The Sights And Sounds Of Mardi Gras 2018

It was just minutes after the gates opened Sunday for the third day of the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do stage already was in full swing.

A crowd of zydeco fans and other locals, many of whom make the stage their first stop at Jazz Fest every year, waltzed along to the Jambalaya Cajun Band, their tie-dyed shirts creating a kaleidoscopic effect as they twirled in circles.

Whether they know it or not, those fans have for decades relied on a key figure to make their favorite party run on time: Chuck Blamphin, who has worked at Jazz Fest for the past 45 years, most of them as stage manager for Fais Do-Do.

"The very first year Jazz Fest started (at the Fair Grounds location), my sister volunteered," Blamphin recalled Sunday morning, as he took a rare break from his duties running the show. "She said, 'You've got to come out.' I came the next year, and I was hooked."

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Festival-goers dance as Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band perform on the Fais Do-Do Stage during the first day of Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, La., Friday, April 27, 2018.

Blamphin has admittedly missed out on a lot over his nearly five decades at the Fais Do-Do stage. With as little as 25 minutes between sets, catering to the various demands of musicians and staff, the dedicated stage manager rarely strays far from his post — even when big acts come to town.

He did manage to catch half a song from Bruce Springsteen in 2014, and he saw Elton John play a little in 2015. But mostly, he relies on others to "live vicariously," listening to stories they've collected wandering the Fair Grounds as he takes five-minute breaks to gulp down cochon de lait po-boys and other food they bring back for him.

Still, as his radio crackled and the Jambalaya Cajun Band practiced their tribute to D.L. Menard, the artist known as the "Cajun Hank Williams" who died at 85 last summer, Blamphin said he wouldn't trade his job "for any in the world."

"I belong here. I love it," he said. "I've got the luckiest gig in the world."

Over the years, Blamphin has worked with such musical legends as Isidore "Tuts" Washington, who was famous for his New Orleans rhythm and blues sounds from the 1920s and beyond, and Roosevelt Sykes, another old-time blues musician whose outgoing personality earned him the nickname "The Honeydripper."

More recent legends to grace Blamphin's stage included Coco Robicheaux, the Ascension Parish bluesman who died in 2011, and the Savoy Family Cajun Band, French-speaking musicians renowned for maintaining their cultural integrity.

"Year after year, they come back, and we become friends with them," Blamphin said of the artists he meets. "They just become part of the Fais Do-Do stage. And it's a hard thing when they pass."

But the main draw is seeing the audience experience a feeling he calls the "spirit of Jazz Fest," a vibe that he says has remained unchanged, at least at Fais Do-Do, from the days when Mardi Gras Indians danced on flatbed trucks for much smaller audiences, and there were no barricades to separate the mainstream crowd from band members or VIP ticket-buyers.

"It was then just as it is now," Blamphin said nostalgically. "Now we're just sharing it with more people."

Now, more than ever, many of those people come from around the world to hear the unique sounds Fais Do-Do has to offer, as a Jazz Fest stage that locals say has remained true to its Louisiana roots.

Occasionally, Blamphin said, he will ask audience members who is from the Pelican State and who is from out of town. Most of the time, he estimates, about 70 percent are from elsewhere.

Still, the stage and Blamphin himself attract locals as well, many of whom dance all day and sing along loudly in French as the Cajun bands play.

Among them is 71-year-old Arthur Mann, who, with his wife, Lynn, has attended Jazz Fest every year since the beginning.

Like many diehard fans, Mann has his Jazz Fest traditions. His day always starts with a visit to Blamphin, his friend from grade school. 

He then periodically comes back to the Fais Do-Do stage for its vibe, which he calls "totally different" from "just a guy with an accordion and violin." 

"It can be Cajun, country, rock 'n' roll," Mann said. "And of all the stages, this one's the most laid-back."

Lisa Wurtzel, who also spends her time there with her husband, David, agreed. 

"It's quite a community here," she said. "It's part of the good vibe of Jazz Fest."

Meet the man many Jazz Fest locals depend on: Fais Do-Do stage manager Chuck Blamphin
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