Story & photos by Cree McCree

“I’m starting to get used to this festival thing,” a super-relaxed Jeff Tweedy noted midway through Wilco’s set at the 36th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. So are founding Jazzfest producers George Wein and Quint Davis. After months of backstage turmoil, they emerged from the dark cloud of last year’s rain-soaked money loser to make this year’s Jazzfest one of the best ever.

Nearly 450,000 music fans poured through the gates over two long weekends blessed by delightfully cool spring weather and a deep and wide roster of acts. The Dave Matthews Band, the Black Crowes, Brian Wilson, Steve Winwood, Trey Anastasio, Nelly, Isaac Hayes, Elvis Costello, Widespread Panic, Jack Johnson, Ozomatli, Ike Turner and a slew of other headliners joined a bill of hometown heavyweights topped by a deep-funk reunion of the original Meters.

Most fest goers were blissfully unaware that the future of Jazzfest was up for grabs last year after Wein and Davis were nearly fired. But instead of self-destructing, the old guard entered a win-win partnership with LA concert promoter AEG Live, whose financial clout bought more high wattage talent and a fresh marketing campaign. As a result, fairgrounds tickets jumped to $35 ($25 in advance). But with dozens of world class artists playing on 10 separate stages each day, that’s still more band for your buck than any other major festival. Add hundreds of nighttime shows to the mix—from the Ponderosa Stomp’s living jukebox of legends to Trey Anastasio’s SuperJam—and you’ve got one hell of a 10-day, 24/7 party.

“This is my first Wilco show not smoking,” Jeff Tweedy announced at their State Palace theater kickoff concert, where kaleidoscopic visuals made “A Muzzle of Bees” and “Spiders” come to life. “I have like 17 patches on my ass.” Nicotine withdrawal notwithstanding, Tweedy was in fine form leading a crackerjack band that nailed every song to the wall. Even more mind-expanding was their fairgrounds set, where guitarist Nels Cline went into total sonic meltdown and the band flew straight into the sunset.

Brian Wilson’s highly anticipated Jazzfest stop on his current Smile tour was stunning. Looking dapper behind the keyboards in a purple cowboy shirt, Wilson and his 10-piece troupe of young musicians took us on a “Surfin’ Safari” that captured the aural sunshine of all the old Beach Boys hits I danced to back in high school. Talk about flashbacks! When they soared into “Good Vibrations,” I felt like I was dancing inside a theremin.

Guitar icon Link Wray was the King of Cool at the 4th Annual Ponderosa Stomp. Back in the ’50s, his monster instrumentals “Rumble” and “Rawhide” caused thousands of mothers to lock up their daughters and countless punks and metalheads to plug in. Looking like an ancient Hopi trickster, his eyes gleaming with malevolent glee, the 76-year-old Wray stalked the stage with primal power chords that reduced the hipster crowd at Mid-City Lanes to a quivering mass of flayed neurons. The two-night “Stomp” has become an annual pilgrimage for devotees of thrift-store vinyl, some of whom don’t even bother with Jazzfest. At this year’s throwdown, Robert Junior Lockwood, stepson of the near-mythic Robert Johnson, played his jazzy guitar runs with a supple fluidity that belied his 90 years. The sweet soul of Barbara Lynn, the hot licks of Bo Diddley’s ax-slinger Lady Bo, and the “Booze in the Bottle” blues of the Carter Brothers, to name just a few real-deal legends, shared two separate stages with big revues like Little Buck and the Topcats, which returned Buckwheat Zydeco to his pre-accordion organ roots.

Hipsters also came out in droves for two local bands booked on Jazzfest’s Lagniappe stage, where the avant electronica of Drums & Tuba meshed perfectly with the fighter jet drones overhead. Scheduled for a 4:15 pm start, Morning 40 Federation., the “pride of the 9th Ward,” actually hit at 4:20—perfect timing for a band co-fronted by Josh Cohen, who blows glass pipes when he’s not blowing sax. Outdoors on a bright sunny day, M40F’s strip-club horns, weird megaphone effects and boozy sinaglong choruses (“sorry, Mom, I’m a drunk…on drugs”) made it feel like 4:20 am.

The first and only fest rain rolled in on Saturday morning (April 30), but didn’t stick around long enough to make the grounds a muddy mess; it just kept crowds down slightly on a day that needed some breathing room from the Dave Matthews hordes camped at the Acura stage. My power spot was the Fais Do Do, where D.L. Menard twanged his way through Cajun country classics like “She Don’t Know I’m Married” and Old Crow Medicine Show rocked my world with the fierce spirit of their fresh old-time music.

Sunday (May 1) was a day for revelations. The new (and long overdue) Jazz & Heritage stage, home base for New Orleans brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians, was a continual source of random epiphanies, starting on this day with he African Renaissance Dancers of South Africa. Over at the Sprint/Sanyo stage, the North Mississippi Allstars were joined by Rising Star Fife & Drum and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Meanwhile, a powerful nexus of women—Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, Maria Muldaur, Tracy Nelson, and Angela Strehli—turned the Popeye’s blues tent into the gospel tent with a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. By the time all the voices swelled together for a rousing “Down by the Riverside,” every face in the house was moved totears.

My final blessing came from the Red, Black, and Blue Mardi Gras Indians—a massive all-ages, all-races ensemble that threw down the ultimate tribal funk fusion. “We have to save the children of today,” testified Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, “because they are the children of tomorrow.”