By Jeffrey Jones
NEW ORLEANS, Apr 28 (Reuters) Bob Dylan treated thousands of sun-baked fans to a rocking set of classics like ''All Along the Watchtower'' and ''Like a Rolling Stone'' to open New Orleans' first post-Katrina music festival, one the city hopes will kick-start its recovery.
The New Orleans Jazz&Heritage Festival started yesterday with a gravel-voiced Dylan leading his sextet on organ through reworked versions of the tunes that defined his early career.
Other big names like New Orleans' own Dr John as well as Ani DiFranco and local jazz, blues and gospel groups shifted the two-weekend festival into gear at a racetrack on the north side of town that was underwater eight months ago.
After the hurricane, which killed 1,300 people along the US Gulf Coast and devastated much of New Orleans, organisers worried the festival would have to be scaled back or canceled.
Even now, the city's population is less than half of what it was before the hurricane and flooding it triggered. The city's pre-Katrina population was about 470,000.
''With Dylan, and to have this happen again means everything to us,'' Julie Becker, a native New Orleanian, said while waiting for an encore from the folk-rock pioneer and his band in the blazing afternoon sun.
''It is what this city is about, it's what carries the city, it's the soul of the city,'' said Becker, 42.
More than 4,000 musicians are slated to perform at this year's Jazz Fest, which runs through Sunday, then continues the following weekend. On tap are Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Dave Matthews Band, and New Orleans luminaries like Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, and the Meters.
Organisers did not have attendance figures for the first day, but said numbers were easily in the tens of thousands and on par with other years, despite limitations on numbers of visitors to the city by a tourist trade still recovering from the August. 29 storm.
The festival has been compressed, but only slightly, with 12 stages being reduced to 10.
An event official said this week that advance ticket sales were about 75 per cent of previous years before the first day.
'A FEELING IN ITSELF' Dr John, aka Mac Rebennack, charmed a huge main-stage audience with his rollicking N'awlins piano style and funky, horn-driven band to end the night with personalized versions of ''Blues in the Night'' and Sly and the Family Stone's ''Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).'' Like countless festival-goers from around the world, Garry Stevens, a nurse from Maine, returns every year. This is his 16th Jazz Fest.
''The music, the people, the culture and just being here in New Orleans is just a feeling in itself,'' said Stevens, 53.
''For it to come back after the devastating blow that Katrina put to it is a tribute to the people who live here, and I'm here to support them.'' REUTERS SHB BST1010