NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Friday's opening day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival highlighted a worldwide spectrum of musical influences, from the alternative Chicago-based rock band Wilco to Irish singer-guitarist Hozier and the Jamaican and reggae stylings of singer Jimmy Cliff.
Headlining the day's biggest stage was country music star Keith Urban, whom festival producer Quint Davis described as one of the world's "monster rock-blues-country guitar players."
Davis said when the New Zealand-born Urban was told the Tedeschi Trucks Band was playing before his scheduled Friday evening performance, his reply was: "They're not opening for me; I'm closing for them."
Urban is a returning headliner, having last played Jazz Fest the year after Hurricane Katrina.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band is a Florida-based bluesy rock group founded by husband and wife musicians Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. This will be the group's Jazz Fest debut.
A Blue Moon beer in hand, Deborah Zingale bobbed to the group's tunes. Zingale and friends came in from Morristown, New Jersey, to take in the sights and sounds of Jazz Fest.
"The food, the music, the company. It's the best," she said, adding that she was last at the festival four years ago. But even as a veteran, there are firsts to be had.
"I ate alligator for the first time," she said with a laugh. "It was yummy."
As a thunder storm approached, Urban and his band took to the stage ahead of schedule to get some tunes in before the rain fell. Fest organizers shut down most of the other stages about an hour earlier as the severe weather rolled in. The area was under a tornado watch until 8 p.m. CDT.
He was four songs in when the skies opened and raindrops fell, causing some of the crowd to scatter. Others, however, stayed, dancing, hands in the air, smiling and singing along to such hits as "Sweet Thing," ''Long Hot Summer," and "Without You."
"I'm not a country music fan, but I'm a Keith Urban fan. We have our ponchos and we're staying," said Dori Schexnayder of Kenner, Louisiana.
Urban had the crowd on its feet, attacking the guitar as he sang, "You could be a songbird from New Orleans, scared of the rain, just a scared to sing," he sang. "But you gonna fly."
Rain held off most of the day, but ominous clouds dropped sprinkles before Urban's set. Under a gray sky, music fans jockeyed for positions in front of their favorite stages when the gates opened at 11 a.m., laying out blankets, putting up umbrellas and erecting tall flags to mark their spots.
As they do every year on each day of Jazz Fest, Susan and Tim Bourgeois, both 57, lined up an hour and a half before the gates opened. The New Orleanians quickly spread their blankets and gear, including polka dot rain boots, an umbrella, ponchos and sunscreen near the Acura stage.
"I hope we have to use the sunscreen," said Susan, glancing up at the overcast sky.
Tim took the week off, just so he could enjoy the weekend.
"You'll meet people from all over the world," he said, citing the people he met from Canada and Australia while waiting in line.
Herman Fitzgerald also talked about the unique mix of people from around the world whom he meets each year. The 78-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, has been coming for all seven days of the festival since 1995, missing only the year after Hurricane Katrina.
"I can't imagine there's another event like this anywhere. It's called Jazz Fest. But to me, it's really a music festival," he said, while having a plate of red beans and rice — his "first meal of the day."
More than 50 acts performed throughout opening day on about a dozen stages in such genres as jazz, blues, gospel, Cajun, zydeco and rock. Among the day's local acts were the Honey Island Swamp Band, Brass-A-Holics, Wayne Toups, Lil Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers, the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra and a host of New Orleans brass bands.
The festival continues through Sunday, and April 30, May 1, 2 and 3.
Associated Press Writer Chevel Johnson contributed to this report.