By Cree McCree
Photos by Michael Weintrob / Groovetography

There was a lot riding on the 37th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Tens of thousands of music lovers converged on sacred ground – the freshly repaired Fair Grounds – to turn the spirit of the city around on the opening weekend of the first Jazzfest since the post-Katrina levee breaches devastated my adopted hometown.

The collective healing was a stunning success.

At stage after stage, during three days blessed by the weather gods (rain held off till the gates closed Saturday and let up just in time for a glorious Sunday) artists used the power of music to confront the tragedy and transform it, and colorfully costumed fest-goers exploded with the raucous joy of a jazz funeral second line.

The visiting big guns delivered, big time. First-day headliner Bob Dylan, wearing a white cowboy hat and a grin wide as the Mississippi, let his songs speak for themselves in a spirited set that invoked “High Waters” and closed with a Cat 5 “All Along the Watchtower.” Elvis Costello unleashed the furies with “The River in Reverse,” the title track of his locally-recorded album with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, moving many to tears with an invocation of the darkest post-Katrina chaos (“they’re counting widows/crosses in splinters”). And closing act Bruce Springsteen delivered a full-bore rock and roll revival with his rollicking Seeger Sessions Band hours after touring flooded-out Lakeview and what’s left of the 9th Ward.

“The criminal ineptitude makes you furious,” said Springsteen, who wrote new lyrics for the Depression-era song he dedicated to President Bystander: “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” A sea of hands and a swell of voices answered his call to “rise up!” and rebuild “My City of Ruins” before The Boss brought it home with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” delivered not as a rabble-rouser but as a quiet acoustic prayer.

But it was the other 90% of the lineup – local Louisiana musicians, many of them homeless returning evacuees – who infused the festival with its lifeblood, from the Mardi Gras Indians to the gospel choirs to headliners like Dr. John and The Meters, whose Church of Funk was in full swing across the Fair Grounds from Springsteen’s band.

“The only thing holding my bones together is my imagination,” quipped Cajun country singer D. L. Menard, whose furniture shop in rural Erath was trashed by Katrina’s evil twin Rita. The same could be said of all the local Jazzfest artists, who responded to the job at hand by drawing deep on their own creative wellsprings.

For Irvin Mayfield, that meant playing “Amazing Grace” for his father, who died in Katrina’s aftermath. For Cowboy Mouth’s Fred LeBlanc, that meant tempting the gods with the pre-Katrina anthem “Hurricane Party,” then soldiering on when the power failed, hurricane-style, with an a cappella version of “Over the Rainbow.” For Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, that meant leading the crowd in a heartfelt sing-along of “Sweet Chalmette” (“that’s in St. Bernard, y’all”), a paean to frozen fish sticks, mac & cheese and “Friday nights at the Daiquiris and Cream” – which, like most of St. Bernard, ain’t dere no more. For the hip-hop brass band Soul Rebels, back in town after scattering to Houston and beyond, that meant a massive call and response to banish the evacuee blues: “No place like home! No place like home! No place like home!”

And for fest-goers throughout the Fair Grounds – whether they were in the Juvenile or Dave Matthews throngs, hoisting umbrellas in a second line, or sucking crawfish heads – it meant marveling that post-Katrina Jazzfest felt just like pre-Katrina Jazzfest, minus a couple stages but bursting with more heart and soul than ever.

Over in the Gospel Tent, Shades of Praise – three tiers of glowing black, white and brown faces raised in joyful song – provided a blueprint of hope for the future of New Orleans. “Who here lost everything?” the choir leader asked. Several dozen hands shot up. “All right then, turn it around,” he shouted and slowly started to spin, gradually speeding up as people throughout the tent rose to perform their own circular exorcisms.

“Turn it around! Turn it around! Turn it around!”

And damn if we didn’t banish that evil hurricane eye and put the floodwaters in reverse, bringing the assembled masses to higher ground.

Hurricane season starts June 1, and Jazzfest can’t turn that around if the levees don’t hold – or if the leaders we elect May 20 don’t have the vision to restore the city’s living culture of marching bands, church choirs, second-line clubs and Mardi Gras Indians. But for a few more fest-filled days – the musical marathon continues this weekend with 9th Ward survivor Fats Domino closing the show – dancing on sacred ground is just what the doctor ordered to heal the breaches in our homes and our hearts.