In New Orleans, the Show Goes On

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, April 30 -- The concertgoers came in droves. Displaced New Orleanians and other music fans wanted to show their support to a beleaguered city, and in doing so they transformed a once-flooded horse-race track into the same massive party that the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has always been.

With a bigger-than-expected turnout for its initial three-day weekend of concerts -- organizers won't reveal exact ticket sales until Sunday, when the second weekend ends -- and headliners such as Bruce Springsteen as well as zydeco favorites Terrance Simien and C.J. Chenier, the celebration was a sign that the core of the city's cultural identity has survived Hurricane Katrina. Even before the festival gates opened, lines were snaking around the Fair Grounds.

On Friday, Ellen Harris, a fifth-generation New Orleanian who left but now lives again in the city, danced as Simien played his accordion to the accompaniment of two band members strumming rub boards. He was wearing a wide-brimmed Senegalese hat to shield himself from the sun.

"We have a lot of dancing and singing and healing to do in our city, but it's great to have our festival back," Harris said, scanning the thousands of people around her.

If Mardi Gras has become something of a vestige of New Orleans past, with drunken revelers vying for plastic beads as costumed krewe members pass by on floats, Jazzfest, with its music and food, more embodies the city's place in American culture today. More than 90 percent of this year's performers, representing such genres as jazz and hip-hop, hail from New Orleans or southern Louisiana, say festival officials.

"If this city didn't exist, I would not be doing what I do," said jazz great Herbie Hancock, who offered to perform as soon as he learned that the festival would take place in its full form this year. "It's really the birthplace of jazz, so I owe a great deal, an enormous amount, to New Orleans and this whole Delta region."

In many ways the festivities were an act of defiance, a reunion of musicians scattered across the country and food and craft vendors who are still struggling to rebuild their businesses.

Bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters has played at the festival every year since it began in 1970. Although he temporarily lives 52 miles away in Darrow, La., he set up shop in his flood-damaged home on Pine Street so he could perform at Jazzfest.

"We don't have a stove, but there's lots of food at Jazzfest," Porter explained as he oversaw contractors in his home. "We'll buy some food, bring it back and put it in the microwave."

As Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio of Chevy Chase said, "Sometimes the food overshadows the music, it's so good."

Jewelry maker Lorraine Eberts now divides her time between Knoxville, Tenn., and New Orleans. She plans to sell her wares from a booth next weekend. "In the first hour that I was here, I saw everyone I know," she marveled Friday.

Quint Davis, who produced and directed the festival, emphasized that this year's event is nearly the same except for "1 1/2 fewer stages, eight fewer food booths and two less crafts tents." By the time the festival ends, it will have promoted nearly 400 acts on 10 stages. It is one day shorter than last year's.

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