great Steamboat Race of 1870.
Spanish Town Historic District
North Seventh St/Spanish Town Road
Speaking of ambling around town, this is a great neighborhood for seeing the spirit of the city. Pink flamingos and colorful beads adorn these bungalow homes. The neighborhood also hosts the largest Mardi Gras parade in the city.
After a long, snowy winter in Montana, it was a treat to head to a city where you can wear shorts in April, especially when combined with so much live music. There’s more happening here than you might expect in Baton Rouge, so for a dose of small city charm (and lots and lots of Cajun food) along with what most people would consider summer weather, check one of their many springtime parties.