By MARY FOSTER
The Associated Press
Sunday, May 4, 2008; 11:05 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- The Neville Brothers, who traditionally help close out the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, returned to the big stage Sunday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina flooded and wrecked their homes, along with 80 percent of the city.
The brothers _ Aaron, Art, Cyril and Charles _ performed on the festival's biggest stage in front of an immense crowd that appeared delighted to have them back.
"This is a family reunion," festival producer Quint Davis said in introducing them. "This is the family of New Orleans coming together with the first family of our music."
The delayed return of the group to the festival, bemoaned the past two years by fans, was celebrated as another step toward putting the devastation of the 2005 storm behind the city.
"I'm just happy they're back; that's more than I can say," said Martin Davis, a former New Orleans resident now living in Houston. "I'm back for Jazz Fest, but I don't know when or if I'll come back to stay. There are a lot of hard memories for a lot of us now when it comes to our hometown."
There were also a lot of good ones that the Nevilles wasted no time trotting out. They opened with songs about Mardi Gras and The Wild Tchoupitoulas, a Mardi Gras group that danced onstage with them.
After Aaron Neville sang his hit "Tell It Like It Is," he told the crowd: "I love you." He later sang "Amazing Grace" and said, "Joel y'all," a reference to his wife, Joel Roux-Neville, who died last year.
The show went 30 minutes long before the Nevilles wrapped up with "Big Chief" to extended cheers.
"It was absolutely worth the wait for them," said Yvette Duperon, 53, a Philadelphia school principal. "I'm going home and play their music for the next month."
After Katrina, the Nevilles, like most of the city's residents, were scattered _ Aaron in New York, Charles in Boston, Cyril in Austin, Texas.
Aaron is the latest Neville brother to return to the area. He's buying a house in Covington, La., about 40 miles from New Orleans. Art Neville returned to New Orleans soon after the storm but still isn't back in his house.
Aaron Neville had worried that the dirt, dust and mold from the city's debris would aggravate his asthma. In addition, his wife of 49 years died, and her funeral in January 2007 became a sad and brief homecoming.
About 320,000 of the city's residents have returned since Katrina, city officials said. Before the storm, the city's population stood at 455,000.
The Jazz Fest itself offered another touchstone of recovery. For the first time since Katrina, the festival returned to a seven-day format stretched over two weekends.
Rain dampened three days of the event and kept crowds smaller than usual, but on Sunday a bright blue sky, low humidity and temperatures in the 70s with a cool breeze helped pack the grounds.
Fans, slick with sunscreen, stretched out in front of stages or set up chairs in the shade of massive oak trees and enjoyed music from groups as diverse as Santana, The Radiators, The Pfister Sisters and Snooks Eaglin.
Irma Thomas, Marva Wright and Raychell Richard performed a tribute to Mahalia Jackson in a packed Gospel Tent that drew so many people the announcer had to threaten to stop the show if fans did not clear the aisles.
Jackson, an influential gospel singer, recorded about 30 albums and was the first singer of her genre to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall. She died in 1972.
George Wein, who founded the New Orleans Jazz Fest and the Newport Jazz Festival, had Jackson perform in both events.
"She was wonderful, very moving when she sang," Wein said Sunday after watching the tribute.