New Orleans, Louisiana — Not even Hurricane Katrina could sink this city’s reputation as America’s live-music capitol. It maintains this distinction not only because of the incredibly high caliber of performers here, or this area’s special, sui generis sound. The deal-clincher is the variety of venues in which you can see bands while surrounded by thousands of your closest friends, and many more where the audience is barely as populated as the stage.
One of NOLA’s joys is visiting nightclubs so small that you almost can touch the music. The Big Easy makes it easy to inspect the fingernails on your favorite guitarists as they pick away at their axes. You can do this at almost any hour. Bourbon Street’s bars pour music with lunch. Maison Bourbon (at the corner of St. Peter) begins serving superb traditional jazz on weekends at 2:15 P.M. and weekdays at 6:30 P.M. By then, scores of outlets showcase musicians who do magic with their instruments. The Maple Leaf Lounge in the Carrolton neighborhood gets going around 10 P.M. and doesn’t quit.
“Music till the vampires turn to dust,” the revered nightspot accurately promises. Its relaxing patio honors a loyal patron named Everette Hawthorne Maddox who passed away in 1989. The poet’s small memorial marker explains: “He was a mess.”
From crowded to cozy, here is a chronicle of one quest to get right next to the music.
While life is good at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, the home of the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival can be a macro affair. It is a true privilege to watch the Radiators on the Gentilly Stage or Steely Dan on the prestigious Acura Stage while basking in the Louisiana sunshine. But the bands usually are at a distance, and this is a distinct pleasure shared with multitudes of other dedicated music fans. While the tunesmanship and overall satisfaction are immense, intimacy is rather lacking.
Other platforms, however, allow closer looks, such as seeing the fine-feathered Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indians close their set at dusk on the Jazz & Heritage Stage with the help of David Letterman’s musical director, Paul Shaffer.
House of Blues
Less populated than the Fair Grounds is the House of Blues, now open for business on the French Quarter’s Decatur Street. Although it was spared the flooding that wrecked so much of this city, HOB closed for three months to repair Katrina’s rain damage.
The place looks like new as Chicago’s own Umphrey’s McGee strides on stage. They play many of their own songs, plus such unexpected pieces as the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” and a rocked out selection from Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor.”
Umphrey’s is very high-energy, as is its enormously involved crowd. Some 800 or so guests arrive for a 2:15 AM show. Perhaps 90 percent of them stay until the band encores at 5:00 AM with Supertramp’s 1974 classic “Bloody Well Right,” which Joel Cummins handles especially deftly on keyboards. The mainly college-aged crowd, many clad obligatorily in backward baseball caps, seems bemused but mystified by this song, which predates most of them by perhaps a dozen years. Asked if he recognizes this number, one young veteran of 35 Umphrey’s shows, who knows every word of everything previously played, shrugs his baffled Tennessee shoulders and says, “I dunno, man, some cover song.”
Umphrey’s McGee’s “The Bottom Half,” debuted in April on SciFidelity Records. This enjoyable album is pleasantly more mellow than the band’s somewhat intense live shows. At HOB, and even more so at two appearances at the Melkweg during March 2005’s Amsterjam in Holland, Umphrey’s fuses jam-band music and metal. The former outshines the latter, but the combination is riveting, novel, and fun. Imagine a Grateful Phish blend with sharp Yes and Rush notes and a mild, Widespread Panic finish.
In studio, Umphrey’s is considerably more laid back. The Bottom Half was recorded simultaneously with the endlessly satisfying Safety in Numbers, a lush and layered beauty that offers new delights and discoveries with each new spin.
Rock & Bowl
This unusual venue’s bottom half remains dark and gutted after weeks of soaking in Katrina’s floodwaters. Upstairs, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie play Zydeco in a bowling alley. Some bowlers keep score. Most others seem content simply to hurl balls mindlessly while drinking the local brew, Abita Amber, chomping on tasty turkey and andouille gumbo, and revolving to Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and other fun tunes, either on the dance floor or right beside the bowling-ball holder at the near-end of the lanes.
Delafose’s squeezebox has a big crawfish painted across its top. While a floor full of fans twirls and weaves Cajun style, Delafose expands and contracts his accordion, and the crustacean grows and shrinks accordingly.
Round midnight, about ten members of the New York- and San Francisco-based Krewe of Festivus walk to Banks Street Bar, three blocks down, and three blocks over. Along the way, the streets are mainly empty. FEMA trailers occupy some lawns and parking spots in front of some homes. Most houses are simply dark. The streetlights are on, but no one’s home. Many residences are boarded up. Some have doors wide open, with no one inside. A couple of blocks away, one house’s roof rests flat on the pavement. The home beneath it seems to have liquefied. This low-lying neighborhood, Mid-City, badly suffered Katrina’s wrath.
Banks Street Bar
At Banks Street, a bar with a faded, 48-star American flag on the wall, Walter Wolfman Washington and his fantastic backup band exude blues and funk. Washington commands a black and brown Gibson hollow-body guitar. An integrated ensemble of sidemen keeps pace with him on saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums, and percussion. A young man on the Korg electric organ looks like a college kid sitting in at the end of a successful internship. And yet he sounds like a professional who has done this for decades. Perhaps he first tapped the organ keys at age 10.
A perm-toting James Brown doppelganger, takes the stage to salute the Godfather of Soul. He delivers a hilarious song, “You can stay, but your doggie’s got to go.”
Just then, a huge, two-year-old Great Dane named Molly walks in. Very friendly and quiet, she wears a shiny, black coat and strolls on enormous paws through the bar. Molly navigates past patrons who aim chalked cues at billiard balls, and among music lovers who warmly pat her on the head. All around her, people dance on a cracked-concrete floor that mysteriously slopes gently, but ever so noticeably, toward the sidewalk. Molly plops herself down near the stage, as if she were in a carpeted living room. The loud, outstanding music leaves her unphased. She looks as if she’s heard it all before.
Patrons drink and chat and drink at tables outside the bar, beneath dark, craggy live oaks. Next door, Shaggy’s serves hot dogs, catfish, and delicious, empanada-like crawfish pies.
As a rainstorm arrives and accelerates, the skies soon fill with stunning flashes and bright-white lightning bolts that dramatically streak the heavens seconds before the reports of ever more intimidating thunder. Overnight, two inches of rain would come down.
By Friday morning, with gusts at 50 MPH and flooding expected, MSNBC forecasts that New Orleans will have “The worst weather in America.” By about Noon, The Weather Channel urges people to “move immediately indoors, stay away from windows, and beware of damaging winds and deadly, sky-to-ground lighting.” Before relenting around 4 P.M., 5.5 inches of rain fill local streets and cause brand-new water pumps to gag. A big “Uh-oh” ripples among local observers.
In the Fauborg Marigny district just east of the French Quarter, porch swings glide over the tidy floorboards of stately homes. Little Freddy King stands inside a small bar called BJ’s before some two-dozen patrons in one of this neighborhood’s unassuming nightspots. King is not on stage, but flat on the same floor with everyone else. True to his name, Freddy is perhaps 5 feet, 7 inches tall. He looks sharp in a tan suit and a colorful Elvis Presley tie.
At the side of the room, a piano holds up the establishment’s southern wall. Its mirrored front reveals a perfect reflection of King playing his Epiphone-brand guitar. From about a foot in front of his microphone, as he steers the audience through “Boogie Chillun” and other blues favorites, it emerges that King plays with his fingers, not a pick, as do most electric-guitarists.
“Picks add an artificial snap,” he explains. “When you play with just your fingers, you get the true, quality sound. It goes straight from your heart, right through your fingertips.”
One block from BJ’s, at the corner of Lesseps and Dauphine, the music swings as hard as tungsten. Corey Henry and the Young Fellas shake Vaughn’s with a jaw-dropping set of upbeat, mind-blowing, super-high-powered funk. Who needs ethanol? This is music as renewable energy source.
Henry and five sidemen serve a sizzling cover of “Pass the Peas” right through to an original called “I Love New Orleans”
The players all wail, but drummer Walter Harris is exceptionally talented and incredibly entertaining. He hits the skins and cymbals with nuance, creativity, and immense force. Drenched in sweat, his muscular mahogany skin shimmers — from his scalp, clear through the eggshell wife beater he wears over his weight-room honed chest.
The music’s full spirit inhabits the barroom floor just in front of Corey Henry as he exquisitely and joyously works his trombone, as he often does with Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. While the music swells and sounds better than any living soul deserves to hear, the trombone’s slide brazenly oscillates back and forth right at you, like a sword in a fencing match. You bob and weave around it while dancing as hard as your body allows, almost as if you’re possessed. You try not to smack into the trombone and bring the exhilarating festivities to an awkward and unwelcome halt.
This is as close as a fan should get to the music, and as great as music gets.
The dozen or so folks on the dance floor of this sparsely populated bar stick with the band from one incredible song to another. The Young Fellas play on and on, with one ferocious jam flowing blissfully into the next. When Henry finally pauses to say a few words, the endorphin-fueled crowd offers what sounds like polite applause, then speeds into the sultry evening. They stagger outside and collapse onto benches, fan themselves, and pant like dogs. One enthralled aficionado reaches into his pocket, grabs his atomizer, and inhales a rich, soothing blast of anti-asthmatic Albuterol.
“Thanks for coming to New Orleans,” Corey Henry says moments later. “We need you here right now. Welcome back. And don’t be a stranger.”
– New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Murdock also serves as minister of misinformation for the Krewe of Festivus, an informal, bicoastal group of music fanatics who have attended the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival annually since the mid-1990s.