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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Many Friends Help Open New Orleans Fest

Many Friends Help Open New Orleans Fest


Published: April 29, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, April 28 — Of course Bob Dylan had the appropriate songs when he headlined the first day of the 37th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a celebration of New Orleans culture where Hurricane Katrina was on everyone's mind.

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Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Henry and Katie Alpert, a newlywed couple, dance during Bob Dylan's set at the festival.

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As Li'l Walter Cook and the Creole Wild West perform onstage at Jazzfest, a band member, Vincent Carter, takes the show into the crowd.

He didn't say a word beyond introducing his band. But he sang the baleful “High Water” and the not-so-carefree “Watching the River Flow”; he sang “Lonesome Day Blues,” with lines like “The road's washed out — weather not fit for man or beast.” When he sang “Positively Fourth Street,” it sounded like an indictment of the government's response to the hurricane; when he closed his set with “All Along the Watchtower,” his band played power chords like warnings of the apocalypse.

Mr. Dylan, who recorded his album “Oh Mercy” in New Orleans in 1989, wrote about the city in “Chronicles, Volume One,” his autobiographical book. “There are a lot of places I like,” he wrote, “but I like New Orleans better. There's a thousand different angles at any moment.” He added that it was “a great place to really hit on things.”

It is also, as the festival did not hide, a place under reconstruction. New Orleans has been renowned as a home of good-time music, and Jazzfest, as everyone calls it, is set up like a party, with plenty of food and drink on the way to the music. Yet it has always been a party with a mission: to expose the rest of the world to the strange and wonderful phenomena of a very local culture.

Nationally known headliners like Mr. Dylan — and Bruce Springsteen, who is scheduled to perform on Sunday — are lures for a general audience. A great majority of the festival's performers are musicians from Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, with its brass bands, its Mardi Gras Indians, its second-line funk, its traditional jazz and its rhythm-and-blues. (Its most current and most popular music, hip-hop, was barely represented at a festival devoted to longer-standing traditions.)

This year, after the evacuation of the city and the dispersal of its population, New Orleans's music seems more precious than ever. Although the most heavily visited sections of the city were largely spared, the music's historic breeding grounds — and the community that nurtures musicians and knows all the right responses — were greatly diminished.

Many local styles are maintaining a presence here through sheer persistence. Brass bands that used to simply cross the city for a weekly gig at a local bar have to drive in from places like Texas and Georgia. But they do.

This year's Jazzfest looks familiar to anyone who has attended before. It is in its usual home, the New Orleans Fairgrounds, which is dotted with stages and criss-crossed by stands of crafts and food vendors. The gospel tent is there, full of unknowns with magnificent voices; the pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo is available by the cup. But like New Orleans itself, it had to be remade virtually from scratch.

The actual fairgrounds were extensively damaged. Three weeks ago electricity was still being installed. Some of the carpenters who had built stages and stalls in past years were living on the festival grounds during the construction.

Jazzfest, usually planned well in advance, had no guarantee it would take place until early this year, when the Shell Group which has its headquarters in New Orleans, provided overall sponsorship. The festival is not only a cultural event but also a profit center for the city. In past years, the festival — which takes place on two successive weekends, through May 7 this year — has generated an estimated $250 million in tourism revenue for the city; 400,000 people bought tickets last year. This year there have been more than 100,000 advance ticket sales so far; in the past much of the festival's business has been sales at the door, depending on the weather.

Getting the stars was one of the easier parts, said Quint Davis, the festival's producer and director. Headliners like Paul Simon, Dave Matthews, Herbie Hancock and the country singer Keith Urban were eager to do something for New Orleans. But this year's festival also raised the quotient of local musicians to 92 percent. The festival books about 4,000 musicians; half of them are gospel singers in large choirs. This year, however, many of the formerly local musicians needed hotel rooms; they too were visiting the city for the festival.

The festival includes its own versions of the street parades that are integral to New Orleans culture, with brass bands and the suited, strutting neighborhood associations called social aid and pleasure clubs. “The festival can be a good catalyst and incubator for that,” Mr. Davis said. “But the culture is not really back until it's back in the streets.”

Still, there were signs of New Orleans persistence. Creole Wild West, a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians — African-Americans who parade in handmade feathered costumes on Mardi Gras Day — were onstage in gaudy splendor, including a child in a full suit. When Andrew Hall's Society Brass Band played one of its second-line struts, parasols sprouted in the audience and the aisles filled with dancers.

No one at the festival, even those playing the happiest good-time music, pretended that the hurricane hadn't happened. Anders Osborne sounded at first as if he was singing a breakup song when he played a rolling rhythm-and-blues shuffle during his set this afternoon. “Talk about wrecking a perfectly happy home,” he sang. “You took me and shook me, then you left me all alone in the dark.” And then came the chorus: “Oh, Katrina. …”

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