NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans' music scene, languishing along with the city after Hurricane Katrina, was rejuvenated Friday as the city's annual Jazz & Heritage Festival provided electric moments from both its homegrown musical heroes and superstar acts.
The festival, the biggest music event in the city since the devastating hurricane, began its two weekend-long extravaganza with a host of musical performances from blues to rock to gospel. Thousands of fans packed the outdoors venue where the event was held, hop-scotching between several different performing stages that demonstrated the breadth of the city's diverse musical heritage.
A bit of Mardi Gras was also present — a brass band, surrounded by dancing festival-goers, snaked through the fairgrounds, its dancers waving white feathers to the beat of its booming horns.
For many musicians, Friday's kickoff was a homecoming of sorts, and helped to ease some of the pain of the last few months. Many were forced to relocate after the storm, which destroyed much of the city, leaving it only partially populated.
"It's a little bittersweet," said John Thomas Griffith, the guitarist for the New Orleans band Cowboy Mouth, which performed on Friday. The band has been on the road since Katrina, only performing in their native city occasionally.
"It's tough because a lot of my friends still don't have homes ... but I think this jazz festival is a triumphant feeling. I guess you can say we got knocked down, but we got back up."
Bob Dylan was the day's biggest name, and thousands gathered to hear what the music legend, a repeat visitor to the Jazz Fest, had to offer. He didn't disappoint. He and his band provided perhaps the best embodiment of the city's musical heritage, with a performance that melded blues, rock, folk and even hints of zydeco. Fans danced on the lawn as Dylan grunted his way through an hour-long performance of his hits, dabbling on the keyboards and occasionally playing his harmonica as he crooned hits like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Like a Rolling Stone."
One of New Orleans' most famous musical sons, Dr. John, was the closing act on the festival's main stage. As he performed at his piano, adorned with a human skull and other reminders of the city's voodoo heritage, he crooned about his beloved city, singing: "Home sweet home, home sweet home, we gonna come back two times strong." As the crowd clapped he yelled out, "Y'all hear that?"
Others synonymous with Crescent City music — the Meters, Charmaine Neville of the Neville family, rapper Juvenile, Allen Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — are set to perform throughout the first weekend.
Folk singer Ani DiFranco, a Buffalo, N.Y.-native who relocated to New Orleans before the storm, was also scheduled to perform Friday. She said she hopes the festival will bring more attention to New Orleans-based artists.
"New Orleans itself, this part of the country, it's like an epicenter of music in America," she said.
Not only is New Orleans a music center, but, added Griffith, music is its center — the focal point to its colorful, exuberant image.
"A lot of people don't realize how much New Orleans depends on the music community for its soul," he said. "The general vibe of the city is music."
And some of the music world's biggest names will help celebrate it. The Dave Matthews Band, who like Dylan has played Jazz Fest before, will perform Saturday. Springsteen will be one of those closing the first weekend on Sunday evening, performing songs from his new tribute album to folk singer Pete Seeger.
Jazz Fest will continue next weekend with performances by Keith Urban, Paul Simon, Irma Thomas and Fats Domino, who has not performed in public since being evacuated from New Orleans during Katrina.