After all the hype, heartburn, anticipation and disappointment, the 2019 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival ended up in a very familiar place: with Widespread Panic closing the Acura Stage on the Thursday between the weekends.

The winding road to Widespread Panic passed, improbably, through the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and their ailing singers. Monday’s announcement that Fleetwood Mac had bailed, coming only four days after being named the Rolling Stones’ replacement, felt at first like that April Fools’ Day prank about Led Zeppelin reforming.

Several hours later, news broke that festival producer Quint Davis had turned to Widespread Panic, longtime friends of the fest, to save the day on May 2.

Meanwhile, many a Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac fan was left to ponder, “Widespread who?”

What was initially intended as a dramatically different Thursday, the signature event of the historic 50th anniversary Jazz Fest, will mimic the Thursdays of the 2015 and 2017 festivals, when Widespread Panic also closed the Acura Stage.

Some folks have questioned whether Jazz Fest should have booked the Rolling Stones in the first place. Personally, I was pro-Stones. Why not shake up the fest formula for one day, especially since Thursday was added to the first weekend to maintain seven “normal” days at the Fair Grounds?

Mick Jagger’s ailing heart made all such discussions moot. It’s theoretically possible the festival could try again next year, but that seems as unlikely as the Rolling Stones tacking on a Mercedes-Benz Superdome date to the rescheduled No Filter Tour. There’s no guarantee the Stones will be on the road next spring – and Jagger and company will be another year older.

The opportunity was likely lost. But throughout what became a far more complicated and frustrating process than anyone imagined, Jazz Fest consistently did the right thing.

Back in January, Louisiana residents were given the chance to buy Rolling Stones tickets before they went on sale to the general public. The price was high compared to a regular Jazz Fest ticket, but similar to other stops on the Stones tour.

After the Stones canceled, the festival fully refunded the premium-priced May 2 general admission tickets, including fees, and offered a partial rebate for second-weekend VIP passes.

After Fleetwood Mac dropped out, the festival once again offered to fully refund May 2 tickets, even though, at $75, they were now priced the same as any other day of the second weekend.

Taking it one step further – and acknowledging the reality that Widespread Panic is not nearly the mass-appeal attraction that the Stones and Fleetwood Mac would have been – the festival designated May 2 a second “Locals’ Thursday,” making discounted $50 tickets available to Louisiana residents at the gate. So this year, Jazz Fest has two “Locals’ Thursdays.”

Short of Quint Davis personally delivering refunds and complimentary cups of crawfish Monica to every ticket-buyer, there’s not much more the festival could have, or should have, done, given the extraordinary circumstances of the double-cancellation. As much of a pain as it became for ticket-buyers, it was even moreso for the festival.

When Fleetwood Mac first stepped in, I floated the idea that Stevie Nicks and her bandmates should cover a Rolling Stones song at the Acura Stage to acknowledge the unusual circumstances and give a tip of the hat to Jagger. It would have been a “Jazz Fest moment” folks would have talked about for years.

Whether they would have actually gone to the trouble of learning a Stones song is unknown. They generally stick with their own considerable catalog. Covering Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” on the current tour was more about acknowledging new bandmembers Mike Campbell and Neil Finn.

But Widespread Panic, the grizzled jam band from Georgia, is known for springing surprise covers on fans. Singer John Bell and his companions are far more likely to bust out a Stones tune at the Fair Grounds than Fleetwood Mac would have been.

They might even cover a Rolling Stones song AND a Fleetwood Mac song. Bonus points if they do.

Ahead of Widespread Panic, the Acura Stage undercard for May 2 is loaded with top-shelf local talent: Cowboy Mouth bright and early at 11:15 a.m., followed by Anders Osborne at 12:25 p.m., fellow guitarist Samantha Fish at 1:40 and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk at 2:55.

Davis originally, and intentionally, picked those particular locals as the lead-ins to the Rolling Stones. They all fit aesthetically, and all are capable of holding their own in such a high-profile slot in front of what would have been an enormous audience.

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A crowd watches Widespread Panic perform on the Acura stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2017 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, La. Thursday, May 4, 2017.

They may not have agreed to perform so early in the day had that stage’s line-up not been topped by the Rolling Stones. Now that it isn’t, they’ll play to a smaller crowd at a less prestigious time. Such are the breaks.

Ivan Neville was tapped for the slot immediately preceding the Rolling Stones because of his connection to the Stones camp. He contributed to two Stones albums, and spent years in guitarist Keith Richards’ side band, the X-Pensive Winos.

Ivan also has a connection to Fleetwood Mac. His cousin, broadcaster Arthel Neville, daughter of his uncle Art Neville, is married to Taku Hirano, Fleetwood Mac’s touring percussionist.

It was just a coincidence, of course, that Neville is connected to both bands, and they both canceled.

He is also friends with members of Widespread Panic. Every January, he joins an all-star New Orleans band at Panic en la Playa, Widespread Panic’s beach-side festival on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.

So John Bell, if you’re reading this, get your rest. Eat your vegetables. Take your vitamins. And stay healthy.

Jazz Fest doesn’t need any more drama.


Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.

Keith Spera writes about music, culture and his kids.