Gleason Gras time

The annual ALS fundraiser started by former Saints player Steve Gleason, who is living with the disease, will kick off the NFL season in New Orleans on Friday and serve as a pep rally for Sunday’s Atlanta Falcons game.

For the first time, Gleason Gras, a night of concerts at Champions Square next to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, will be free. Team Gleason, the nonprofit arm for Gleason’s ALS work, will raise money through food and drink sales, along with VIP packages and silent and live auctions.

The one-night festival started in 2011 after Gleason announced he was living with the degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In previous years, it took place in November.

Gleason’s group asked that the fundraiser be moved to the beginning of the season and the Saints agreed. “We selected Team Gleason as our charitable/nonprofit focus for the first game,” Saints senior vice president of marketing and business development Ben Hales said. “Team Gleason asked if we were comfortable with them having Gleason Gras the Friday before our first game and theming it as a Saints pep rally.”

The decision was finalized approximately a month ago, when Voodoo Music Experience producer Stephen Rehage was brought in to book talent for Gleason Gras. Local favorites Galactic and Friends, Anders Osborne, and John Michael Rouchell top the bill, which will also include The 610 Stompers, Saints mascots Gumbo and Sir Saint, and members of the Saints.

Gleason’s personal tastes are reflected in the musical line-up, Rehage said.

“Initially, I get the list from Mr. Gleason, scratch off the list The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, then go from there,” Rehage said with a smile.

Indie rocker Rouchell has played Gleason Gras the last two years.

“Steve Gleason has become a friend and hero to me since I met him,” Rouchell said. “His drive and fight against ALS is perseverance personified. I can’t overstate how much he means to me.”

Rouchell was in a class at Loyola during the Sept. 25, 2006, game against the Atlanta Falcons when Gleason made the play that earned him a spot in Saints legend. The teacher had the game on with the sound off. But students responded resoundingly when Gleason blocked a Falcon punt, leading to an unexpected touchdown just moments into the game. “The room erupted because of Steve and the famous blocked punt,” Rouchell said.

Osborne rearranged a tour to be able to return to New Orleans and play Gleason Gras. He is playing “because Gleason asked me,” Osborne said.

He too saw the blocked punt on television, watching the game at Le Bon Temps Roule on Magazine Street. “Then came the tears,” Osborne said.

Gleason Gras has suffered from bad weather in previous years, with cold rain in 2011 and a torrential rain in the first half-hour last year. Rehage hasn’t looked at Friday’s forecast, which predicts a 40 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms. “I usually don’t,” he said.

Rehage has helped produce Gleason Gras from the beginning, and his relationship with the Gleasons goes back to a chance meeting while the two waited for tables at Lola’s restaurant.

Rehage had just booked Rage Against the Machine for Voodoo, and after dinner Gleason and his wife, Michel, returned to Rehage’s house to listen to the band’s albums. Rehage and Gleason attended the 2009 Super Bowl together, and Gleason’s relationship with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready helped attract the band to play Voodoo in November.

“We’re a part of the Gleason team,” Rehage said. “It’s something we do once a year.”