The 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival ain’t no NAMM-Show-style shred-a-thon, y’all. It’s about tone and soul. Too much attitude or too many notes will turn off the savvy audience. Jazz Fest is a major event that remains true to its regional roots. Local players are celebrated. Everybody from everywhere else is happy to soak in the second-line rhythms and get involved in the ubiquitous revelry. Representatives from the far corners of the roots guitar universe descended on the Crescent City this year. Jazz Fest ’08 featured a fantastic mix of local heroes such as Walter “Wolfman” Washington, and international stars such as John Butler.

Jazz Fest highlights included a transcendental performance by Alison Krauss & Robert Plant with a band led by T-Bone Walker and featuring Buddy Miller. They played revamped, rootsy versions of several Zeppelin chestnuts from “Black Dog” to the eerily appropriate “When the Levee Breaks.” Carlos Santana played glorious set of classic-era songs on a gorgeous PRS that blended in with the sunny Acura stage backdrop, where his set preceded the return of the Neville Brothers as traditional festival closers for the first time since Katrina. It marked what many saw as a real return to form for the entire town, and they brought Santana back onstage to share in the moment on for “My Blood” and “Ain’t No Use.”

Sit-ins, all-star jams, and club gigs play a huge role in the Jazz Fest experience. Guitar Player Presents was proud to introduce Sonny Landreth as the 2007 Reader’s Poll winner for Best Slide Guitarist at the unique Rock & Bowl, where Sonny signed copies of the May issue for a large audience of players. At the sixth-annual Bayou Rendezvous, NOLA favorites Brian Stoltz (PBS, Funky Meters), June Yamagishi (Papa Grows Funk), and gypsy rocker Eric McFadden (P-Funk) delivered a bar room clinic on how to groove first, and then solo your ass off. The hottest ticket in the Big Easy was the Funky Meters with the Derek Trucks Band at the Howlin’ Wolf, and it lived up to the hype with an awesome one-two punch of Truck’s Southern rock slide mastery, and Ian Neville’s syncopated NOLA soul rhythms. The two traditions—and players—mixed like red beans and rice.

After seeing 12 days and nights worth of Louisiana’s best, and those from near and far, two things were clear. First, a signature sound is essential. Tone dogs like Landreth, Trucks, Santana and Jack White with the Raconteurs stood out strong and left lasting audible impressions. And then there’s the larger picture. Local players will tell you that post-Katrina life in the Big Easy can be dicey, but Jazz Fest appears to be getting better all the time. This year’s attendance—estimated at 400,000—was the best since big K. That’s welcome progress—even if the 9th Ward still looks like the fateful storm just made landfall.