If it's springtime, and you're a music lover, this is the place to be. With several eclectic festivals — one of them among the country's biggest and best — the Crescent City offers countless great performances by artists from near and far. Not to mention the cuisine, historic sites and unique culture of a region that has come a long way since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but is still recovering.
The top dog
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a mother lode of roots and popular music, opens its 39th edition April 25-27 with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, touring to support their hit bluegrass collaboration, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, Billy Joel and reggae veteran Burning Spear. The fest's second weekend (May 1-4) brings Santana, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Widespread Panic, Tower of Power, John Prine, Jimmy Buffett, Diana Krall and Steel Pulse.
That kind of star power once attracted as many as 700,000 people, according to some estimates. The official attendance was 350,000 in 2006 and 375,000 in 2007, with more expected this year due in part to the reintroduction of a seventh day of music.
Jazz Fest regulars often skip the household names to focus on New Orleans and Louisiana artists, who make up more than 85 percent of the event's 557 acts spread out on a dozen stages, festival producer/director Quint Davis said last week.
Topping that list are the Neville Brothers, performing here for the first time since 2005, in their traditional fest-closing slot. Keyboardist Art Neville is the sole sibling now living in the city, having returned to renovate the heavily damaged family home on Valence Street, an address borrowed for the title of the band's 1999 album. Art, percussionist Cyril and saxophonist Charles have performed in New Orleans several times since Katrina. But angelic-voiced singer Aaron has not performed here since the hurricane, although he has visited, and was spotted earlier this month shopping at Meyer the Hatter, off Canal Street.
"In New Orleans we need every piece of the puzzle that we can get back in place," Davis said. "They were the heart and soul of New Orleans music, and that was a big piece of our identity. So it's very important for them to come back and be a part of New Orleans and have New Orleans be a part of them. The fact that the vehicle to do that will be Jazz Fest is really an important symbolic act."
Other homegrown acts playing Jazz Fest are Dr. John, pianist Ellis Marsalis, guitarist Anders Osborne, trumpeters Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard and Irvin Mayfield, the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, saxophonist Donald Harrison, Astral Project, Trombone Shorty, Porter-Batiste-Stoltz, the Subdudes, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Galactic, Rebirth Brass Band, Marcia Ball, Rockin' Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters, and Cowboy Mouth.
"After Katrina there were a lot of questions about whether the music culture would survive,'' Davis said. "To the outside world, the Jazz Fest is easily the most visible and concentrated proof that it's not only surviving but flourishing.''
Also playing a key role in boosting New Orleans music and culture is the French Quarter Festival, April 11-13, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The free-admission affair, featuring only Louisiana artists, drew about 400,000 in 2007. It's revered by locals and tourists as a low-pressure way to enjoy music and food while strolling around the Vieux Carre. During a French Quarter Festival several years back, I took in music ranging from the heady modern jazz of Mayfield to Chubby Carrier's rambunctious zydeco to the Meters-inspired groove music of Papa Grows Funk.
This year's lineup will be similarly appealing, with 150 performances held on 15 stages in Woldenberg Park on the banks of the Mississippi River as well as the grassy middle of Jackson Square, the exterior of the Old U.S. Mint building and several intersections along Bourbon and Royal streets. Blues guitar favorite Walter "Wolfman" Washington, good-time trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins, brass-and-funk act Bonerama and veteran swamp-rockers the Radiators are among the 2008 headliners, many of whom will also play Jazz Fest.
Tom White, co-owner of Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, has been to the festival several times and will be back this year.
"You just wander and graze on the music and the food for three or four days," White said. "I'm able to get to a noncommercial music base that we thrive on here at Skipper's. It's more about tasting the essence of New Orleans. It gets you that whole gumbo of music — the jazz, the blues, the zydeco, the Cajun — and a lot of that stuff is kind of married there. I've found acts that I've brought back to our community. And I'll taste foods and bring those ideas back to the table for us. A lot of our music and our food is kind of Louisiana-oriented."
The festivals are good news for sales of New Orleans recordings, said Mark Samuels, president of Basin Street Records. The label is releasing four CDs — by Mayfield, pianist Henry Butler, clarinetist Michael White and singer-fiddler Theresa Andersson — in time for the influx of music lovers.
"It's close to being Christmas for us, in terms of the impact on our business," Samuels said. "In addition to the CDs we might sell is the fact that we have all those people at night checking out the clubs and visiting the in-store performances at places like Louisiana Music Factory."
For Samuels, like Davis, the survival of New Orleans music is practically a spiritual mission. "Certain traditions — the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass bands — stemmed from the neighborhoods, and now many of those neighborhoods are gone," he said. "There's a real feeling that we have to fight to keep those traditions alive."
Philip Booth, a jazz bassist from Tampa, writes about music for the Times and other publications.