New Orleans: Back From the Brink

Image credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

LET'S GET THIS PARTY STARTED
OCT. 29, 2005-MAY 7, 2006
Spirits are lifted by three music events. First comes the Voodoo Music Experience, held Oct. 29 and featuring Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, and many local artists. Mardi Gras takes place in February, luring 700,000 revelers to the annual street celebration. And, over two weekends in April and May, more than 300,000 people show up for New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (better known as Jazz Fest) to see Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Irma Thomas, Ivan Neville, and others. But not, unfortunately, Fats Domino, who cancels due to illness.

Stephen Rehage, producer of Voodoo ''The storm hit 60 days before the event was supposed to happen. The city of Memphis offered [to stage it], and we decided to go there. One day I got a phone call from the mayor's office and they said, 'What do you think about moving the event back?' I got on a conference call with [representatives for festival participants] and said, 'We're going back to New Orleans.' [At that point], 90 percent of the artists dropped out. After everybody pulled, one person said, 'I'm coming to New Orleans. I don't care if I have to sleep in a sleeping bag.' That was Trent Reznor.''

Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails ''I love New Orleans. I lived there on and off since 1990. I moved away a few months before Katrina, actually. When Voodoo did seem feasible to do, on my end it was just a couple of calls to some friends.''

Stephen Rehage ''Trent called all the bands and said, 'Listen, it's going to be safe, let's go and do this thing.' He has iconic status in the city now because of what he did in 2005. That Voodoo was the hardest thing I've ever done, but it was the most beautiful day you have ever seen.''

Mitch Landrieu, lieutenant governor of Louisiana ''They basically did Voodoo as a gift to the recovery workers. A lot of the National Guard came.''

Stephen Rehage ''I remember joking, 'I think we can let security go. The audience has machine guns.' Behind the New Orleans stage, I ran out of booze every 15 minutes. Kermit Ruffins, who had to go on at the end of the day — we found him dancing in the audience. We had to grab him and go, You're up next. Come on!''

Kermit Ruffins, jazz trumpeter ''Yeah, I was hanging out [laughs]. It was a hell of a thing. Just for that little while all the people in the audience forgot what happened, you know.''

Spencer Bohren ''There were a lot of us that had a boycott attitude toward Mardi Gras. I thought, Maybe this once we could suspend the party. And I love Mardi Gras! Finally my son woke up on Saturday morning and said, 'Let's go to Toth, Dad.' Toth is one of the parades. It goes by all the hospitals — the children's hospital, the insane asylum, all these places where people normally wouldn't see Mardi Gras. So I went, and I was so glad I did. There were more people than I have ever seen. Everyone was just so happy to see each other. I stood corrected.''

Quint Davis, producer of Jazz Fest ''There were a lot of moments when I felt like throwing in the towel. But we said, 'We're going to do the festival and we're going to do it pretty much full-size.'''

Terence Blanchard, jazz trumpeter and composer ''I've never been that nervous going to a Jazz Fest before. I think I was worried about what kind of statement we were going to make as a city. But I got to tell you, man, I was almost in tears when we pulled up and I saw all those cars, saw all those people. It was just like a homecoming.''

Quint Davis ''The Springsteen thing was really the heart and soul of the festival. To have the artistry to get up on that stage in front of those people — the most devastated audience you could ever get in front of — and minister to that pain... He's up there singing 'When the Saints Go Marching In' and he sings 'My City of Ruins' and everybody's got their hands up and everybody's crying. I mean, what Bruce Springsteen did that day was amazing. Amazing.''

Ivan Neville, funk band Dumpstaphunk ''It was perfect that they had Jazz Fest, to make a statement that we're trying to rebuild this place. Obviously, it's not rebuilt physically. I don't know what they've done to the levees [laughs]. Nobody knows about that.''

Quint Davis ''Fats was closing the festival. I got the call [that he couldn't perform] at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I couldn't believe it. And then we started scrambling, because we had Lionel Richie there but we had to move him from the other end of the field.''

Robin Chambless ''There were a lot of people upset that Lionel Richie closed our Jazz Fest. God love Lionel Richie, but that's not the person we would have chosen.''

Irma Thomas ''I could have closed out the festival, but instead they used Lionel Richie. That's okay [laughs]. I'm sure they've given some thought to that since.''

NEXT PAGE: ''We're just a bunch of tenacious crazy lunatics that are attached to this place. And we just ain't gonna let it go.''

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