By Laura Hertzfeld
Updated April 28, 2013 at 04:53 PM EDT
David Redfern/Redferns via Getty Images

New Orleans natives and Grammy winners Rebirth Brass Band covered TLC’s “Waterfalls.” John Mayer covered the Muddy Waters tune “I Got My Mojo Working.” Billy Joel trotted out the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to jam during the midsection of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” And Ben Harper continued his roots exploration in a set with collaborator and blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. At its best, the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fesitval combines traditional New Orleans musicians (playing to the crowd and acknowledging their part in popular music), and mainstream acts paying homage to a region of the country that so greatly influences them.

The first weekend of Jazz Fest showed off the diversity of acts both from New Orleans and around the world. Big crowds turned out not only for headliners such as Joel and Mayer but for local heroes Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Rebirth Brass Band, and Jason Marsalis, who performed an inspired classical jazz set. Mayer was back at the fairgrounds on Friday after cancelling his performance at the fest in 2012 (and most of the rest of his tour), due to a throat ailment. He strayed from his pop side and kept the set focused on blues and roots, including a Grateful Dead cover (“Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”).

Billy Joel opened his Saturday set with “Movin’ Out,” but quickly shifted gears to sing “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway”). The song first appeared on his 1976 album Turnstiles, but Joel has been reviving the tune about an apocalyptic New York since Hurricane Sandy. He told the crowd that New York looked to the post-Katrina New Orleans for inspiration after the storm. His set then dived into incredible singalong territory, with help from the crowd on “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (yep, I still know all the words), “Only the Good Die Young,” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” Joel closed out the day, of course, with “Piano Man.”

Like John Mayer, Jill Scott also returned the Jazz Fest after cancelling her scheduled 2012 performance. Her appearance on the Congo Stage Saturday showed off songs from 2011’s The Light of the Sun and her debut album, 2000’s Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Music Vol. 1.

The mayor of New Orleans jazz and blues, Dr. John, took the Acura Stage with his new band The Nite Trippers on Friday in a bright electric blue suit, only fitting for someone who inspired the Muppets’ Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Dr. John, who is 72, was complemented by powerhouse female trombonist and singer Sarah Morrow. In addition to his brand of New Orleans classics, the set also featured songs from his 2012 album Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.

It may be old news by now that 1990s indie favorite Ben Harper has been collaborating with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, but that didn’t make their performance at Jazz Fest any less memorable. The duo have been touring together all year and first worked together on the single “Burnin’ Hell” back in 1997. Their set was focused on their joint album Get Up! as well as a few of their individual hits, such as Harper’s “When It’s Gone” and Musselwhite’s “The Blues Overtook Me.”

Is it going too far to say that newcomer Gary Clark Jr. channeled Jimi Hendrix in his set on the Gentilly Stage, jamming on his red guitar nearly nonstop? An Austin-based blues guitarist who has gained notoriety in recent months playing Coachella and other major fests, Clark showed off his range in a long set full of soulful jams and a few inspired wails, including “Please Come Home” and “Blak and Blu.”

Jazz Fest continues Sunday with headliners Dave Matthews Band, Gipsy Kings, and B.B. King; the second weekend starts this Thursday and runs through May 5, featuring dozens more bands including Fleetwood Mac, the Black Keys, Phoenix, and Frank Ocean.

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