NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Dr. John sat quietly behind the keyboard, still 90 minutes away from his second gig of the week at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
On Sunday, the veteran performer played a few bars of old time New Orleans piano, sang a couple of verses of songs from his distant past and talked.
His speech spiced with the occasional expletive, Dr. John — born Max Rebennack — discussed his fellow New Orleans musicians and the troubles and joys of the city's musical history.
"You know how it is here," he said. "You grow up with music — the brass bands, the parades, one place or another it's always being passed on."
Dr. John was talking to several hundred people who skipped the musical stages, the blues tent, the high-powered gospel groups, even headliner Neil Young, to get a chance to know a favorite artist better.
"Just to be able to sit this close to him and listen is incredible," said Terry Gurley, a 61-year-old lawyer from Gallop, N.M. "We got to hear about the bedrock of the music business here."
The Heritage Stage was back to a full-time venue at this year's festival. For three years following Hurricane Katrina, it was forced to share a stage, meaning artist interviews had to alternate with other events.
"It's good to be back here," said Ben Sandmel, the musician, journalist, author and historian who is responsible for setting up the artists and the people to interview them.
This year, the likes of Pete Seeger. Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint, members of Los Lobos and Chuck Brown, "The godfather of Go-Go," were interviewed and took questions from the audience.
"We try to make it a cross section of the music on the stages," Sandmel said.
It can be difficult getting artist to agree to sit for the interviews, Sandmel said, especially big names where demanding schedules can leave little extra time. There is also a problem of getting them to understand what is wanted, Sandmel said.
"If I know a major artist is coming, I usually start in November trying to get them," he said. "It can take 50, 75 phone calls, e-mails trying to explain what's going on."
But once artists commit to taking part — each is paid a small honorarium — they have been unfailingly gracious, Sandmel said.
The biggest problem he's had was someone who responded with terse, one-word answers.
"But then the people started asking questions and somebody asked him about fishing, which he loved," Sandmel said. "After that, he opened up and talked away."
Providing that kind of unexpected insight into an artist is one of the joys of working with the Heritage Stage, Sandmel said.
It's also one of the delights of attending the session, said Quint Davis, who produces and directs the festival.
"People appreciate a chance to almost go one-on-one with the artists," Davis said. "We're talking a small area where they can see them up close and ask questions. That's pretty rare."
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