The sun is shining on the subtropical city of New Orleans; it's festival time again. Tens of thousands of music lovers are pouring into town this week from all over the world for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
It's 11 days of the most amazing music. This year's edition has an additional day, Thursday, which the legendary New Orleans rock 'n' roll hero Fats Domino headlines. Lucinda Williams, Allen Toussaint, Bonerama, Bob Margolin and the Hackberry Ramblers also are on the eclectic bill.
Over the first weekend of the festival Bob Dylan, Galactic, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Dr. John, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Cocker, Ornette Coleman, Snooks Eaglin, Gerald Levert and the Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Kim Wilson all will perform at the Fairgrounds, while the local clubs will be hoping around the clock, with a series of performance scheduled to start at 2 a.m.
Wilson, who has just finished recording an excellent solo album for M.C. Records, has never sounded better. He sounded as excited about Jazzfest as one of the many fans making the pilgrimage to see their favorite performers. Wilson has great Jazzfest memories. The Thunderbirds once hosted a show on the river boat President that featured John Lee Hooker, Lazy Lester, Rockin' Sidney and Bonnie Raitt.
"Oh man, what a night that was," Wilson recalled. "John Lee wanted to play with a band but we wanted him to do it solo because he had that way of getting down real low on his own. He started playing and the whole crowd stopped talking to listen to him. It was amazing. That has to be one of the high points of my life. Boy, would I love to hear that one again."
All around town, clubs are preparing for the onslaught. One of the newest music places in town, Melvin's, has opened along the hot new music strip on St. Claude Avenue that also includes Sweet Lorraine's and the Hi-Ho Lounge. The manager and bartender is transplanted New Yorker Crazy Eddie, a legend in the 1990s for his antics as the "drunken chef" at McSorley's Old Ale House and his promotions at New York clubs, including the Savoy Lounge and Hell's Kitchen Bar. Eddie, known for his unusual music booking policies, has a lineup featuring the great vocalist Mary McBride in her tune-up for a main stage Jazzfest performance May 1, the wildly eccentric Chandler Travis Philharmonic on Sunday, and a number of special guest performances.
Crazy Eddie has never booked a club that charges a cover admission for the music, and he vows to keep that policy alive at Melvin's.
"I don't believe somebody should have to pay to see good music," he told the local New Orleans newspaper the Bywater Marigny Current. "It's free when we've got bands; and when we don't have bands, people can just bring in their CDs and I'll play them. I want to create an outlet for musicians who want to do something different, try out different musical styles. I want to create a music scene that's as interesting for the musicians as it is for the people who come to see it."
The characteristic Crazy Eddie touch comes by booking an early "lounge" set every night during Jazzfest -- April 24-27 and May 1-4 -- at 9 p.m. by the great roots rocker and comedian Tony DeMeur, formerly leader of the Fabulous Poodles and currently heading London's hottest party band, Ronnie and the Rex.
"I've written a whole collection of new material for the New Orleans run," DeMeur told United Press International. "I'll mix in some new songs, and maybe even do some stand up comedy depending on the audience each night. I'm really looking forward to meeting and playing with so many of the great musicians in New Orleans."
Tipitina's, New Orleans' best nightclub, is celebrating its 25th anniversary during Jazzfest with a series of shows at two locations -- the original club at the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas, and the new French Quarter location at 233 N. Peters. The "Fess Jazztival," as Tip's is calling it, really is a festival on its own, with shows at the original location featuring the Radiators -- also celebrating 25 years in the business -- Galactic, Marcia Ball, Soulive, Les Claypool's Frog Brigade, the Neville Brothers, the North Mississippi Allstars with special guest Dickey Betts, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and Rebirth Brass Band.
The biggest dilemma facing music fans who plan to take in the afternoon festivities, which kick off at 11 a.m., and still be listening to music as the sun rises the next day, is when to sleep.
"The way you measure how good Jazzfest is," said Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan, who is showing a collection of his photographs at the Jonathan Ferrara gallery during the festival, "is by the shows you didn't get to see."