New Orleans gears up for Jazz Fest

Fri Apr 4, 2008 11:20pm EDT
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By Larry Blumenfeld

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Eight months after the floods following Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, there was at least one hard, good fact regarding a threatened music scene: the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival took place at its customary Mid-City Fair Grounds site.

Familiar favorites, from Buckwheat Zydeco to pheasant-and-quail andouille gumbo were served up. Local heroes like singer John Boutte and national ones like Bruce Springsteen brought audience members to joyful tears.

"I remember talking to Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor," festival producer Quint Davis says from his office in New Orleans. "It was January, and we weren't sure if we could mount the event. And he told me, 'Not having the festival is not an option.' I knew what he meant. And I knew that if we put this big, soul-generating battery on and, for two weekends, people could plug in, it would mean something."

The festival also generated $300 million in city revenue last year; that meant something too.

Now, more than two years later, in a city rebuilding only in troubled fits and starts, the festival arrives again (April 25-27 and May 1-4) with another positive jolt. The 2008 Jazz Fest marks the return of the Neville Brothers, who have not played the event since Katrina, and the festival's full seven-day schedule.

Davis says the festival's fortunes now draw heavily on the support of its corporate underwriter, Shell Oil, which came onboard as title sponsor in Katrina's wake. It has also been aligned since 2005 with AEG Live, which has led to the booking of headliners with broad appeal. This year's crop ranges from Billy Joel to Stevie Wonder, Santana to Diana Krall. Yet for many in attendance, especially New Orleans residents, it's the local heroes that define the event -- none perhaps more so than the Nevilles.

"There are still over 100,000 people who are estranged from NOLA, whose families are separated," Davis says. "To me, the Nevilles embody and represent those people."

And tucked in between Jazz Fest's two weekends is another soul-generating spark--the two-day Ponderosa Stomp.   Continued...