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Thursday back at Jazz Fest

Thursday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is traditionally a day when locals come out in droves — many skipping work and other responsibilities — to enjoy the festival with a little extra elbow room.

Hurricane Katrina changed that when the storm, and its subsequent flooding of the festival site at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course, caused organizers to scale back the event from seven days to six.

Organizers nixed the Thursday altogether as thousands of the city’s residents remained scattered across the country. But for the first time since the August 2005 storm, Thursday is back, and residents say they couldn’t be more thrilled.

With out-of-towners bombarding the festival grounds over the festival’s two weekends, it is Thursday that locals covet as the day when the festival is largely theirs.

“Thursday is the more relaxed day,” said Kim Loupe, a New Orleans resident and nurse who said she and her husband, Mark, arranged their work schedules to have the day off.

The couple said Thursday is one of their favorite days of the festival, and they are glad it’s been brought back.

“The crowds are not as big, the food lines are shorter, but more importantly, the beer lines are shorter,” she said, sporting sunglasses and a tank top.

New Orleans resident Amy Burke, who already had a beer in hand while waiting at the gates, said the added bonus for Thursday was the lineup that included Widespread Panic.

“We love the jazz festival, and my husband’s favorite band in the entire world is Widespread Panic,” she said.

Burke said she and her husband were “playing hooky” to be at the festival. One of their children was at school, and the other was with a baby sitter.

This year, Jazz Fest organizers offered up Thursday tickets at a $10 discount, as a “welcome home” of sorts, said festival producer Quint Davis. Regular price of each ticket is $40 in advance, or $50 at the gate.

Davis said he was looking forward to watching the locals enjoy Thursday’s comeback.

“Everything out here, the food, the crafts and all the music, it’s very inanimate without the people who come to enjoy it,” he said. “The audience gives it life.”

Some of Thursday’s performers were just as excited, among them Latin singer Fredy Omar.

“This community has so much passion,” said Omar, a native Honduran who has been living in New Orleans for the past 15 years. “The locals, they always look forward to the festival, and Thursday is a chance for them to see their favorite musicians on a big stage.

“It’s a very exciting time,” he said.

Omar has performed at Jazz Fest eight times, but his Latin rhythms have won him fans in a number of local haunts. He is one of a host of Louisiana favorites performing on 11 stages Thursday. Others include trumpeters Mark Braud and Kermit Ruffins, bass guitarist George Porter Jr. and sax player Donald Harrison.

The New Orleans Rhythm Conspiracy and New Orleans Nightcrawlers brass jazz band are also slated to perform.

Even Randy Newman, one of Thursday’s headliners, has a New Orleans connection. Though born in Los Angeles, Newman lived in New Orleans as a child. After Katrina, his 1974 song “Louisiana 1927” was widely played on radio and television stations in both its original format and the remade version by New Orleans native Aaron Neville.

Neville and his brothers — collectively the Neville Brothers — were Jazz Fest’s closing act for more than a decade before the storm. They are slated to close the festival for the first time since Katrina on Sunday.

“It’s all about being whole again,” Davis said. “Thursday is back, the Neville Brothers are back, the cracklins are back. Not having the Thursday, and not having the Nevilles, we were still Katrina affected.”

On the Net:

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, http://www.nojazzfest.com