New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival / April 28-30, 2006 / New Orleans (Fair Grounds)

For the 37th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the cherished annual roots and rock gathering that almost didn't happen, emotions were as turbulent as the floodwaters that ravaged this historic c

For the 37th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the cherished annual roots and rock gathering that almost didn't happen, emotions were as turbulent as the floodwaters that ravaged this historic city just eight months ago. The colorfully dressed crowd included people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with "ReNew Orleans," "Make Levees Not War" "Rebuild? Hell Yes" and other, more profane messages directed at FEMA and President Bush.

"My City of Ruins," as performed by Bruce Springsteen and the supersized band from his new "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" CD, was a highlight for visitors and the hometown crowd alike during the first weekend of the festival, which resumes May 5 for another three days. Many of the city's natives, including performers in the 350 or so acts on the bill, saw each other for the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck last August.

Against a patchwork Americana fabric of rising and falling horns, accordion,and acoustic string instruments, Springsteen sang the line, "Now tell me, how do I begin again?" Back-p singers and audience members responded, "with these hands," and raised their arms to the sky.

"Buffalo Gals," spiced with fiddle, banjo and tuba solos, followed, and the long, enthusiastically received set closed with a somber reading of the signature New Orleans anthem, "When the Saints Go Marching In," a piece played at far too many Crescent City funerals in recent months.

With the picture-perfect sunny weather and hotel occupancy reportedly at 90%, Jazz Fest attracted crowds nearly as large as any in recent memory (official attendance figures have yet to be released).

The festival is as eclectic and musically substantial as any in the country, and organizers made an extra effort to crank up its commercial appeal this year by booking the likes of Springsteen, the Dave Matthews Band (joined by U2 guitarist the Edge, active in Katrina relief efforts) and Bob Dylan for the first weekend. For round two, Jimmy Buffett, Keith Urban, Paul Simon and, oddly enough, Lionel Richie will join the party.

But Jazz Fest's real drawing card, the attraction that turns first-time attendees into lifelong devotees, is its endless supply of high-caliber homegrown talent.

MetersThe reunited Meters, also headliners on Sunday, aptly demonstrated why they serve as an enduring inspiration to jam bands everywhere, including fellow New Orleans act Galactic. Keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste attached simple but incredibly infectious rhythms to colorful melodies and acid-washed six-string solos. The funk was deep and wide.

"It makes me feel good to see all these people," Neville said about halfway through the set, which included such favorites as "Cissy Strut," "Chug Chug Chug-a-Lug," "They All Ask'd for You" "Fire on the Bayou" and "People Say."

elvisEarlier on Sunday, revered New Orleans piano man Allen Toussaint delighted listeners with a set of vintage soul, and several pieces from "The River in Reverse," his forthcoming collaboration with Elvis Costello; Costello, on hand for the occasion, was in fine form.

New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott and his dynamic band went the funk and fusion route, with the title track and other tunes from his recently released CD "Rewind That," including a newfangled take on Miles Davis's "So What."

"Katrina's gone, and we're moving on," said Scott. "It's not swingin', but it makes people happy," he said about his music, which is too rock-oriented for mainstream jazz but too jagged for "smooth."

On Saturday, Galactic turned in a set of deep, deep funk jams and noisy, experimental electronic sounds, with the help of guest saxophonist Skerik. Herbie Hancock was joined by a superb band: Marcus Miller, the bass virtuoso who once served as Miles Davis' right-hand man; drummer Brian Blade, a Louisiana native now working in the Wayne Shorter Quarter; and Lionel Loueke, the West African guitarist whose day job is with New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

Alternating between a grand piano and electric keyboards and synthesizers, Hancock opened with the groove-intensive "Canteloupe Island," a favorite of jazzy jam bands everywhere, and invited Blanchard on stage for Miles' "Tutu." The show was capped with the Hancock standard, "Chameleon," featuring a guest appearance by Bill Summers, original percussionist for Hancock's Headhunters, and co-leader of popular New Orleans group Los Hombres Calientes.

During their own set, Los Hombres Calientes, with Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, New Orleans' official cultural ambassador, and longtime member Victor "Red" Atkins on piano, sounded as tight and righteous as ever. The band got the crowd moving with a set of Latin jazz, funk and Afro-Cuban music, including "Foforo Fo Firi," from their 2001 "New Congo Square" album; Mardi Gras Indians standard "Hey Pocky Way" and "Shake Your Money Maker."

Friday morning, the Jazz Vipers started things right with the optimistic "I Hope You're Comin' Back to New Orleans," which had saxophonist Joe Braun singing, "I'm here to stay and rebuild my life in New Orleans" before the group continued with Fats Waller's "Zonky"; both tunes appear on the Vipers' new CD. Betty Winn and One A-Chord, a 13-piece gospel choir, also offered a message of encouragement, with the exuberant "Somebody To Lean On."

Also on the list of early Friday highlights: a hypnotic performance by African-rooted group Michael Skinkus and Moyuba, a trio of white-robed singers backed by congas, acoustic bass and trumpet; and Swedish-born guitarist Anders Osborne's bluesy funk blast, abetted by Kirk Joseph's rubbery sousaphone lines, on a set that ended with the party-hearty anthem "Stoned, Drunk and Naked."

Add to that a crowd-pleasing performance by saxophonist and singer James Rivers, a longtime festival favorite who doubled on bagpipes for a medley starting with "Chim Chim Cheree" and closing with "Amazing Grace." He also demonstrated admirable skills on flute and blues harmonica.

The fest's first day also offered a characteristically uneven performance by Bob Dylan who was, well, Bob Dylan, during his late afternoon set. Dressed in a stylish white Western suit and a cowboy hat and seated behind keyboards, the folk-rock giant croaked out a set of songs including "Maggie's Farm," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and, on the encore, "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower."

Dylan's voice may be as unintelligible as ever, and his harmonica playing might best be described as hapless, but at least he still has the good sense to put together a dynamic band. Texas blues guitarist Denny Freeman delivered some serious six-string scorch, and Donnie Herron, formerly of Nashville alt-country favorites BR5-49, turned in plenty of tangy pedal-steel lines.

Yerba Buena, also on Friday, turned in a high-energy show at the Congo Square stage, with a mix of Latin funk laced with South American folk (thanks to fiddle lines), hip-hop rhythms and even a snippet of "Hava Nagila."

The fest's first day wound down with well-received sets by piano man Dr. John, whose expanded band punched out "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" and other swamp-funk familiarities; and Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, joined by Bill Summers, Donald Harrison, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and others for a set capped with a suite including "St. James Infirmary."

"We're gonna take y'all from the graveyard to the second line," said Mayfield, suggesting the emotional route traveled by New Orleans residents in recent years: Many will tell you that they've moved from misery and a sense of hopelessness to real optimism for the city's future.

"The healing power of music" was the tag line for this year's edition of Jazz Fest. Judging by the music presented during the first weekend, the slogan is more than merely clever ad copy. New Orleans natives have taken that philosophy to heart. Jazz Fest isn't just about the entertainment to be enjoyed, and culinary delights to be inhaled, at the Fair Grounds. Music junkies also travel to New Orleans to take in the remarkable club shows held over the course of the 10-day period.

For the first weekend, great grooves were had by all at a Putumayo World Music shindig at the House of Blues, with New Orleans' own Iguanas and James and Troy Andrews sharing a bill with the Skatalites, Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros and Haiti's Carimi. Also worth hearing were Mississippi-bred singer, trumpeter and guitarist Olu Dara at One-Eyed Jack's; and Meters bassist George Porter, Jr., Astral Project drummer Johnny Vidacovich and pianist Henry Butler at Le Bon Temps Roule.