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New Orleans Jazz Fest comes to end

Ben Wilson was in front of the Gentilly Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. A bottle of ice water in his hand, his flag featuring a bright green alligator on a long poll alerted his friends to his location and Papa Grows Funk grooving.

This was a contented man.

"I'm not moving until the last note dies out," said Wilson, 58, who was enjoying his 27th year at Jazz Fest.

For Wilson, like many others on Sunday, the only goal was to spend the final day of the festival relaxing in the hot sun and letting the music carry them away.

"We really needed this," said Rufus Chapman, 49, an emergency room technician from Gulfport, Mississippi, who lost his house in Hurricane Katrina. "I didn't come last year, and I really missed it."

As the second Jazz Fest since the Aug. 29, 2005 storm wrapped up, thousands took advantage of the chance to forget worries about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gutted houses, leaking levees and future storms.

"If you live in one of those little FEMA trailers for a year, you deserve a good time," said Betty Lagarde, whose St. Bernard Parish home was washed away. "I wish it didn't have to end."

Large stretches of the city, adjoining St. Bernard Parish and the Mississippi Gulf Coast are still in ruins, but Jazz Fest showed its usual spirit of fun and nonstop music.

Although Jazz Fest will not release attendance figures until Monday, huge crowds attended both weekends of the festival.

"We experienced a first weekend that was not only as good as pre-Katrina, it was almost better than pre-911," said Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis. "I thought it was astonishing."

The last sets on Sunday night also were back in the pre-Katrina tradition.

New Orleans musicians have always closed out the festival on the two big stages - Gentilly and Acura. For years. the Radiators and the Neville Brothers were the tradition.

"I feel the last go-round should be about Louisiana music," Davis said. "Everyone should go out still hearing that sound. It has to hold them over for a year, so it should be the best about us."

Last year, the Nevilles were not at the festival after Aaron Neville said his asthma would prevent him from returning to New Orleans.

"For 25 years you had us on one end of the grounds and the Nevilles at the other," said Dave Malone of the Radiators. "That's the two sides of what New Orleans music has to offer."

This year, the Radiators were back - playing their blend of swamp-rock they call "fish head music". New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr., was on the other end of the grounds with his 18-piece orchestra.

"It's a real honor to be asked to do that last set," said Connick, who has played the festival a half-dozen times, but did the closing act for the first time. "It's a bittersweet thing for everyone - closing down the Jazz Fest."

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