There is something odd about tens of thousands of white people — in this case, pasty old fannypack-wielding white people — taking over a traditionally black area to celebrate traditionally black pastimes. There are several reasons this is odd, but it’s mainly because there is no instance when black people would migrate en masse to a region identified strongly with white culture — say, Newport, Rhode Island— to celebrate, oh I don’t know, tennis.

Because delving into this would require a rigorous examination of American history and current socioeconomic realities, I’ll just say that the crowds at the New Orleans Jazz Festival were in severe contrast to “real” New Orleans. But what I learned about New Orleans is that the whole city is in severe contrast with itself: nothing matches, and that’s the insane beauty of it. I should note that, paradoxically, the fact that nothing matches gives the city a singular feeling so overwhelming that you can taste it, smell it, and certainly hear it, on every corner.

It wasn’t until the second or third day (after I’d been to a crawfish boil) that I “got” New Orleans, to the extent that any tourist can “get” a city in a weekend. At first, I was completely consumed by Jazz Fest, with its 90-degree sun, oppressive humidity, hot jambalaya, and Abita Amber beer. Oh, and the music too.

As with many festivals, the best shows were on the smaller stages, specifically the jazz tent, which seems like a redundant name until you remember that headliners included the Foo Fighters and the Zac Brown Band. On Friday morning May 4), local crooner Phillip Manuel used his smooth voice as an instrument, beaming as he sang a lilting solo all his own before his drummer swung into a drum solo so fierce no one knew where the beat was except him.

Later in the day, the youngest Marsalis brother, Delfeayo, led the Uptown Jazz Orchestra (and I mean Orchestra — performers seated in rows wearing three-piece suits, the whole thing) through the best set of pure jazz of the weekend, capped off with a breathtaking rendition of “What a Wonderful World.” While it was great to see that level of musical accomplishment, I wondered if many of the festival-goers even stepped foot in the jazz tent.

At night, staying away from Bourbon Street (which must be avoided to stay away from tourists, gonorrhea, and/or the bubonic plague) was easy. The better action was down on Frenchman Street, where cars honked through the masses of ratty young musician-types who congregated in the middle of the road, maybe because it was the best place to hear the confluence of jazz, blues, and rock coming from every packed little bar.

It felt like one big backyard party — not least because you can carry your bottled beer anywhere you want — with several thousand people, 50 bands all playing at once, and even an open-air arts market where local artists hawked their wares from midnight to 4 a.m., when the bars “close.” It was impossible not to succumb to the sensory overload and get lost in the scene.

Winding through the late-night crowds, the city felt more like a foreign city than an American one. The old-style, occasionally shabby buildings combined with the humidity and the lack of any noticeable law enforcement gave it the feel of a North African or Asian city. New Orleans is spicier and smellier and sweatier and louder and stranger than we expect the spaces we inhabit to be in 2012. But delightfully so.

After more great jazz tent performances, the legendary Kermit Ruffins bopped around the big stage with his trumpet in one hand and a beer in the other, singing, laughing, and effortlessly soloing, while his band, the Barbecue Swingers, absolutely killed it behind him.

After guitarist Bonnie Raitt sang my favorite song, John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” in a light rain shower, it was time to see the Neville Brothers close out Jazz Fest like they do every year. Having stood up for a few days straight in the hot sun, I was a knee-buckling mess. But once the brothers got going, everything seemed to melt away and all that was left was that classic New Orleans rhythm.

They were joined by several guests, including two separate, excellent solos from Trombone Shorty, but what really gave their performance its communal feel was their large group of friends dancing on the side of the stage. The way they moved, all together, moving forward and back, spinning and stomping, individually and yet as one, seemed to give the music its power.

The performance grew more and more intense through to its end, when Aaron Neville, he of the angel voice, sang “Amazing Grace” a cappella to 50,000 people. At first, I was merely awed by his voice, but as he began the second verse, suddenly everything of life hit me with unforeseen and unstoppable force: I thought of a friend who was recently lost, I felt the good truth of home, and I knew I might never experience the same volatility of emotions — all good and all bad — ever again.

And if that doesn’t show you the power of music, and the soul of a city, nothing will.

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