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New Orleans gears up for big Jazz Fest

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Phillip Paulin belts out a tune during New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest last year. This year's event opens April 25.

Phillip Paulin belts out a tune during New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest last year. This year’s event opens April 25.

Bill Haber, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — It's that time of year when New Orleans slathers up and chills out.

Never mind how spring temperatures tend to sizzle. Get a big hat, plenty of suntan lotion and everything will be cool in the Big Easy for the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest — that smorgasbord of music, food and fun — allows music enthusiasts to plan an itinerary around everything from musical lectures and demonstrations to impromptu parties. And, oh yes, big-name acts and niche music abounds.

Fans stake out spots in front of stages or under shade trees at the Fair Grounds Race Track, chowing down on boiled crawfish, po-boys, fried chicken and even sushi.

"There is nothing else like it," said singer Aaron Neville, whose performance at the festival this year is his first gig in his hometown since Katrina hit. "It's one of those things that makes the city what it is."

Before the hurricane, Neville traditionally closed out the second weekend of the festival with his brothers, an addition to doing a turn in the gospel tent. For Neville, New Orleans hasn't been the same since Hurricane Katrina roared through in August 2005, flooding 80 percent of the city — including his house.

"I had 10 feet of water at my house," he said.

In addition, Neville's wife of 49 years, Joel Roux-Neville, died in January 2007. Neville has also had problems with asthma.

"The New Orleans I know is definitely a memory now," Neville said. But reviving good memories associated with the city's huge music festival is something he's looking forward to. He's even planning to move back to the area in the near future.

"This is like our 30th anniversary at the Fest," he said. "So I'm not going to worry about anything. I'm going to leave it in the hands of the Lord and just enjoy it."

While Neville has been around Jazz Fest for three decades, the fest itself will be 39 years old when it opens for the weekend of April 25-27.

Opening day headliners will include Sheryl Crow and Allison Krauss as well as reggae master Burning Spear. Music the first weekend also includes the Count Basie Band featuring Patti Austin, Archie Bell and Billy Joel. April 27 headliners include Al Green, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint and Cassandra Wilson. Louisiana native Tim McGraw closes out the opening weekend.

The festival's second weekend kicks off on a Thursday for the first time since Katrina. Performers May 1-4 include Santana, the Derek Trucks Band, Keb Mo and a Tribute to Mahalia Jackson featuring Irma Thomas.

Stevie Wonder makes his Jazz Fest debut May 2.

With the huge selection of music, food and other attractions — including hundreds of booths with food, art, clothing and native crafts — pacing is important for those attending the event.

Many festival regulars set up a headquarters — folding chairs, umbrellas, blankets — near one of the stages or in shaded areas where they listen to music near a favored tent or stage.

There is also plenty of music and food available for visitors after Jazz Fest closes each day — for those with the energy remaining to do more.

Rooms in New Orleans during the festival are at a premium, with many people settling for lodging on the Mississippi Gulf Coast or in other areas of Louisiana. The airlines do now announce the availability of flights, said spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut — "just say it will be crazy, busy and packed."

NEW ORLEANS JAZZ FEST: www.nojazzfest.com or 504-410-4100. April 25-27 and May 1-4. Tickets are $40 in advance, $50 at the gate.