Cinco de Mayo gives every American a seamless rationale to enjoy Corona Extra beer, enchiladas, the music of Tijuana’s own Carlos Santana, and all else that our neighbors to the south have contributed to American cuisine, culture, and music.
May 5 is also Give NOLA Day. Those of us who know and love New Orleans have a brand-new opportunity to support America’s most civilized city.
Civilized? You bet!
Where else can you combine elegant mansions situated on sprawling lawns, shotgun shacks with sui generis decorative elements, non-stop music of the highest caliber, spectacular food in ubiquitous abundance, and a nighttime-bar-closure law that does not exist? Would you like a freshly shaken cocktail or freshly poured Abita Amber Ale or NOLA Blonde Beer at 5:45 a.m.? Just ask! New Orleans is one of the few places in America where a law-abiding adult can drink 24/7 in many bars that never close (in some cases not even for Hurricane Katrina, ten years ago this August 2005). New Orleans’ officials trust adults enough not to tell them when to stop drinking. Too bad nearly every other city and state government deigns to make these decisions for grown-ups.
Once again, New Orleans failed to disappoint me during my 21st consecutive visit to the Jazz and Heritage Festival, a.k.a. Jazz Fest. Combined with other sojourns, the weekend of Thursday, April 23 through Monday, April 27 was at least my 25th journey to the Big Easy.
Highlights of Jazz Fest, at the local Fairgrounds in the Gentilly district included big names on the Acura Stage. Jimmy Buffet offers the sunny reassurance that winter is gone, at last, and won’t haunt us again for a decent interval. Listening to Roger Daltry and the Who perform “My Generation” is rather amusing. No one tried to put them down. Daltry’s generation is very much in charge. While his hair is gray, Daltry has every strand that he did in the 1960s. His head resembles an assembly line full of Slinkies.
The more intimate Economy Tent features the traditional sounds of the Louisiana Jazz Repertory Ensemble and Dr. Michael White’s tribute to Jelly Roll Morton. This is the home for those who crave the artistry of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and many of those who nursed jazz in its infancy.
Jon Cleary’s breathtaking jazz/blues/funk piano is an unbridled joy, especially when backed up by the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, three superb sidemen on guitar, bass, and drums. Their Thursday night gig at a small venue called Chickie Wah Wah — a little ways along Canal Street, past a massive, brand-new medical-research center — was the perfect way to get the Jazz Fest ball rolling. Only Cleary could sing mellifluously a lyric as chunky looking as “You’re so very unnecessarily mercenary.”
New Orleans’ smaller venues offer endless riches, well into the night. These included the Stanton Moore Trio at the Blue Nile on Frenchman Street (presented by San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room). The Republic showcased the highly energetic James Brown Dance Party (with spot-on renditions of the spectacular hits of the Godfather of Soul), as well as Pink Talking Fish. This fusion of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, and Phish was a musical thrill. Its reading of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” made even the pacifists in the room scream for more. Also memorable: the funk-soul-jam excitement of Vinyl at a cozy room called The Den, just beside Howlin’ Wolf in the Warehouse District. Vinyl’s music recalls the soundtracks of Beretta, Kojak, Mannix, and other 1970s TV detective shows. The muscular saxophone chops of Bay Area brass sensation Daniel Casares fortify this effect.
The Big Easy’s restaurants continue to amaze.
Root serves foie gras in a small terrarium filled with edible flowers, granola bits, a strawberry reduction, and liquid nitrogen. While the foie gras should be more pronounced, the total effect is fascinating. If not totally satisfying to the taste buds, this dish certainly appeals to the brain.
La Boca’s Argentine-style steaks include one cut slow-cooked with the fat and connective tissue attached. The lipid flavor infuses the meat as the connective tissue becomes crispy. The result is, essentially, a steak wrapped in its own crunchy bacon.
Bayona’s sublime veal sweetbreads demonstrate once and for all the vital importance of eating cows, especially when they are young and tender.
New Orleans is as lovable as ever, and every American should visit early, often, and for as long as possible.
Until then, today is Give NOLA Day. Until midnight tonight, local non-profits welcome your support in a day of mass giving.
Among many good causes, I plan to throw some philanthropic beads at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, on whose advisory board I serve. Pelican is, more or less, the Manhattan Institute of Louisiana. It champions individual freedom, limited government, and free enterprise in a place that needs to be reminded of those principles. Pelican pushed for charter schools, which now dominate post-Katrina New Orleans, with enviable results. It now is working for criminal-justice reform and calling for more sensible sentencing policies, in hopes of reserving Louisiana’s prisons for dangerous criminal thugs who belong in such places far more than do non-violent criminals.