What started as a brown bag luncheon staged at the corner of Lee and Main streets 25 years ago has developed into Lafayette’s top family-friendly musical event, drawing thousands to downtown on Friday nights every spring and fall. This year, Downtown Alive! — exclamation point and all — celebrates its silver anniversary with a new fall season lineup and a retrospective photo and poster gallery exhibit of past shows stretching back to the first season.
In its early incarnation, Downtown Alive was a lunchtime get-together organized by Tom Boozer, the former executive director of the Acadiana Arts Council. But under the direction of Alanda Bennett and Cathy Webre, the fledgling event has grown into what we now know of as the Friday night musical rites we call Downtown Alive. “At my first meeting with Tom Boozer,” Bennett says, “he inquired as to how we could get people to come to a downtown noontime event called Downtown Alive. Easy answer. Move it to Fridays after work.” After a series of shows at Parc de Lafayette, with its infamous “rain-out” gigs taking shelter in the adjacent parking tower, the event eventually made its way on to Jefferson Street.
“We had to get people back into downtown to see and experience its charm, character and potential,” says Bennett. “We knew the event would eventually click, but there were many Fridays when the band members literally outnumbered the audience.” Taking their cues from Lafayette’s love of music and socializing, Bennett and her volunteer crew incorporated as a nonprofit and knuckled down for both hard work and serious fun. “It was not easy convincing my friends to staff a beer truck every week,” she remembers. “Cathy Webre and I served more than our share of alcohol.”
Photo courtesy of Downtown Lafayette Unlimited
Bas Clas, one of Lafayette’s seminal alternative rock bands of the late ’70s, who also returns to Downtown Alive this season with another local rock favorite Rufus Jagneaux, played the first season of Downtown Alive. “Back then there was barely a stage,” says bassist Geoff Thistlethwaite, “just a little wooden platform that stuck out in the street. Downtown Lafayette was like the DMZ. People just didn’t go there. It was a little seedy and run down.”
After the first few enthusiastic seasons, combined with the move to Jefferson Street, the free outdoor show picked up steam, and it didn’t take long to catch the public’s attention. Crowds of 2,000-3,000 became a regular occurrence. In 1988, Mark Meaux and his band, The Bluerunners, were quickly climbing the ranks of both the folk and underground music scenes with their hybrid of Cajun, folk and post-punk rock. Meaux remembers their first appearance at Downtown Alive. “This was our biggest gig to date,” he says. “The stage was set up on Jefferson Street. I think they had prisoners set it up. Since this was a big gig, we hired our own soundman, who then failed to show up. So, there is this huge P.A., but nobody knew how to run it. We don’t even know how to turn it on. There were folks all the way down Jefferson just staring at us — not making any music. We went to my house and got our little PA that was designed to fill a room of about 200 people. There were thousands of people downtown. We set it up while people were beginning to yell for the music to start. We might as well have been using a megaphone. I think it was about 10 years later before we were asked to play Downtown Alive again.”
Photo courtesy of Downtown Lafayette Unlimited
Streetscape, the downtown renovation project of the late ’90s, was another boost to the event. At a cost of approximately $6.5 million, it completely transformed the downtown Lafayette streets, sewers and park areas from neglected relics of the past to burgeoning hallmarks of a new and promising future. Downtown Alive served as a showcase for downtown and ushered in a new age of leisurely, safe entertainment far removed from downtown’s checkered, post-oil boom past.
“They gave downtown a facelift,” says nationally renowned slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, who’s been a frequent Downtown Alive performer, “but lost none of its soul. In every city you have a place where the heart and soul of that city resides. It could be anywhere, but here, downtown is the soul of Lafayette. And Downtown Alive has helped people reconnect with it through everything from the music to the old buildings to the murals and galleries.”
The late Daniel Breaux
Photo courtesy of Downtown Lafayette Unlimited
With downtown renovations, corporate sponsors, and the construction of permanent parks and stages also used by Festival International, Downtown Alive has grown into a cultural tradition, incorporating multiple venues and a wide variety of music. Each year the event draws 75,000 to 100,000 people, and the fall 2008 lineup is as eclectic and adventurous as ever. Included this season are several symbolic nods to the early years of Downtown Alive with early acts like BeauSoleil and Bas Clas returning to the stage. There’s also the inclusion of indie/alternative rock acts like Direwood and the Amazing Nuns, whose musical styles haven’t been typical fare for the Downtown Alive buffet.
“Our thinking was to turn on a new generation of people to the Downtown Alive experience and make them feel as if it is their own,” says Ryan Petticrew, marketing and events manager for Downtown Alive. “College kids who live only two or three blocks away, why not encourage them to attend?”
“We’re proud to join the team,” says Direwood’s frontman Jay Burton. “I think it’s about time that they decided to include this facet of the Lafayette music scene. The local indie rock effort is doing just as much as any other genre that purports to put Lafayette on the map.”
Downtown Alive is all grown up now, but the essence of the weekly musical happening remains the same. And 25 years after it all began, Bennett, who now lives in New Orleans, says the event is still following its initial inspiration. “Downtown Alive is more than an event,” Bennett says. “It’s a meeting place. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people mention that this is where they met their husband or wife. It’s a place where people can create memories.”
Downtown Lafayette Unlimited presents a photo and poster gallery exhibit of the past 25 years of Downtown Alive! performances, with art from Francis Pavy, Megan Barra, Robert “King Rob” Harris, Denise Gallagher and more. The exhibit debuts at Gallery R in the Russo Group Building, 116 E. Congress St., on Wednesday, Sept. 3.
Downtown Alive’s 25th season
For this year’s schedule of Downtown Alive! performances — which includes zydeco from Nathan Williams and Rockin’ Dopsie Jr.; Cajun music from Zachary Richard, BeauSoleil, Roddie Romero, and Racines; swamp pop from Rufus Jagneaux, Warren Storm, Willie Tee, and Bas Clas; and blues from Kenny Neal — visit www.lafayettedowntown.org.
MAY 20 This post by blogger CB Forgotston draws parallels between Gov. Bobby Jindal and two individuals he probably doesn't want to be aligned with: President Obama and former governor Edwin Edwards. CB says Jindal's trying to jack up the debt ceiling (an Obama play, according to CB) and buy votes from GOP leges who normally wouldn't go for that (an Edwards play, CB says).
MAY 20 Here's a post in the Baptist Message from an alumnus of Louisiana College. The author, Larry Burgess, calls on the leadership of the private school to take care of some pressing problems. Physical plant issues are critical and unaddressed, some faculty make so little they need government health care, and there is an atmosphere that does not encourage honest discussion, he writes. It's time to get things back in order, he says.
MAY 20 This post in Gambit tells of a benefit concert scheduled to raise money for the 19 people shot during a Mother's Day second line on Frenchmen Street in NOLA. Among them was Gambit blogger Deb Cotton, who spoke frequently about violence in the city and reported on the city's second line culture. Gambit's foundation, along with other NOLA non-profits, also is selling t-shirts to raise money for the victims.
MAY 20 Blogger Robert Mann is critical of the personal interest some legislators take in their work here, sharing the comments one NOLA solon made in explaining his decision to vote against a bill that would require people to stop discriminating against female workers. His wife might lose some salary, so he was going to have to vote against the equal pay bill, Conrad Appel said. Appel and everyone who heard him should have been ashamed, but they weren't, and that's what is wrong in that building, Mann argues.
MAY 20 American Press columnist Jim Beam writes about the budget again here, urging kudos for the House and its efforts to try to fix the budget as opposed to passing on a flawed and messy rubber-stamped document as it usually does. The Senate already is poo-pooing the effort, but instead Senators should be trying to find a way to improve it as well, Beam argues. He also has some predictions in here from LABI and CABL.
MAY 20 Here's a link to the photo gallery from Tulane's graduation this past weekend. Dr. John and Allen Toussaint played together and received honorary degrees. The Dalai Lama was so entranced by their performance he got up from his seat and walked across the stage to stand next to them. He even participated in a second line with his own personal, saffron-colored umbrella. To the graduates, he urged them to think about creating a peaceful, hopeful life and society.
MAY 20 This Picayune story questions the rhetoric of NOLA officials who say the city, aside from having a "murder problem," is safe. The talking points generally are that the criminals are killing each other, but everything else is OK. The police chief there says that even Lafayette is more dangerous than NOLA. But crime experts interviewed here say that NOLA's numbers indicate one of two things: either people are so used to violence they don't report it, or somebody's "fudging the numbers."
MAY 20 The Advocate's Mark Ballard writes about some of the background maneuvering that took place during the development of budget alternatives in the Legislature. From Rep. Joel Robideaux being called a "tax and spend liberal" to robo-call influence, Ballard lets us in on some of the work that happens behind the scenes but usually doesn't make it into the Advocate's daily coverage of the session.
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