The Band Played On

“We’ve got a couple of groupies down here,” says Michael Doucet to the several hundred who have come to see him with his band BeauSoleil on this opening Friday of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. “They’re Bob Dylan groupies. And they just told me a sure-fire way to get in Bob Dylan’s pants. Wanna hear it?”

A cheer goes up.

“Okay, here it is: Ask him to go outside for a cigarette.”

Dylan, who played earlier this afternoon, has long been whisked away. Doucet, on the other hand, stands before us, wisps of graying hair sticking out of his Cajun hat, playing his agile fiddle and yodeling in Cajun French. “Michael,” I shout from the center of the pack. “What do we have to do if we want to get in your pants?”

If you can judge a band by the mood of the people it draws, BeauSoleil is as good as it gets. Faces beam and couples sway to Doucet’s sweet tenor and the band’s lilting beat; random men lift the hands of random women, or vice versa, to twirl their momentary partners. Doucet sings “La Terre de Mon Grandpère” and “It’s You I Love” (“Even in the rain/even in a hurricane”), songs about Louisiana Cajun families generations deep, a culture washing away like the silt that runs into the sea from the channelized Mississippi. He tells stories of playing southern Louisiana clubs with names like the Cauldron of Blood — “where if you didn’t play right, you know what would happen to you. Luckily, we passed that test.” And he makes it clear that for all the Miller tents and Shell Oil subsidies and bona fide rock legends that conspired to make this Jazz Fest happen in this still mostly empty and broken city, the native musicians of southern Louisiana still matter here most.

“You know Bruce is gonna play, right?” Doucet says. “You know, Bruce . . . uh . . . what’s his last name?”

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It is important to remember that the world inside the fairgrounds is not New Orleans, and that New Orleans is not just fine. It used to be that when you walked out of the fairground gates, Gentilly Boulevard and Aubry Street were lined with local residents sitting out on their stoops, watching people pass, drinking beer and cooking barbecue. Now you walk past rows of clapboard houses branded with bright-red and purple X’s — those strange hieroglyphics of rescue teams — and with brownish-yellow water lines etched on them 4 or 5 feet high. At night, there are no lights, because few residents have returned, having been shipped off to places like Plainfield, Illinois. (“Never was a place better named,” one woman who came back told me. “Nothing to do there but drive and cry.”) Inside the fairgrounds’ fences, however, only the shoddy state of the root-rotted grass gives it away that, just eight months ago, people were navigating boats around these trees. Everything has been made so shiny and new.

And yet, even at the shiniest and newest Acura Stage, with its gargantuan television screen and articulate amps and woofers, the days still unfold like one long lament for the destroyed Gulf Coast. At the Louisiana Rebirth stage in Congo Square, the New Birth Brass Band invites The Edge to join them in a chorus of “Stand by Me.”

“This is what we need the United States to do,” the bandleader says emphatically. “Stand by us. Stand by New Orleans.”

Meanwhile, a baby boy in a red T-shirt, dancing on the stage with astonishing expertise, upstages them both.

On Sunday, at the end of the festival’s first weekend, I buy two beers and two bottles of water from the New Orleans Softball Association booth and head to the Southern Comfort Blues Stage, to see the New Orleans–native funk band the Meters back together in their original formation: Ziggy Modeliste on drums and Art Neville on guitar. Somewhere across the field, Springsteen is playing for thousands, but at least a thousand have come here instead, to chant ?“F-B-I and the C-I-A” and “Hey, Hey Pocky Way” with the band that brought New Orleans to Mick Jagger, and Jagger to bayou funk. A man picks me up so I can take a better picture. When he drops me, I notice the slogan on his T-shirt: “Beauty,” it says, “is in the eye of the Beerholder.” I believe I have come to the right place.

Later, riding home with a busload of people who have just come from the Meters, we sing softly, smiling at one another as we pass the abandoned houses and boarded-up stores along dark and littered St. Bernard Avenue: “Feel good music, I been told, good for your body and good for your soul. Hey, hey, hey, hey, Pocky Way.”

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