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Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, May 2, 2003, Music

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

New Orleans' Fair Grounds, New Orleans, La., April 24-27

Perhaps when South by Southwest is plowing through its third decade, the weather gods will be as merciful as they were last Thursday. Whereas SXSW 03 sulked to a rainy start Wednesday night of the Austin Music Awards, Texas' glorious Big Sky jetting in the next day (and going the remaining distance), New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrated its inaugural first weekend first Thursday with a 70% chance of showers. The faithful woke under scowling skies. Not that the worship wouldn't have gone on -- lightning excepted -- but it did scare away the gainfully employed. Well, except for twentysomething thousand. We wept with joy. Lake Charles, La.'s 70-year-old institution the Hackberry Ramblers are exactly that, a joy, the Cajun country pioneers' average age (75) showing on "Johnny B. Goode." What's the hurry when your fiddler's 90 and your accordionist 93? Young Crescent City brass bombers Bonerama (trom)boned classic FMs -- "Crosstown Traffic," "War Pigs," "Frankenstein" -- like Bourbon Street "Hand Grenade" throw-downers. On the Fais Do-Do stage, meanwhile, Tish Hinojosa's inaugural set at the Fair Grounds was puro El Sol y la Luna. Ivan Neville, Aaron's key kid, was the funky Meters as opposed to the real Meters, but if he stays home, that will change. In the ever sacred Jazz Tent, New Orleans piano king Allen Toussaint played a heavenly Ellington set -- airy melodies, compact yet lively, and bursting with humor and heart. "Meterhead" strutted. Big Easy piano emperor Fats Domino wore praline-cream belly pants with matching suspenders, orange Sixties sunglasses, and a black snugger with orange sequins. Seventy-five years eternal and two dozen immortals ("Ain't That a Shame," "The Fat Man," "Blueberry Hill"). Three guitarists, six saxophonists, and 60 minutes that caused only the faintest tears from the gray sky. Night cried "Tears of a Clown" as Smokey Robinson Atlantic Citied the Jazz & Heritage Foundation's black-tie, $500-a-seat fundraising gala. "The Tracks of My Tears," with Marv Tarplin playing his original guitar part, sent the nonprofit's elite sponsors home with their tails wagging. Friday awoke like our SXSW Thursday: a day for which to give thanks. Homeboys Leroy Jones and Wendell Brunious blew their trumpets trad and true bright and early, noon. New Orleans' all-star Lil' Band o' Gold, sounding somewhat ragged at the Continental Club last time here, honked just right and raw on the festival's headliner stage -- even if the rumored Bobby Charles didn't show for "Tennessee Blues." Nevertheless, C.C. Adcock, Steve Riley, Warren Storm, et al. handled it just fine. Only a bastardization of "aplomb" applies to the frontman of another supergroup of sorts, jazz jammers Garage a Trois. Axorcist Charlie Hunter, Galactic/hometown force Stanton Moore, and Austin-identified vibist Mike Dillon cooked like their debut, Emphasizer, but Critters Buggin' sax snark Skerik was as funny as his playing was inspired: not in the least. Chicago's blues brothers Syl & James Johnson followed by taking ACL Music Festival headliner-to-be Al Green to the river and leaving him riddled with an ever-expanding list of rappers who've sampled Syl's steely, Antone's-touched past. Finally, Bob Dylan iced everyone. If Mr. Tambourine Man was a dragon in River City Easter Sunday, he was Warren Oates Jazz Fest Friday, spitting out "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" like nails after barreling down to the "Crossroads" of "Drifter's Escape." Too wrung out to finish "All Along the Watchtower," his end kneel deserved a sword tap to the shoulder. Saturday rocked to alligator pie, rolled to Cajun-smoked boudin, and climaxed with fried green tomatoes. Another local menu constituted lunch: Blind, powerhouse pianist Henry Butler crowning Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and Huey "Piano" Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" for the roaring Popeye's Chicken Blues Tent. Donald Harrison Jr.'s heated alto took a back seat to his Mardi Gras Indian headdresses and Jazz Tent warm-up laps for the day's crowned headliner, Mississippi queen Cassandra Wilson. The Big Easy never knew sin until the throaty, deep down dusk of Wilson's come-hither resided in its shadows. Opener "Lay Lady Lay" damned more male souls than Angel Heart. Redemption came from the Rhodes Gospel Tent Sunday morning at gate-time, Jo "Cool" Davis and the Bester Singers gracing the sacrament: crawfish bread, strawberry lemonade, and a lather of Banana Boat oil sunblock. Ivory-trade elders Eddie Bo and Dr. John massaged hits, "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" and "Check Your Bucket" from the former, "Right Place Wrong Time," "Such a Night," and "Goin' Back to New Orleans" for the Loop Guru. Both played tribute to newly sainted Crescent City guitar coif Earl King. Still and all, Sunday bowed on the slight shoulders and blue suit of only one true messiah: the last planet in jazz's young solar system, Ornette Coleman. Introduced by N.O.'s most liberated local disciple, Edward "Kidd" Jordan, Fort Worth's rarely touring free-jazz fireball opened with a story about local patriarchs Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste making the pilgrimage to L.A. four decades ago to acknowledge that he had been sent to change jazz forever. Then, the paper-thin 73-year-old closed his eyes, unleashed his rhythm section, and blew his little gold alto sax. Not skronked, not squawked -- blew. Blew one golden, lyrical, sunset solo after another. And another, and another, and one after that. And when 60 minutes had vanished into the second straight perfect spring day, Marsalis ambled up to the piano, while Batiste positioned himself on a stool nearby with Sidney Bechet's black reed in his thick fingers. Coleman smiled. And he kept smiling, a sad, youth-gone-by gulp of gratitude. The same gulp of gratitude from a humbled tent full of music congregationalists. Buddy Bolden, the Holy Ghost of New Orleans jazz, was surely smiling too. (Jazz Fest continues this weekend, May 1-4, in New Orleans;

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