A Brief Musical Travelogue
In the past month or so, I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy two of North America’s finest cities associated with jazz -- and, as it happens, recently named among the ‘Top 20 Cities to visit While You’re In Your 20s.’ They’re both cities that have the aforementioned jazz association, but also, interestingly enough, a deep connection to the French language, and, in general, have a certain European flair to them. Not that it means much for somebody living among the three states most likely to consider French among its most commonly spoken languages, but still. Below is my recollection of my visit to New Orleans, LA. My visit to Montreal, Quebec, Canada will follow shortly.
In other words, there’s not a lot of cultural heritage that flows through that particular area of what the rest of the country would call ‘the South.’
Nor did my family venture any further than Orlando for the requisite trips to the theme parks of the area. So, really, my sense of southern cultural heritage was limited to tacky souvenirs and billboards that estimate how soon you’d get to Destination XYZ. Which is why I was quite surprised recently when my father declared that, for his 60th birthday, we would venture down to the Big Easy. The Crescent City. NOLA. The City That Care Forgot. N’awlins. Arguably, the most culturally diverse and significant city in the Southern United States.
Naturally, for myself, this would be an opportunity to check out a music scene I otherwise had very little knowledge of before. The only things I’d known about music from New Orleans was that it is a jazz city -- the birthplace of Dixieland style, which may as well be the original sound of all jazz -- and that Dr. John may be their proudest representative in the genre of rock.
After a marathon race to make an early morning flight, and arriving a little before noon local time, it took little time before getting immersed in the music scene. This is a city that is constant, on-going, and aggressive with its style and culture. It was barely 1pm, and my partner, father, and step-mother were already day drinking on Bourbon Street, enjoying a zydeco band in one of the many hokey, over-priced bars that looks like it could shut down at any moment, if the health inspector ever bothered to come around.
Zydeco Band at Fat Catz, Bourbon Street; Photo by Colleen Goodhue
The band in this particular bar -- I think it was Fat Catz, one of the many ludicrously named bars along Bourbon Street -- played as if it were the latest possible set in front of the Saturday night crowd. A cab driver we had met during this trip had said that the nickname ‘The Big Easy’ was given by old grifters who came to New Orleans because the city was certainly a large cultural center, but also because it was so easy to make money. I had no idea if the band had a name, if they announced it during their set, or if they made one up just for the sake of telling the audience full of day-drunk regulars and tourists because that’s the par for the course of going to see a show. But these guys put on a terrific set of accordion-less zydeco, infused with a more punkish spirit, complete with a wash-board player whose board looked modified from the bumper of a car that had seen better days. Nobody danced (perhaps zydeco’s rhythms were too difficult for a steady 1pm buzz) but we all seemed to nod in agreement: this is great.
For a city that prides itself on its jazz history, there is only so much of it that still exists as a continuation on the tradition itself. On Bourbon Street, there is an outdoor cafe, Louis Armstrong Park, open 24/7, where basic jazz combos of keyboard, drums, and a horn player (possibly a bass as well) play for groups looking for a simple jazz experience to go with their po’boy or beignets before moving on to the next thing, whether that’s a cover band, or a soul group or a rapper, or whatever.
To do Bourbon Street correctly, in my opinion, it should be during the day before it gets too hectic. Bourbon Street is always happening, and it’s best to avoid it as a nightlife destination. This is okay: there is always music happening, there is always food to be consumed, and there is always booze to fuel the spirit. At about 3pm or 4pm, you’ll already see people walking in search of beads and people willing to flash for them (men and women), but you’ll miss nothing if you avoid Bourbon Street after sunset.
Instead, there’s Frenchman Street -- labeled as a sort of Bourbon Street for the locals. Indeed, there’s plenty of bands up and down Frenchman, but the real treat is the fact that you could be outside and hear local brass bands playing outside, either marching along the sidewalk or in place at a corner. My partner and I had danced to high-intensity modern brass at Cafe Negril, a tight-spaced spot for cheap Hurricane cocktails and sweaty, up-close dancing on a Saturday night. There was also a soul group, weaving between obscurities, well-worn classics, and re-interpreted modern RnB hits just up the block at a spot called Vaso.
Brass Band at Cafe Negril, Frenchman Street; Photo by Colleen Goodhue
If you happen to venture just a little bit beyond the French Quarter, there’s also a section considering something more of a bohemian arts district (read: hipster), completely separate from what’s already established as the Arts District/Warehouse District elsewhere in the city. St. Claude Avenue in the neighborhood called the Faubourg Marigny is home to the Hi-Ho Lounge, a spot that hosts craft beers besides the more unique cheap brews of the world. But the real attraction here is DJ Soul Sister, every Saturday from 11pm-3am, who spins a mix of rare disco and soul records from the 70’s and on (for the ultra-hip: think of DJs like Jonathan Toubin, but with a more funk and groove oriented setlist). And if you’re willing to venture this far out but need to be the star of their own show, the Kajun Pub across the street are the hosts of a fantastic karaoke night -- just be prepared to wait a long time between putting in your request and actually performing.
I could go on about how enthusiastic and constant the music scene really is in New Orleans, but I can at least sum it up best by saying: if you visit on a Sunday when the Saints happen to be playing, and whether you score tickets to the game or not, even that has a pre-game concert by a local cover band that is just as much fun as anything else going on around town. And if the Saints win, be prepared for the after party.
Saints Pre-Game Concert at the Superdome; Photo by Colleen Goodhue
It may not be for everybody -- and it certainly isn’t for me all the time -- but there’s something indelible about the musical spirit of New Orleans. It could be considered a jazz city, but at this point in time, it’s so much more than that. The people living there, and those fortunate enough to be musicians, certainly make this so. It is a city that is simultaneously aggressive and in-your-face about its character, yet still so remarkably subtle in what makes it charming. There’s so many spots where you can see brass bands, just as there’s so many spots for beignets (though, you should only go to the Cafe Du Monde for those, to be frank), but you can never go wrong. Even the venues and bars I didn’t mention above are worthy of your time, because chances are, there’s a group playing their damn heart out, no matter what music the crowd wants to hear. In the French Quarter, it’s a fine mix of American-style passion for work, and European-style passion for life.
I have two things to recommend in light of this column, so I’ll try to be brief.
First: I mentioned Dr. John above. His first album, 1968’s Gris-Gris is a fascinating entry of swampy, distinctively N’awlins-style psychedelia, and if you haven’t heard it yet, check it out. But in particular, I also recommend his 2012 record, Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. I mention it not because it’s a re-hash of the things that make Gris-Gris fascinating -- in fact, just the opposite. Gris-Gris has more world music going for it, compared to Locked Down being more of a rock-and-RnB exclusive record. But what Auerbach was able to do for this album in particular was return Dr. John to a kind of airiness and ease that feels natural (as Dr. John’s music usually does), but injects a kind of artistry to it. It feels like the high end of low-art, and it easily makes for his most infectiously joyful, soulful, and funky record to date. And if that’s not enough for you: Dan Auerbach’s unmistakable guitar sound is all over this record, too.
Below is one of my favorite tracks from the album, the easy-going yet spiritual, “God’s Sure Good.” It’s not as swampy or mystic as his Gris-Gris material, but it plays with a sincere joyfulness