Jimmy Buffett is usually all smiles onstage. But he nearly broke down during “City of New Orleans,” his opener at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — and a song he hadn’t played since the week after Hurricane Katrina devastated his beloved Gulf Coast. “I got choked up in the first verse,” Buffett says. “But I enjoyed it. I just let it happen for a minute.”
For Buffett and many others, the thirty-seventh annual Jazz Fest served as both a poignant reminder of and a welcome distraction from New Orleans’ post-Katrina struggles. Over two weekends in late April and early May, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Dave Matthews Band, Juvenile, Dr. John and the Meters joined hundreds of Crescent City gospel, blues, R&B, funk, Cajun and zydeco acts on the twenty-six-acre infield of the Fair Grounds racetrack. Almost 350,000 locals and visitors attended, far surpassing expectations. “It was,” Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis said, “a shared catharsis.”
Jazz Fest still looked, sounded and tasted like itself, from the inspirational Gospel Tent to the spicy mustard on the cochon de lait smoked pork po’ boy. Yet reminders of Katrina abounded. Blue tarps covered roofs behind the Gospel Tent. Cars exited the grounds alongside FEMA trailers and flooded bungalows on De Saix Boulevard. The Original Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club marched with a “Katrina Survivor” ribbon affixed to its banner. Jazz Fest staffer Nicole Williamson decorated her golf cart with a faux-blue roof and a toy rescue helicopter. “You’ve got to poke fun at yourself,” Williamson says. “Obviously, this is a very different year. You can’t ignore the storm.”
Musicians certainly didn’t. Nouveau funk band Galactic roared through Led Zeppelin‘s “When the Levee Breaks,” and gospel singer John Boutte customized Randy Newman‘s “Louisiana 1927” so floodwaters surged through the streets of the “Lower Nine.” Louisiana legends Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint and Buckwheat Zydeco joined Simon for a tear-jerking “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Both Keith Urban and Matthews visited Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village project in the Ninth Ward; Matthews also contributed a $1.5 million challenge grant.
Collaborations abounded. Elvis Costello fronted Toussaint’s band to preview their forthcoming album, The River in Reverse. Homegrown jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard sat in with Herbie Hancock on “Tutu”; that night, Hancock returned the favor at the jazz bistro Snug Harbor. U2 guitarist the Edge, in town to support his Music Rising charity’s relief efforts, sang “Stand by Me” with the New Birth Brass Band and traded bluesy guitar licks with Dave Matthews during “Smooth Rider.” “Speaking to people on the street about how important music is here,” says the Edge, “it’s been an incredible and humbling experience to be here.”
Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions band’s set was equal parts revival, hootenanny and political rally. Many locals wept during “My City of Ruins” and Springsteen’s quiet-storm reworking of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” “I was sitting there crying like a third-grader,” says Radiators guitarist Dave Malone. “It was one of the best things I’ve seen in my life.”
Concerns about Aaron Neville’s asthma prompted the Neville Brothers to skip their traditional Jazz Fest finale. The Brothers’ replacement, seventy-eight-year-old legend Fats Domino, then canceled hours before his scheduled performance, citing illness. Organizers promoted Lionel Richie from a secondary stage to fill Domino’s slot on the main Acura Stage. “Today is a brand-new beginning for the city of New Orleans,” Richie said between Commodores classics and solo hits.
Despite his emotional opening, Buffett, who says he “behaved himself” in New Orleans to be fully cognizant at Jazz Fest, soon got the party started. “That’s as much a part of recovery as anything,” he says. “If you think of what people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas have gone through, they deserved a couple of days off. People came out of Jazz Fest going, ‘Wow, that was nice. Now let’s go back to work.’ ”
This is a story from the June 15th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.