By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS � The swamp-rocking Subdudes left nobody subdued. Dave Lemon's soul had a sweet kick. The Mighty Clouds of Joy whipped up a holy fervor under a sparkling cloudless sky.
Not a bad start for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which opened Friday with mild weather, miles of smiles and the usual staggering surplus of sound that had fans darting across the fair grounds to snatch an earful of everything (or a mouthful of crawfish ettouf�e).
The mood was announced on banners ("Free Hugs"), hats ("Second Line Till You Die"), T shirts ("Death by Crawfish") and the fest's official slogan: "Come hungry, leave soulful."
Introducing guitar god Jeff Beck, festival producer/director Quint Davis noted, "We come to Jazz Fest to renew our batteries and refresh our souls."
Beck, holding a huge crowd rapt with his masterful riffology, was one of the day's biggest draws. So was another British act, indie folk group Mumford & Sons, who amassed the largest throng of the day and drew a huge roar with hit Little Lion Man.
North Carolina's Avett Brothers followed, sustaining audience excitement with a careening set of joyful folk-rock that included I Am a Breathing Time Machine, Will You Return and sing-along I and Love and You.
Fans expecting a Led Zeppelin return from Robert Plant were partially rewarded by the former metal belter's appearance.
"Welcome to another extraordinary adventure in the life of the Band of Joy," Plant said, introducing his backing group that includes Nanci Griffith and Buddy Miller.
They turned in mystical Americana interpretations of such Zep classics as Black Dog, Black Country Woman and Misty Mountain Hop, as well as rootsy selections from last year's Band of Joy debut, including Monkey, Angel Dance and House of Cards.
With Plant on harmonica, Miller handled vocals on Somewhere Trouble Don't Go.
While out-of-town guests served as powerful magnets, regional favorites lured seas of fans too. The Latin jazz of newly reactivated Los Hombres Calientes pulled plenty of ears away from Beck and Mumford to the searing trumpet of Irvin Mayfield and sharp percussion of Bill Summers. Ace slide guitarist John Mooney and Bluesiana filled the blues tent, as did the earthy jazz of the Joe Krown Trio, featuring the keyboardist with guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington and drummer Russell Batiste.
Those in the packed jazz tent marveled at the scat-singing of local heroine Germaine Bazzle, whose swinging set was punctuated by an emotional rendition of Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans, capped by her signature horn impressions.
And Mia Borders, a rising local singer/songwriter, managed to attract big numbers despite her early slot. She was tickled to see a woman wearing a T-shirt emblazoned, "She Don't Know," title of a song about infidelity from Borders' 2010 album, Magnolia Blue. "I don't endorse cheating," Borders said. "Just so we're all clear."
The Red Stick Ramblers, a Cajun/jazz/swing group based in Lafayette, La., rocked the Fais Do Do stage with fiddle-driven dance tunes that had two-steppers kicking up the dust.
Singer/fiddler Linzay Young relished the response but said later, "There's no comparison to the audiences we get back home. They know all the dances. But it's cool to be here because once we start playing, people walking by come toward the stage like zombies."
Jazz Fest's big acts may be a strong selling point, Young says, but the indigenous sounds tend to resonate with newbies.
"Jazz Fest is great because you get people from all over who hear real roots music of Louisiana," he says. "A lot of other big festivals don't showcase music of the regions they're in. I hope being here encourages people to check out roots music in their own area."
The bill's vast variety is one reason blues guitarist Keb Mo has played Jazz Fest a half dozen times. He also likes the heat. And the people.
"And the people who make the food," he says.