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Guitars, fiddles greet early birds at Jazz Fest in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS--Music fans poured through the gates at Friday's start of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, staking out spots to catch performances by The Beach Boys, Steel Pulse and Irma Thomas, who is performing a tribute to gospel great Mahalia Jackson.

At the Fais-Do-Do stage, the air filled with sounds of Cajun fiddles and spoons scraping across washboards as Goldman Thibodeaux & the Lawtell Playboys entertained the early birds. His traditional Creole songs, some performed in French, kept Leona Gard of Metairie, Louisiana, dancing with a wide smile.

“They're a nice warm-up, before the faster music comes,” said Gard, 65, as she danced a slow-zydeco step to Thibodeaux's engaging tunes.

Gard, who's been a fest-junkie since 1976, said Thibodeaux and the Playboys are one of the few groups that still offer an old-school sound not often heard.

“They set the pace for others like Geno Delafose,” she said. “Come back and see the crowd when he plays. Everyone will be on their feet dancing.”

The festival known simply as Jazz Fest spans two weekends, Friday through Sunday and May 3-6. This year's lineup includes mostly Louisiana acts accented with national headliners such as Bon Iver, the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cee Lo Green, Ne-Yo, Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett.

Though Jazz Fest has boomed in diversity and popularity in its 40-plus year history, Cajun fiddler and singer Michael Doucet says it's still the best festival for homegrown Louisiana music like his.

“The festival has evolved, but it's a great thing that The Boss is playing here,” said Doucet, front man for BeauSoliel, which performs Friday. “It's an opportunity to catch music that's familiar, music that you're used to hearing at Jazz Fest, but then have the opportunity to hear something new and different.”

Doucet, who has performed at almost every Jazz Fest since the mid-1970s, said it was one of the first major festivals to showcase Cajun and zydeco music. Before the 1970s, music fans often had to travel to small Cajun towns like Eunice, Louisiana, or to the city of Lafayette to hear such music, he said.

Jesse Simon and Moira Foehr, both of New York, said the Creole music is what drew them to the festival.

“It's not something we normally hear or are used to hearing,” said Simon, who's been to New Orleans before but not to the festival.

Foehr, another festival newbie, said Simon was in charge of their trip's music itinerary, when asked which acts they were interested in seeing. On their agenda, he said, were Bon Iver, “anybody in the Blues Tent,” Trombone Shorty and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, whose performance will close the festival on Saturday.

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