Music and Politics Mingle in New Orleans

Jazz Fest ’08: Homecoming on Muddy Ground

By Larry Blumenfeld

Above all else it was a homecoming: The Neville Brothers performed at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. More good news: The event returned to its full pre-Katrina seven-day schedule. Still more: Though the heavy rains of the first weekend made a muddy mess of the Fair Grounds infield, they didn’t dampen spirits or attendance much. According to event officials, nearly 400,000 people attended the festival, held April 25-27 and May 1-4.

Given the emotional heft of their return, the Nevilles were the big story. Their presence built throughout the fest’s final weekend: first Art, in his debut solo set, inviting Aaron up to the stage at one point; then, Aaron, bringing many in a packed gospel tent to tears, his saxophonist brother Charles at his side; finally, all four—Art, Aaron, Cyril and Charles—together on the Acura stage to close the festival’s final day.

Before that last performance, producer Quint Davis spoke of “families being torn apart, brothers separated from brothers all over New Orleans.” “The Neville family’s coming back together,” Art said from the stage. The crowd roared. The four then reprised the three decades of hits that made them such beloved stars in the first place.

It was an important symbol, no doubt. Though Charles has lived in Massachusetts for more than a decade, Aaron, Art and Cyril all lived in New Orleans before Katrina. These brothers in fact became separated from each other—and from the city that identified so powerfully with them. I remember being struck by Aaron’s son, Ivan Neville, on “Sing Me Back Home,” a CD by displaced all-star musicians recorded in Austin, Texas, six weeks after the storm: Covering John Fogerty’s Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, Ivan snarled, “I ain’t no fortunate son!”—and meant it. (If a Neville wasn’t entitled by birth, I recall thinking, who in New Orleans was?)

The effects of the floods that followed the levee failures are deep and lasting enough to strain even the Nevilles’ relationship with their hometown.

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