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After year off, Chazfest returns with ‘Chaz in Space'

Chazfest returns Wednesday, with two stages this year. (Photo: Chazfest on Facebook)

Chazfest returns Wednesday, with two stages this year. (Photo: Chazfest on Facebook)

New Orleans is not known for normalcy, but in the chaotic year after Hurricane Katrina, it was in shorter supply than usual.

“Everything was crazy,” singer-songwriter Alex McMurray says. “People were just doing anything, just trying new things. It was kind of a clean slate or not a clean slate but a weird slate; there were no rules and it made sense to just try whatever."

That spirit spread to the musician community. When McMurray and a group of musicians who usually play The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival found themselves left out due to the abbreviated, post-storm schedule, they took matters into their own hands.

After nixing a suggestion to go play right across the street from the Fairgrounds, “we figured well, it’s a lot nicer here at the house so let’s just do it here,” McMurray says.

But it’s not just any house. Chazfest is held in the spacious backyard of the Truck Farm complex on St. Claude Avenue, which is actually four properties-in-one that share an acre of a backyard.

“You’re going to be greeted by like a sort of a scene from the country,” says McMurray. “It's like you’re in the mountains of Jamaica or something. It’s very lush and very green, and then you go through these outbuildings and you’re in a big field surrounded by trees. There’ll be lots of people enjoying a day of music.”

This year’s lineup includes headliners Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers, as well as King James & the Special Men, Helen Gillet, Luke Allen, the Tin Men, Valparaiso men’s chorus, Dave Pirner, and the Geraniums.

But Chazfest may be more about the atmosphere than the bands.

“I don’t know if the star of the show is the musicians, really, so much as the property and just the environment that you’re in,” says McMurray. “It’s something that’s hard to describe.”

As for the name, it comes from Washboard Chaz Leary, one of McMurray's frequent collaborators, who was there when the idea for the fest was conceived.

“Washboard Chaz is, simply put, America’s premiere washboard player and vocalist and all around musician,” McMurray says.

Chazfest took a one-year hiatus in 2014 so McMurray and his wife and fellow Chazfest producer, artist Kourtney Keller, could welcome their first child into the world. But they are returning this year with the theme  "Chaz in Space."

"So we’re going to see Chaz in all sorts of outer space situations and iconography, etcetera,” says McMurray. “It’s going to be very exciting.”

Chazfest has grown since that first year, but not by much, McMurray says.

“The property’s only so big and we can’t get any bigger,” he explains. “The stage is a little bigger than we started and has a tent over it, but we still do the lighting with those clamp lights you get at Home Depot and I guess the sound system’s a little bigger now. We also have two stages -- we started with just one stage.”

And despite that initial impulse to play right across the street from Jazz Fest nine years ago, Chazfest has never been about upstaging Jazz Fest, or anyone else for that matter.

“Our thing is, I don’t know if we’re competing with anybody, we’re just doing our own thing,” says McMurray. “It’s just a nice spot, and it’s a nice little hang, kid friendly, and just an idyllic little spot in the middle of the Ninth Ward.”

Chazfest is Wednesday, April 29, rain or shine, with music from noon until about 10 p.m., Doors open at 11 a.m.

The Truck Farm is at 3020 St. Claude Avenue. For more information, visit chazfestival.com or their Facebook page for updates.

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.