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In New Orleans, The Sound Never Sets
Music of every melodic shade.


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Deroy Murdock

As if this were not exciting enough, America’s most relaxed city soon went on alert: a tornado watch enveloped Orleans Parish from 5:00 until 11:00 A.M. that Saturday morning. Luckily, the twisters never materialized. Once the huge, intense downpours and bed-rattling thunderclaps subsided, an intense sun governed a cloudless sky. 

A few hours later, intricate ceiling fans that date back to 1905 gently circulated the air inside Galatoire’s beveled-mirror-filled salon. At a waitresses’ suggestion, this entire restaurant of elegant diners stopped lunching on such delicacies as oysters Rockefeller, trout meuniere amandine, and pommes soufflé, and sang happy birthday to a young lady named Griffin, age 1. 

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Beyond this exquisite culinary landmark, past the pastel-colored daiquiri shops, notorious strip clubs, and congested bars rocked by cover bands, Bourbon Street’s relatively quiet eastern end hosts Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Thought to be America’s oldest continually operated bar, this National Historical Landmark was built between 1772 and 1791 by pirates Jean and Pierre Lafitte. They are believed to have used the establishment as a legal front for their more covert enterprises.   

While Lafitte’s grog flowed freely that Saturday night, its musical talent resembled a pirate of the far-northern Caribbean. In fact, he looked like a low-rent Johnny Depp singing low-cal Doctor John tunes. He claimed to take requests. Asked to play something by Elton John, he snarled: “I don’t do his songs. I met him once. He’s a pr***.”

Be that as it may, this did little to endear him to the lackadaisical crowd gathered around the piano. Nor was it the zenith of musicianship for him to count, stack, and otherwise organize the greenbacks that bar hoppers’ had plopped into his tip jar that evening. He finally detached his microphone, grabbed his loot, and decamped for Oxford, Mississippi, a six-hour drive away. 

Before Johnny Depp’s stunt double cleared the block, Woody Woodland – a Los Angeles attorney and Jazz Fest fan – came to the rescue. He sat down at the piano bench and asked for requests. But unlike the official act, Woodland riveted the previously unfocused room with “Piano Man,” “Rocket Man,” “Desperado,” “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie,” and other beloved hits. Smiling drunks heartily sang along, ordered more and more adult beverages, and thoroughly relished the moment. 

After about an hour, Woodland and his krewe of lost angels stepped out and called it a night. As they tumbled into a cab, birds serenaded the brightening skies as clocks throughout the Quarter struck six. 

A dry, slightly cool, and very sunny Sunday eventually found the Neville Brothers triumphantly returning to Jazz Fest. This marked the first time since Katrina that the iconic Crescent City crooners reclaimed their traditional berth as Fest’s biggest closing act. They delivered a lengthy set that included “Brother Jake,” “Big Chief,” and “Shake Your Tambourine,” a polyrhythmic butt-shaker that opens their splendid concert album, “Live on Planet Earth.”      

That evening, at Rock ‘n’ Bowl in Mid-City, the bill advertised on the front door simply said: 

Tab
Sonny

Tab Benoit played a high-voltage set of bluesy Louisiana electric guitar. He, a bassist, and a drummer generated an amazingly powerful blast of musical energy for a mere trio. Guitarist Sonny Landreth opened the evening and then pitched in on a few tunes, expanding Benoit’s bountiful sound.

This hybrid bar, music venue, and bowling alley seems untouched since the early 1960s, right down to the revolving plastic Clydesdales that pull a wagonload of Budweisers inside a promotional display that hangs from the ceiling. Demonstrating their own horsepower, Benoit and his band rode through a set of infectious, upbeat, Cajun-inflected rock and blues. One lady lapped up the music while a Hula Hoop twirled around her waist. Guests created their own second-line procession and paraded inside Rock ‘n’ Bowl beneath wide-open umbrellas. Four pink-clad gals gyrated atop the bar as other patrons blithely hurled bowling balls down the nearby lanes. Other guests nibbled on crawfish etouffe and bacon-wrapped, Abita-beer-battered shrimp with remoulade sauce on beds of spinach. 

By the time Tab Benoit plucked his last electron-fueled note, all the souls wore wide smiles on their faces, eardrums, taste buds, brains, stomachs, livers, and perhaps more. As folks shuffled down the stairs – either to go home or chase the next thrill – a brass band erupted in the parking lot, to the patrons’ collective delight. As the dancing started anew, bawdy trombone, trumpet, and tuba wails pierced the sultry Southern breeze. Even at 1:30 on a Monday morning, this seemed perfectly normal around here — because it is.     

– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.



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