Once the sun's gone down and the zydeco's heated up, take a break from two-steppin' and watch the half-moon glitter on the river. Is this Philadelphia, or are we down on some Louisiana bayou?
Jam on the River is a fusion of two of Philly's most popular musical institutions, the original Jambalaya Jam and, later, RiverBlues, which had lost its corporate sponsor. What's better about this jam? For starters, lower ticket prices ($5 for the Friday Night Blues Jam; $12 a day at the gate for Saturday, Sunday and Monday, $2 for kids 2 to 12). And according to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, the organizer, this four-day event also boasts more bands (47), more musicians (440, including two gospel choirs), more edibles, and more crafts. It's also expected to attract more people: Projections top 50,000.
It's family-friendly, so bring along the kids - or your visiting relatives. From early afternoon through early evening Saturday, Sunday and Monday, one of the festival's four stages - dubbed the Junior Jam - will showcase children's entertainers as well as music for those less enamored of the rootsy stuff. Offerings range from the Quaker City String Band and the Sweet Adelines to Trout Fishing in America and the Dinner Dogs - two bands much admired by under-10 hipsters and their parents. Kids can also fashion instruments and Mardi Gras masks, then strut their stuff in twice-daily Mardi Gras parades, and they can get their faces painted for free by the classy Peanut Butter organization from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.
For craft-lovers, there will be authentic Louisiana doo-dads such as cypress knees and turtle-shell knickknacks, plus brass and bone jewelry from Kenya, jewelry inspired by Cherokee traditions and environmentally conscious earrings, among other offerings.
Then there's the food. ``This is just happy food that makes you want to take another bite,'' drawls chef Joe Cahn, the self-described king of New Orleans home cooking who'll be dishing out his own Crawfish Monica and jambalaya (``I know mine is the best - it's the way I season the rice'') at the jam. ``When we put New Orleans food in our mouth,'' he says, ``we want our mouth to be happy. We want the food to do a little dance on the tongue. And we want our bodies to feel euphoric because our mouth is doing this little dance.''
Cahn, who plans to drive his motor home - dubbed the Happiness Mobile - the 1,272 miles from the Big Easy to the City of Brotherly Love, is also hauling north 2,000 bags of Zapp's Crawtater Chips, a Crescent City snack he says is superior ``because these chips are made by happy people, that's why.'' Other New Orleans treats on the jam menu include sausage po'boys and crawfish boudin (crawfish, rice and hot peppers stuffed in a sausage casing), red beans and rice with sausage, Louisiana gumbo, shrimp Creole, crawfish etouffee and bread pudding with bourbon sauce. You'll also find barbecue, ribs, sweet potato pie, fried chicken, crabcakes and - if you must - cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. Wash it down with plain old American beer (Budweiser is a sponsor).
Worried about the fat content? Think about it on Tuesday. ``You can always jog from food booth to food booth,'' Cahn suggests.
The musical feast begins with the blues jam tonight under the tent (there's only one tent, so bring an umbrella if it looks like rain), where local jazz keyboardist ``Papa'' John DeFrancesco will be on hand. Stick around after intermission for two other standouts: the Duke Robillard Band - a bristling rhythm and blues machine fronted by guitarist Robillard, whose resume includes stints with Muddy Waters, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Roomful of Blues. Closing the evening are the Holmes Brothers, the soul trio who meld the sanctified sound of gospel with rough, gutsy blues.
Etta James, who won a Grammy for Mystery Lady, her 1994 album of Billie Holiday songs, brings her Roots Band to town tomorrow night for one show. Expect funk, throaty blues, old jazz standards, and even pop from this bawdy, magnetic diva.
Must-see performers among the weekend's big Cajun and Zydeco contingents include Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers. Jocque, a 6-foot-6 former welder who dwarfs his accordion, plays a hard-driving mix of Texas boogie, hip-hop and even reggae. See him Saturday afternoon and again that night, at a zydeco dance party with the band Mamou.
A second zydeco dance party under the tent Monday night features Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, and Wayne Toups and Zydecajun.
The classical Cajun band Beau-soleil avec Michael Doucet, Jambalaya regulars known for a huge repertoire of traditional Louisiana songs as well as for Doucet's fine fiddle playing, appear twice on Saturday. Sunday brings acclaimed rub-board virtuoso Rockin' Dopsie Jr. with his Zydeco Twisters (the rub-board looks like a cross between medieval armor and a wash board) in two shows. Accordionist Zachary Richard - the saucy ``Cajun Bad Boy'' - also performs Sunday afternoon and evening.
While the Neville Brothers - also Jambalaya regulars - will not appear at this jam (they have a long-term booking in Las Vegas), cousin Charmaine Neville will, in two sets Sunday. Charmaine adds jazzy scat singing to her hometown's Mardi Gras rhythms.
If you miss church on Sunday - or even if you don't - a 3 1/2-hour gospel jam in late afternoon offers plenty of heartfelt testifying from some of the best choirs around. The local Wilmington Chester Mass Choir has a new record climbing the Billboard charts and is a regular award-winner in gospel cirles. The Camden-based Tri-State Mass Choir also has had a recording on the Billboard charts for more than 36 weeks, and recently finished a live album with Grover Washington Jr., to be released in July. Also on the gospel jam program are standouts Rapture, Gabriel Hardeman Delegation, Metropolitan Male Chorus, Joy Unlimited and Ben Pressley and the Vessels.
Another big attraction on Sunday is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in the evening. Monday's standout acts - there are many - include guitar wizard Chris Duarte, Southern rockers The Radiators, acoustic bluesman Keb' Mo', and Swedish-born Anders Osborne, whose music has been described as a mix of Bob Dylan, Little Feat and Blues Traveler.
Some old, some new. ``Everybody knows gumbo and jambalaya, everybody knows Cajun and zydeco. They are always moving into new ingredients but they're always maintaining the heart of Louisiana,'' says chef Cahn. ``New Orleans food and music will never die.''