NEW ORLEANS The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrated its 32nd annual edition with a record-breaking crowd charmed by blue skies, cool breezes and moderate temperatures.
With some five dozen national and local acts performing daily on 10 stages, festivalgoers could choose from a musical smorgasbord of styles. The Rev. Al Green, B.B. King, the Wallflowers, Van Morrison, Brian McKnight, Chanté Moore and Nigeria's Femi Kuti highlighted the first weekend of the festival, which runs over seven days between April 27 and May 6.
"Every year I think the Fest can't get any better," said festivalgoer Eric Martin, 31, of San Francisco, who was marking his fifth visit here. "But somehow I end up finding that moment when I'm completely blown away and can't imagine how anything could top it. Jazz Fest is something you can't get jaded about no matter how many times you come here."
More than 77,000 music fans showed up for opening day alone, according to festival spokesperson Louis Edwards. That topped the previous record of 62,500 in 1996, when Phish performed, and easily beat last year's 56,000 tally. With tickets priced $20 at the gate, many festival newcomers are drawn by the chance to see name acts such as Paul Simon and the Dave Matthews Band (both of whom will play this weekend) for considerably less than an average concert admission. Most attendees are repeat visitors, festival officials say, and the true draw for the Jazz Fest faithful is knowing a local or emerging artist will almost inevitably deliver a performance more memorable than the marquee acts.
"I was coming through here and saw these guys with horns just jumping even the tuba dude was bouncing, and I was like I gotta check this out," said O'Neill Strauss, 25, of Austin, Texas, who was dancing to the music of New Orleans' Soul Rebels Brass Band. "These dudes are awesome! They rock!"
Perhaps because expectations are higher, the name performers tend to receive mixed reviews. Some festivalgoers raved about seeing Al Green on opening day, while others groused afterward that he didn't sing enough (his set ended 20 minutes earlier than scheduled). Green opened enthusiastically with several gospel songs, declared that "Here are the songs y'all want to hear" and proceeded to sing a line or two of such hits as "Let's Stay Together" and "Call Me (Come Back Home)" before turning the microphone to the audience, who finished the verse. "What, y'all want me to sing this song?!" he exclaimed at one point.
Van Morrison's Saturday-evening Municipal Auditorium concert was plagued by sound difficulties, causing the notoriously temperamental Irish singer to complain frequently and finally walk offstage in a huff. His mood seemed somewhat improved for his daytime appearance Sunday, though he too avoided singing full versions of such classics as "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Moondance."
The conceptual centerpiece of this year's festival is an ongoing tribute to New Orleans native son Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday this year. Local musicians including Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton paid tribute to Armstrong on Saturday with mesmerizing sets featuring interpretations of tunes Armstrong made famous. Particularly stirring was Payton's rendition of "Hello, Dolly." With the chorus' melody played by a trio of flutes and then reimagined by Payton's slowly murmuring trumpet, the song was a far cry from Armstrong's buoyant version yet hauntingly familiar nonetheless.
Jazz Fest held annually the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May continues Thursday and concludes Sunday.