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Dr. John: He supplied home-grown Cajun flavor.
Dr. John: He supplied home-grown Cajun flavor.
Huge crowds feast on New Orleans jazz
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NEW ORLEANS — Stand in line long enough for rose-mint iced tea, and the sonic tectonic shifts inevitably lock into a common groove. On Saturday afternoon, it was the incongruous but weirdly satisfying collision of soundwaves from three stages: Big Chief Peppy and the Golden Arrows, an Uptown Mardi Gras Indians gang, stomping out a second-line beat; the hyperactive rhythms of Amazones, Guinea's female drumming collective; and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars in a maniacal Yiddish jam of fiddle, accordion and sax.

What may be mumbo-gumbo to the uninitiated is an aural banquet for fans of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which wrapped up the first of two three-day weekends with huge crowds.

"It looks like a full-size Jazz Fest," producer/director Quint Davis said from the bustling Fair Grounds. "It feels more substantial and settled than last year, when it was hanging off the cliff by its fingernails."

The 2006 festival, an emotional homecoming for musicians and locals, drew 250,000, moderate by past standards but miraculous considering its staging eight months after Katrina. Attendance at the nation's biggest and most diverse roots festival is expected to climb this year (figures won't be available until after the close May 6). A glance after the first weekend:

•Spiritual change. Davis is encouraged by the boomerang of Jazz Fest's joyous vibe, seen in the bobbing hordes slam-dunking crawfish while soaking up the rock, jazz, folk, blues, gospel and regional subgenres cranking non-stop from 10 stages.

And yet, "I don't think it will ever feel normal again," Davis says. "Our lives changed. We have a different mission, a crucial responsibility to keep traditional music at the table. Maybe Jazz Fest will be more intense, more inspired, but it won't be what it was before."

•Walkin' in New Orleans. Jazz Fest certainly has recovered its frenetic pulse and motley design, so a strategic rock 'n' stroll gets you bluesman Big Al Carson singing Let's Stay Together, Van Morrison segueing from a smooth Moondance to a twangy I Can't Stop Loving You, Dr. John crooning Accentuate the Positive and snatches of R&B vet Percy Sledge, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, zydeco sensation Geno Delafose and singer Lucinda Williams.

Cross-pollination and improvisation also defined the weekend. Violinist Theresa Andersson dropped in on singer Davell Crawford. Norah Jones invited Trombone Shorty on stage (and marveled that he's "really very tall, actually"). When hot ticket Bobby Charles, famed for writing Fats Domino hit Walking to New Orleans and Bill Haley and The Comets' See You Later Alligator, failed to show (surprising nobody who is familiar with the songwriter's health problems and reclusive nature), Marcia Ball, Dr. John and Sonny Landreth took the slot.

•Bradley salute.60 Minutes newsman Ed Bradley, a Jazz Fest fixture who died last November, was celebrated Friday with a jazz funeral procession ending at the Ancestors Garden. A portrait of him in a golf cart was unveiled there. Pal Jimmy Buffett, who first brought Bradley to the festival, recalled him as "a bad tambourine player but a really good friend." Newsman Mike Wallace, who said he was nursing a hangover from the previous night's tribute dinner, added that his former colleague always reserved Jazz Fest on the calendar for "the food, the fun and the mischief."

•Cajun heat. The bill accommodated everyone from rapper Ludacris, who drew a legion of locals, to female Cajun group Bonsoir Catin, which made its Jazz Fest debut before a cheering throng that clearly included college students unschooled in bayou French traditions. "I'm sure a lot of them are hearing Cajun music for the first time," accordionist Kristi Guillory said. "There's a thriving young Cajun music scene in Lafayette, and down there that is the music of the day."

Fiddler Anya Burgess moved to southern Louisiana from Boston seven years ago "in part because I knew there was a strong traditional music scene here, and the fiddle is a big part of it. We play our hearts out. You never know who might be in the audience."

The Pine Leaf Boys, another young Lafayette combo, see Jazz Fest as a pulpit to spread the Cajun/Creole gospel. They also hope to broaden their audience "big time," fiddler Cedric Watson said. "Jazz Fest allows people to experience a real mix of music, and it keeps the music scene open-minded. That's good for us."

•Uphill climb. Smooth jazz electric violinist Michael Ward made his 22nd appearance with mixed emotions. Displaced by Katrina, he moved back from Houston three weeks ago and acknowledged: "I hesitated. It was a long decision process. I didn't know what to expect as far as work is concerned." The music remains vital, he said, but needs an audience, "and it's going to take time for the population to come back to fuel the music. I'm discouraged by the lack of progress but not too discouraged to come back."

•Guarded optimism. Bonnie Raitt, who timed her tour to wrap up at Jazz Fest, has been frequenting N'awlins since the early '70s. The day before her Sunday slot, she prowled the grounds for sounds.

"I feel optimistic on one level," she said. "It's heartening to see this many people turn up. But look at the Ninth Ward and how many people are displaced. You have to build hospitals and schools and create jobs so those people can move back. That's the city's heart and soul. We can't have a McMardi Gras."

A year ago, Raitt did a two-night benefit here for Ninth Ward laborers and has earmarked tour profits for various New Orleans relief efforts.

"It means everything to be a part of this regeneration," she said. "All my pals are here."

•Economic stimulant. Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana's lieutenant governor, attended Jazz Fest for pleasure and business, twin columns now intertwined in securing the city's future, he says. While les bon temps roulent at Jazz Fest, it gets the economy rolling again — crucial for a city that in 2004 had a $9.6 billion culture industry of arts, music and entertainment.

"We're not under water," he points out. "If people want to help New Orleans and save one of the greatest cultures in the world, all they have to do is visit us."

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Lucinda Williams: The Louisiana native brought her high-octane blend of rock, folk and country to Jazz Fest's first weekend.The festival concludes next weekend.
Photos by Lee Celano, Reuters
Lucinda Williams: The Louisiana native brought her high-octane blend of rock, folk and country to Jazz Fest's first weekend.The festival concludes next weekend.
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