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New Orleans

PostPosted: Tue Oct 25, 2011 9:08 pm
by garth cartwright
When I left New Zealand in 1990 I landed in Los Angeles, purchased a $600 Buick and drove all the way to New Orleans. Growing up New Orleans existed as a musical Mecca to me, a city so rich in artistry that I was sure I would find all kinds of sonic treasure there. I arrived for the start of Jazz Fest, the two-weekend long music festival held at the city’s horse racing track every April, which might sound perfect for the hungry music fan but, in retrospect, was a bit like sending a gourmet to a buffet: too much music heard in high humidity while surrounded by tens of thousands of sweaty festival goers is no real way to introduce oneself to this most tactile and seductive of American cities.

New Orleans impressed me – no doubt - but I knew I had barely scratched the city’s surface, just another tourist who went to a music festival where most (but not all – and certainly not the headliners) of the artists were from the Crescent City. In the late-1990s, now based in London, I was offered the chance to interview Neil Finn in any US city he was playing. Unsurprisingly, I chose New Orleans. Meeting Neil in New Orleans provided a slightly surreal touch – this most Kiwi of musicians in a city where the majority of musicians are black and even those who aren’t play with a funky, jazz-flavoured groove. I imagine to the locals Finn appeared rather exotic – those mournful Beatlesque ballads, the rhythm section’s refusal to even try and bust the occasional groove – but to me all that mattered was that I got to wander the French Quarter and dig through the record shops and taste the scent of magnolia in that thick, heavy air. My one disappointment on that journey involved finding out that Henry Butler, the great blind New Orleans pianist, was playing in a local bar at the same time Finn was playing the House Of Blues (which almost never features blues or soul acts). Oh well, EMI had paid for my flight and hotel so I had to go to the Kiwi gig. And that visit, although only brief, renewed my affection for the Big Easy.

I knew I needed to get back for a serious visit but after Hurricane Katrina submerged the city in a toxic tide I began to wonder if New Orleans, long nicknamed “the city that care forgot”, really had been forgotten. Or, if not forgotten, then damaged in a manner that meant it could never return to its former glories. Was it, I feared, akin to Venice – a city that existed only on selling its glorious past to tourists? That the city’s population has dropped by a third since September 2005 fuelled concerns.

The only way to find out was to head there and so on a humid September afternoon I landed at Louis Armstrong Airport. And what a city I returned to. Across six days I explored New Orleans in a way I never before had the opportunity to, getting a sense of its layout, character, flavour, its history and its future. Staying in the Marriot on Canal St placed me at the heart of the city: Canal is the main street, to the east is the historic French Quarter, to the west the burgeoning Warehouse District and lush mansions of the Garden District, due north leads to Treme, the proudly independent African American neighbourhood that now is globally famous due to HBO’s TV series of the same name (that focuses on the lives of several Treme residents). And at the southern end of Canal is the mighty Mississippi river.

Six days is not enough to really get a feel for the city but it’s enough to give a serious taste. And, believe it, that taste got me hooked! All I can think about now is getting back to New Orleans! Admittedly, arriving mid-September is the perfect time to explore the Crescent City: the weather is hot but not horribly so, instead it hovers around 28-30 degrees so is very warm but not the sauna temperature that runs from April through to the end of August.

Also, every September the city hosts the Ponderossa Stomp festival. The Stomp is my type of festival ie it runs for two nights in an indoor venue and it features a great variety of old school musicians. For instance, this year had Allen Toussaint headlining on Friday with Frogman Henry and Robert Parker guesting. Dave Bartholemew was supposed to also sit it but at 91 Dave decided to pass on this year’s event. On Saturday night the headliners were the Bo-Keys with William Bell, Eddie Floyd and Otis Clay on vocals. But it’s not just the headliners you go to the Stomp for. Indeed, you could purchase a Stomp ticket and leave before the headliners came on and still feel you got great value. For instance, this year’s Stomp – which starts at 7.30pm, finishes around 3.30am and involves two stages – had these non headliners: Bobby Rush, Lazy Lester, Big Jay McNeely, Little Freddie King, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Rudy Richard, Warren Storm, Lavelle White, Carol Fran, Classie Ballou, Warren Prejean, Jean Knight, The Creole Zydeco Farmers and a few more. Admittedly, I didn’t know who all these artists were but I sure was impressed by most of them. The only example of someone who should have retired a long time ago was Frankie Ford – yeah, the white guy who had a 1959 hit with Huey Smith’s Sea Cruise. He was drunk, incoherent, just wasted.

The Stomp organizers provide a series of backing bands for the musicians – the wonderful Lil’ Buck Sinegal and his band The Top Cats backed many of the Friday night acts. Saturday found the tasty Deke Dickerson & the Eccofonics doing backing. Toussaint leads his own band and, of course, the Bo-Keys are a band (with Skip Pitts on guitar – he’s the guy who did the wah wah on Shaft – and Howard Grimes, one of the great Hi studio drummers). Sound is good. Festival was held in the Howlin’ Wolf, a large club in New Orleans’ Warehouse district. No complaints beyond the fact that standing for six hours is exhausting. Maybe a shorter event – 9pm to 1am – would be, finally, more satisfying. The Stomp was started by an old school music fanatic called Dr Ike – he is a real doctor – and he stomps around giving orders to musicians and such. When he books bands with a repertoire he insists on what he wants played – best believe it is not their latest album or covers of current hits! Some of the people he books are only known for maybe one 45 fifty years ago. So they get up and play that one 45. Then maybe two or three other old tunes. And that is it!

By the time the Stomp finishes I had no energy left to go looking for more music although bars across the city are raging. New Orleans very much remains a party town and after Saturday’s Stomp finished I wandered down Bourbon St just to look at the carnage underway: hundred of stag and hen parties head here every weekend alongside a lot of other young Americans who like the fact you can drink in the street and just get crazy drunk without getting arrested. Talk about a vision of, well, not hell but hundreds of drunk people milling about in one very LOUD street is not my idea of fun. And a lot of the bars think the LOUDER they are the more people they will attract. So one bar had a covers band earnestly tearing through GNR numbers at damn near stadium volume. Yet Preservation Hall, that 50-year old marker of traditional New Orleans jazz, is just around the corner. And its musicians play acoustic sets. Surely the Pres’ Hall musicians find themselves sometimes drowned out?

Anyway, skip Bourbon St on your free nights and head, if you feel simply like bar hopping, to Frenchman St, the historic street – Jelly Roll Morton was born here – just east of the French Quarter. In Frenchman St almost every building houses either an elegant club or a dive bar where jazz and blues and funk bands play. The clubs tend to charge admission but the dive bars are free with the bands playing for tips. And what bands! The level of musical talent in this city is extraordinary. What appears to be particularly hip in New Orleans at the moment is for young musicians to play old jazz and blues on brass instruments, maybe with double bass and simple percussion, and a female vocalist. This is done with a kind of punk aesthetic – lots of tattoos and attitude and big fun. For quite a while NO has been home to a transient youth population who come here to busk, squat, dig the city’s steamy vibe, and a lot of these bands seem to have grown out of this crusty community.

Mentioning buskers I should note that the level of buskers here is just extraordinary. I walked out of the Marriott and up Canal to get some food on my first evening and came across a 16-piece brass band tearing it up on a street corner. They really ripped, playing that funky, syncopated brass that is so New Orleans. All young and one of the trumpet players was in a wheel chair, legs gone from, I’m guessing, a tour of duty. You also get duos and quartets playing Dixieland and singer-songwriters and Grandpa Elliot, the big blind black guy who tasted international stardom when Playing For Change made him a featured singer on Stand By Me, still sits on his stool and plays harmonica and sings beautifully. The French Quarter contains a remarkable architectural beauty in its 18th and 19th Century buildings with their cast iron railings from which Spanish moss and other plants sway in the breeze. It is also the heart of tourist New Orleans so both filled with superb restaurants (gumbo and jambalaya – two unique seafood dishes – are local specialties) and tourist tack. Just remember to avoid Bourbon St - a kilometre long stretch of loud bars, strip clubs, tacky T-shirt outlets and junk food vendors. Much more pleasant are the streets further south in the French Quarter – Royal, Chartres and Decatur. Café Du Monde on Decatur has been serving delicious coffee and beignets since 1862 and provides a great patio to watch the activities (street dancers, musicians, horse and buggy taxis) surrounding Jackson Square.

Noted music bars like Tipitinas, The Hi-Ho Club and The Maple Leaf are all a taxi ride away. At the Hi-Ho I caught The Stooges Brass Band – no relation to Iggy’s mob, this 11-piece being all black and young, although they share with the Detroit Stooges a tough attitude and unique sense of rhythm and dissonance – and at The Maple Leaf I saw Walter “Wolfman” Washington, noted soul-funk guitarist. He was jamming with several friends and it was a huge, fat, greasy sound they cooked up. Never made it to Tipitinas this time. I also failed to get to Treme to see the Treme Brass Band, widely considered the best of the city’s elder statesmen brass bands. Don’t think of skimping on taxi fare - New Orleans remains a violent city and naïve tourists occasionally become casualties.

The boundary between Treme and the French Quarter is marked by Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, this being where slaves were allowed to gather on a Sunday and dance and sing so planting the roots of the remarkable music that has grown from this city to conquer the world. That said, both square and park are nondescript and Treme’s charm lies in its offbeat African culture museums and “shotgun shacks” – small, brightly coloured wooden houses. These lend a Caribbean flavour to a city that is, in many ways, more the capital of the Caribbean than a US city: Catholicism, African religions (ie voodoo) and a laidback approach to life being characteristics of the Big Easy.

The neighbourhoods I’ve discussed all got off relatively lightly when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita reeked such devastation, outlying black neighbourhoods like the Lower 9th Ward were completely flooded (Fats Domino had to be airlifted out) and many of the residents have not returned. This means that the bars and clubs and restaurants that showcase the city’s myriad talents have restarted and, in some cases, seen new venues spring up. Yet some of the musical communities they draw upon have been depleted – I drove through the Lower 9th Ward and much of it resembles a ghost town. Seeing a sign for The House Of Dance & Feathers we stopped and went in. Here, at the back of a modest bungalow, is a trailer-sized compartment that has been turned into a museum of memorabilia for the Mardi Gras Indians. Set up by Ronald W. Lewis to commemorate the Lower 9th Ward tradition of dressing up at Mardi Gras and parading, the House of Dance & Feathers was flooded by Katrina. Ronald and his wife were forced out of New Orleans for a year but they have rebuilt. Sadly, many of their neighbours have not had the money or incentive to join them in doing so – Ronald estimates that 45% of the Lower 9th Ward have not returned. This means speculators move in, buying up land and selling it to outsiders (ie whites and middle class blacks) who aren’t part of the community. Ronald’s story is told in Nine Lives, Dan Baum’s superb oral history of nine very different New Orleans lives and how they all survived Katrina.

Music is everywhere in New Orleans – I caught Creole banjo player Don Vappie playing to a pensioner crowd in the Botanic Gardens! And he and his band played beautifully. Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty and other notable locals play regularly at bars and clubs. I even got to chat with Allen Toussaint on the sidewalk outside the Howlin’ Wolf! For me this was like going to heaven over and over!

New Orleans is not just home to the best music and architecture in the USA, it is also the best place to eat. The food on offer here is just sublime. Beyond avoiding Bourbon St and the obvious tourist joints it’s hard to say exactly where one should head. Olivier’s on Decatur St is owned by a Creole family and offers superb and reasonably priced dishes. Mothers, in the Warehouse District, is soul food aimed at filling your stomach and putting pounds on. The jazz brunch at The Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter offers a magnificent spread. The Big Easy is a fine place to eat, drink and hear music. No wonder its pull is so powerful on outsiders! After six days all I can think about is getting back. And for longer.

For anyone interested in looking at some of my NO images the following links should take you to them. You do not have to belong to Facebook to use them.

New Orleans Vol 1: http://www.facebook.com/#!/media/set/?s ... 179&type=3

New Orleans Vol 2: http://www.facebook.com/#!/media/set/?s ... 179&type=3

New Orleans Vol 3:
http://www.facebook.com/#!/media/set/?s ... 179&type=3

Re: New Orleans

PostPosted: Tue Oct 25, 2011 9:31 pm
by will vine
Sacre Bleu! I wish I'd chronicled my short 1980 visit to N.O. since it's all rather vague memories now. Heavy warm rain, too many Hurricanes(drink) in the piano bar, eating every great name on the menu - jambalaya, red beans and rice, gumbo, oyster stew, smoked sausages..(not all at one sitting), sitting in a bar all afternoon with a vietnam vet., great tap dancing buskers, lots of country music ! and a little less blues and jazz than I'd have liked.

You are far more adept at getting the best out of your travels...........Thanks Garth.

Re: New Orleans

PostPosted: Tue Oct 25, 2011 10:07 pm
by garth cartwright
Thanks Will and good to hear your memories - no matter how hazy.

I've also written up a long blog on the history of New Orleans music for Properganda - has some nice youtube clips attached to it.

http://blog.propermusic.com/?page_id=26978

Re: New Orleans

PostPosted: Wed Oct 26, 2011 12:02 pm
by Adam Blake
Great account, Garth. Thank you. We're not at all jealous, are we folks?

Re: New Orleans

PostPosted: Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:18 pm
by Jonathan E.
Nice report. Thanks. One day I'll get there and read this again before going.

I see that the Bo-Keys have a newish album out.

Image

A longish story/interview from the Chicago Sun-Times:

http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/music/8305528-421/howard-grimes-and-the-bo-keys-keep-rollin-along-with-new-cd.html

Re: New Orleans

PostPosted: Fri Oct 28, 2011 10:12 am
by NormanD
One endearing memory of a trip there is..... hearing Professor Longhair as the in-store music in Woolworths.