The blues stage will be back when the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival opens Friday, and so will such performers as blues singer Alton “Big Al” Carson and singer-pianist Henry Butler.
Carson, who can be found almost nightly at the Funky Pirate lounge on Bourbon Street, had performed at just about every Jazz Fest since the festival’s inception in 1970 until Katrina devastated the city in summer 2005. A shortage of musicians forced the festival to downsize last year. The blues stage was mothballed and Carson was left off the schedule.
Butler, meanwhile, had moved to Denver after his home flooded and he did not come back for last year’s fest. He’s back for the festival this year but still uncertain about whether he will return full time to his gutted home.
“I go back and forth,” said Butler, who explains that one of his biggest concerns about returning to New Orleans is the status of the city’s levee system. “Right now we don’t know what’s working. That’s the fear I have for this city.”
Butler will perform at Jazz Fest with his band Saturday and with the New Orleans Social Club on Sunday. For years he performed on the blues stage, but he’s making his post-Katrina festival comeback on the Gentilly stage. Singers Charmaine Neville, Irma Thomas and Lucinda Williams are also performing on the Gentilly stage this weekend.
“I really missed being there last year,” said Carson, who is performing Friday. “I’ve been performing at the festival since I was in my 20s.”
Carson, 53, and Butler said they remember when the festival was only one weekend instead of two, and consisted of only local talent. Today the festival attracts big-name artists in an array of musical genres, including country and rap.
The first weekend headliners are Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, Norah Jones, Brad Paisley, Ludacris and Bonnie Raitt. John Mayer, Steely Dan, ZZ Top, John Legend, Counting Crows and New Edition will perform the second weekend, May 4-6.
New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr., will close the festival on May 6. He is expected to perform selections from his “Oh, My Nola” album, which covers New Orleans standards associated with the likes of Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Louis Armstrong, as well as a handful of original recordings.
Though the fest is bouncing back, Carson, Butler and others involved stressed that its rebirth since Katrina belies the struggles that remain for many of this city’s musicians. Many music venues remain shuttered and many that have reopened are not at full operation.
“I know I’m one of the lucky ones,” Carson said. His standing gig on Bourbon Street was only briefly interrupted by the storm. He’s still rebuilding his flooded Uptown New Orleans home, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about where his next paycheck is coming from, he said.
“Many clubs aren’t open like before. If I had to survive on the neighborhood bars alone, I probably wouldn’t make it, because they’re not there anymore,” he said.