At Jazz Fest, Final Acts Mean Tradition

The Associated Press
Sunday, May 6, 2007; 8:26 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Ben Wilson was a contented man Sunday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Wilson, 58, stretched out on a plastic chair in front of the Gentilly Stage, a bottle of ice water in his hand and Papa Grows Funk grooving.

"I'm not moving until the last note dies out," said Wilson, who was enjoying his 27th year at Jazz Fest.

For Wilson, like many others on Sunday, the only goal was to spend the final day of the festival relaxing in the hot sun and letting the music carry them away.

"We really needed this," said Rufus Chapman, 49, an emergency room technician from Gulfport, Miss., who lost his house in Hurricane Katrina. "I didn't come last year, and I really missed it."

As the second Jazz Fest since the Aug. 29, 2005 storm wrapped up, thousands took advantage of the chance to forget their worries about gutted houses, leaking levees and future storms.

"If you live in one of those little FEMA trailers for a year, you deserve a good time," said Betty Lagarde, whose St. Bernard Parish home was washed away. "I wish it didn't have to end."

Large stretches of the city, adjoining St. Bernard Parish and the Mississippi Gulf Coast are still in ruins, but Jazz Fest showed its usual spirit of fun and nonstop music.

Late Sunday, Jazz Fest officials estimated that the pair of three-day weekends drew 375,000 spectators, compared with the 2006 estimate of 325,000 to 350,000.

"We experienced a first weekend that was not only as good as pre-Katrina, it was almost better than pre-9-11," said Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis. "I thought it was astonishing."

The last sets on Sunday night also were back in the pre-Katrina tradition.

New Orleans musicians have always closed out the festival on the two big stages _ Gentilly and Acura. For years, the Radiators and the Neville Brothers were the tradition.

"I feel the last go-round should be about Louisiana music," Davis said. "Everyone should go out still hearing that sound. It has to hold them over for a year, so it should be the best about us."

This year, the Radiators were back _ playing their blend of swamp-rock they call "fish head music." New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr., was on the other end of the grounds with his 18-piece orchestra.

"It's a real honor to be asked to do that last set," said Connick, who has played the festival a half-dozen times, but did the closing act for the first time. "It's a bittersweet thing for everyone _ closing down the Jazz Fest."

© 2007 The Associated Press