Thursday, November 15, 2007

New Orleans Jazz Fest: Seven Fair Grounds Days Again AND The Nevilles Come Back

As rumored (below), the seventh Fair Grounds day (Thursday, second weekend) has been restored to Jazz Fest. More good stuff: The Neville Brothers are playing the fest, for the first time since Katrina.

Here's the New Orleans Times-Picayune report on the Jazz Fest news:

Neville Brothers, Tim McGraw coming to Jazzfest
The Neville Brothers are coming home.

The band is slated to make its first hometown appearance since Hurricane Katrina at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. After a two-year absence, the brothers reclaim their traditional second Sunday closing slot.That was not the only big news announced Thursday at the North Rampart Street offices of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the non-profit that owns Jazzfest.

The festival has restored Thursday to its second weekend, so Jazzfest will occupy the Fair Grounds April 25-27 and May 1-4.
Country superstar Tim McGraw will close out the first weekend on April 27. And ever-popular soul band Frankie Beverly & Maze, perennial favorites at the Essence Music Festival, are returning to Jazzfest.

"It's a great day for Jazzfest, and a great day for New Orleans, with those two being synonomous," Jazzfest producer/director Quint Davis said.

McGraw, a native of central Louisiana, and his wife Faith Hill are the most popular couple in country music. Their joint "Soul 2 Soul" tours routinely sell out arenas across the country. A July 2006 Soul 2 Soul show at the New Orleans Arena drew 17,000-plus fans, the largest concert attendance in the arena's history.

The couple donated proceeds from that concert to Katrina relief efforts. McGraw and Hill, a Mississippi native, have been outspoken in their support for the Gulf Coast region and critical of the slow pace of government relief efforts.

The McGraw booking is a direct result of the 2005 alliance between Davis' Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans, Jazzfest's longtime producer, and AEG Live, the Los Angeles-based concert industry powerhouse.

Jazzfest had previously inquired about McGraw's availability, to no avail. This time, AEG's relationship with McGraw - he is headlining AEG's Stagecoach festival in southern California the weekend after his Jazzfest gig -- and the company's deep pockets facilitated the booking.

"AEG has opened new doors for us," Davis said.

McGraw welcomed the opportunity to play in New Orleans. "Not only were we eager to do this, but Tim McGraw said yes almost immediately," Davis said.

Frankie Beverly & Maze have released no new music in more than a decade, but continue to be a popular concert attraction. The band's predominantly African-American audience turns out to sing along with "Joy and Pain," "Back In Stride," "Happy Feelins" and other standards, often staging a mass Electric Slide.

The surprising strength of the first two post-Katrina Jazzfests encouraged organizers to reinstate the second weekend's Thursday. The festival drew around 300,000 attendees in 2006 and 350,000 in 2007.

The extra Thursday adds about $1 million to Jazzfest's production costs, Davis said. Charging $25 for advance Thursday tickets is not necessarily the fastest way to recoup that cost. But Thursday is popular with locals, and the move sends a positive message.

"This will be only the third Jazzfest since the flood," Davis said. "Two years seems like 102. But to say that an industry that needs equal parts tourism and locals to survive is actually expanding in New Orleans right now says a lot. If attendance fell off last year, we wouldn't be doing it."

Some fans still harbor hard feelings about the Neville Brothers' post-Katrina absence from New Orleans. The band appeared at Katrina relief events around the country, but to date has not performed in its hometown.

Both Aaron and Cyril Neville lost their homes to Katrina's floodwaters. Aaron subsequently settled outside Nashville, Tenn., and Cyril resides in Austin, Tex. Saxophonist Charles Neville has lived in Massachusetts since the 1990s.

But Art Neville, who turns 70 in December, is living once again on Valence Street in the Uptown neighborhood where he was born. He attended Thursday's press conference, and joined his guitarist son Ian and keyboardist nephew Ivan for a brief performance.

The Neville Brothers declined to perform at the first post-Katrina Jazzfest in 2006 largely because of Aaron's concerns about aggravating his asthma. Art, however, did perform with the reunited Meters, who have subsequently disbanded.

Later that year, the Nevilles reached an agreement with Jazzfest to return in 2007. But those plans were shelved after Joel Neville, Aaron's wife, suffered a relapse of her cancer. With her prognosis uncertain, Aaron could not commit to Jazzfest.

Joel Neville died in January; Aaron returned to New Orleans for the first time since the storm to bury her. By then, Jazzfest had already booked a closing act.
So 2007 became the first Jazzfest in at least two decades without any of the four Neville brothers. Art was tentatively slated to sit in with Ian and Ivan's band Dumpstaphunk. But given his limited mobility in the wake of near-fatal back surgery, he opted not to venture out in that day's downpour.

"Some days I feel great, some days I don't feel so great," Art said. "I didn't want to take a chance with the rain."

Additionally, Cyril did not perform as advertised with the all-star New Orleans Social Club in 2007. Further muddying the waters, he has made disparaging comments about New Orleans and its music community that did not sit well with many locals. And some Nevilles expressed dissatisfaction with their past Jazzfest paychecks, relative to other headliners.

But such concerns were apparently addressed to the brothers' satisfaction. The four brothers "decided that we wanted to come back, and could," Neville said. "Quint took care of the rest. The Neville Brothers and Jazzfest took a deep breath."

In this, the Neville Brothers' 30th anniversary year, Art hoped to move past any lingering bad blood.

"It's a zippity-do-da day," he said Thursday. "I'm happy to be back. Jazzfest is a breath that New Orleans needs to take."

The partially displaced Neville Brothers reflect the partially displaced population of New Orleans, Davis said. Jazzfest would not be complete until the Brothers returned.

"New Orleans has not crawled back because of massive government support or a booming economy," Davis said. "It's surviving on its soul. And the soul is not whole without the Neville Brothers. If culture is our heart, the Neville Brothers are the heartbeat."

Jazzfest has never put tickets on sale or announced headliners five months before the gates of the Fair Grounds open. The intention, in part, is to spark early bookings for local hotels.

With three headliners on board, Davis and his team must now book the rest of the line-up. He hopes to roll it out in late January, between the Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras.

The final talent mix should mimic last year's, he said, with 85 percent Louisiana acts, and major headliners each day on the Acura, Gentilly and Congo Square stages.

"We've got an impressive palette to work from," Davis said. "We can have Tim McGraw to Frankie Beverly and everything in between."

Advance Jazzfest tickets are $25 for Thursday, $35 for each of the other six days, plus service charges. After Jan. 22, all ticket prices increase by $5. The price of tickets at the gate has not been announced.

Tickets are available at all Ticketmaster outlets and at the Superdome box office on the ground level at Gate A.

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