01/25/2008 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Orleans, The Blind Boys, and Jazz Fest

With "Fat Tuesday" a little over a week away, Carnival Season in the great city of New Orleans has begun. Of course, we can all expect to see the same coverage on our local news stations, that of drunken college kids hanging over balconies in the French Quarter, throwing Mardi Gras beads, and young girls exposing their..uh...personalities. This is NOT what it is all about. Ask anyone from New Orleans, or any outsider that respects New Orleans, and he will tell you. This is not what Mardi Gras is all about.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the final day of Carnival, which begins on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6th. Also known as Kings' Day or Twelfth Night, Jan. 6th celebrates the arrival of the three kings at Jesus' birthplace, thus ending the Christmas season. And in New Orleans, simultaneously starting Carnival.

Now enough with the history lesson, show us your t**ts! Seems wrong, doesn't it?

Another huge happening this week was the official line-up announcement of 2008's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. To many, this is under the radar enough to not matter. But to "Festers," the real devotees, this day has been a long time coming. Approximately 240 days. That would be just about one day after the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival ended. There is no better time of year for lovers of this great city and this incomparable event.

The fervor created by the long time attendees of Jazz Fest, or Threadheads, is made up of a few basic things-which weekend of the two will you be attending, who will performing, and who will you miss seeing if you can't stay for both weekends. These world famous Threadheads comprise what is a loyal, mostly lovable-albeit -intense community who communicate through a chatroom, all the information you need and some that you don't, leading up to this blessed event. Every year I obsessively click on links to learn about which of my favorite artists are rumoured to be appearing. 9 years in, and it is still a thrill. I also find myself rolling my eyes at some of the other information shared, information that at times seems so personal, I truly feel I am hacking into some family's private computer, as opposed to a website free-for-all.

As for the Fest itself, this year's BNAs, or "Big Name Acts" include Stevie Wonder, BIlly Joel, Sheryl Crow, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw and Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint. All very fine people indeed, and a treat for the locals who for a small all-day admission fee of $40 can see full sets of mulitple artists. But just as Mardi Gras isn't (really) about naked college girls. Jazz Fest (for me) isn't about Sheryl Crow. Fest is an opportunity to see some of the greatest musicians and singers alive in their own element. These are performers who very rarely get to play outside of New Orleans. Germaine Bazzle, Astral Project, John Boutte, Hot 8 Brass Band, Paul Sanchez, David Torkanowsky, One-A-Chord, C.C. Adcock, Shannon Powell, Davell Crawford, Bob French, Electrifying Crown Seekers, and Matt Perrine to name but a few. Do these names mean anything to you? I sure hope so.

The Robert Plant & Alison Krauss CD "Raising Sand," was one of my faves of 2007, and I would love to see them perform live. But if they are performing at the same time as Astral Project, a jazz quartet featuring Tony Dagradi, Steve Masakowski, James Singleton, and for my money, the greatest living drummer John Vidacovich, it is a no brainer, simply because, since I discovered Astral Project 10 years ago, I have not once seen them perform in NYC. I am now here in their hometown where they will throw down what will be another in their series of legendary Fest performances. Love you Sheryl, but I am sure you'll be singing your new single at some televised sporting event or awards show any day now. I vote for Astral Project.

(A side note--for those who do know John Vidacovich, he needs your help. The troubles in post-Katrina New Orleans have not disappeared because news coverage has. His house is falling apart, and his health is not what it used to be. Take a look at this and see what I am talking about.)

Something else I look forward to this time of year is the wealth of new music that will be released to coincide with Jazz Fest. Many of the aforementioned New Orleans' artists will spend what little money they have recording new material just in time to reach the multitude coming from all over the world to see them do their thing at the Festival. So the practice goes something like this: John Boutte is playing at 4:PM in the Jazz Tent. At 5:15, when the performance is over, the crowd can take a 2 minute walk over the CD tent and buy his new CD, which will most likely not be easily available nationally. For fans of these artists, this is better than Christmas.

For those of us who just cannot wait, one CD that will be available this week is the new release from four time Grammy award winners The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Recorded down in New Orleans, a first for the Boys, the CD "Down In New Orleans," (awesome title) features the legendary Gospel singers backed by many of the artists I named earlier. The last few releases from the Blind Boys have all been special, featuring high-profile songwriters and special guests such as Tom Waits, Jagger & Richards, Chrissie Hynde, John Hammond, Los Lobos and Ben Harper. "Down In New Orleans" continues this pattern, highlighting the vocals of original member Jimmy Carter, backed by NOLA legends such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint, as well as the cream of New Orleans' crop of musicians that include keyboardist-extraordinaire David Torkanowsky, local hero and drum legend Shannon Powell, and one of the best bassists in all of music, Roland Guerin.

This record works on all levels. It is a joyous celebration of hope, love, life, and a perfect start for the Carnival season that is about to take over one of the greatest and most spiritual cities in the world. So starting on Tuesday, January 29th, you can go to your local record shop (if it hasn't turned into a nail salon or a Tasti D-Lite) and pick up the Blind Boys Of Alabama's fantastic new CD. Put it on, free your mind, and know that in just a few short months--88 days, 15 hours, 46 minutes and 33 seconds for those counting--you can experience the joyful sounds of being "Down In New Orleans" with all of us that care.