It’s been a long long (lonely) time since I wrote the book of blog.
Last time I left my loyal, but miniscule, readership with the promise that I would find time to blog about my recent trip to New Orleans, Louisiana; birthplace of jazz, launch-pad of the blues, one of the great, great storied cities on this crazy old rock we call home.
I actually traveled there courtesy of my company to attend a convention in the city on May 8th-10th (CTIA Wireless 2012). My boss, being a decent chap, allowed me to go early and catch the last day of the Jazz Festival, as long as I picked up the incremental cost to the company myself. I also forked out for a VIP pass, bundled with the conference admission.
I was really stoked. Although this blog is supposedly about guitars, my musical tastes are actually quite varied (although always discerning of course). I associate New Orleans of course with the jazz from Pops to Wynton, but also Doctor John, The Meters and a bunch of other soulful, funky, just plan brilliant music (to explore the funkier side of NOLA I highly recommend this compilation). I’d also been priming the pump by watching the superb HBO drama Treme on iTunes in the weeks approaching my departure. I was itching to go.
With a Suitcase In My Hand
I thus departed Phoenix early on the morning of May 5th, flying from Sky Harbor, via Houston to The Big Easy. I landed mid-afternoon, picked up my bag from the carousel (I had rather optimistically even packed my travel guitar with thoughts that the Louisiana air might lead to inspiration) and then headed out to find the Avis pickup.
The first thing you notice of course is the heat. Although as I am now a resident of Arizona’s Valley of The Sun and I feel I am pretty well adjusted to heat these days, the humidity of The Gulf makes 90F feel like 110F in the Sonoran Desert.
Due to the conference and Jazzfest, the good hotel rooms in the downtown area were all really expensive, so I ended up about 7-8 miles out of town. By the time I got there and checked in to the room, it was approaching 6pm and after a 4am start, I was feeling knackered. I had planned to get into the city for some dinner and an initial scout of The Quarter, but instead I decided to get an early night, ready to hit Jazzfest the following day.
Due to the 3 hour time difference to Phoenix, I ended up sleeping pretty late. It was after 10 am when I woke. I got dressed as quick as I could (Stax Records T-shirt seemed appropriate) and headed down to the hotel lobby to get a cab. The driver was a native Chicagoan, but has lived in Nooworlinz for the last two decades. He enquired as to my origins (Liverpool via Helsinki and Arizona) and we discussed the melancholy joys of The White Album versus the cartoon cuteness of Sergeant Pepper’s as we hit the road.
He already assumed I was heading downtown, and I asked him to take me to The Jazz Festival. He commented that he had been there earlier in the week, but the last day would be a great party day, which would continue in the city. He said Bourbon Street and The French Quarter would be fun and worth checking out, but for “a real music fan like you”, Frenchmen Street, in the neighboring district of the Marigny was the place to be. It was at this point that I got my first of several warnings about where and where not to go: “Stay between Bourbon Street and the river and you’ll be fine. But don’t go north of Bourbon. That’s where the projects are.”
As the friendly cabby dropped me off at the gate of the racetrack where Jazzfest is held, the driver said “See ya tonight on Frenchmen Street” and then the skies opened and the first of many rain showers began. The rain was light and refreshing. Nobody was bothered by it. I headed in.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival consists of many themed stages spread over the race-track. Mingled amongst them are food and drink stands. I breakfasted on an iced coffee with a donut (they use the French begne) and then I chased that with an excellent daiquiri.
Mardi Gras Indians on stage at Jazzfest
I deliberately decided not to get stressed out running around trying to catch different acts and rather just wandered as the mood took me. Through the day I saw many superb acts at different places. Jazz, blues, gospel, zydeco. I probably missed a lot more. If I still had my copy of the program, I could probably identify many of them – but alas that document has scuttled off into the chaos of our spare room to hide. I can remember The Dapp Kings, The Funky Meters, David Sanborn. As a music journalist I am clearly a dead loss. The Foo Fighters played the enormous Main Stage and although I do like Mr. Grohl and his chums, I decided I wanted to see bands that were somehow related to the New Orleans traditions. One clear highlight was a local R&B/swing band, who performed with costumed Mardi Gras Indians live on stage. But again no names were recorded, I was too busy dancing and feeling good.
The air was heavy with the scent of marijuana, everyone seemed to have a beer or daiquiri in hand and we were all swimming in a sea of excellent, funky and just darned beautiful good time music. My Stax T-shirt drew admiring comments (it’s always a great way to meet like-minded folks) and I struck up conversations with a few different people. Locals were well represented as were the Louisiana diaspora, returning home for Jazzfest from other parts of the US. I didn’t meet anybody from overseas though, except at the CTIA hospitality tent. I thought this rather strange, as this must be one of the great festivals and for any music fan, especially a fan of all strands of African American music, really something to aim for if you’re ever in the US during early May.
At the Foot of Canal Street
As the festival wound down and folks began drifting out towards the gate. I was able to get a lift on the CTIA shuttle bus to the corner of Canal St. and Bourbon St.
Bourbon Street has a lot in common with other areas of the planet where people flock to have a good time, get drunk, cut loose and indulge their wild side. The atmosphere reminded me of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, crossed with Brit holiday hell Kavos on Corfu and somehow with 6th Street Austin during South-By-Southwest mixed in there as well: Strip clubs are intermingled with bars, advertizing live music and street musicians were dotted around the place. Everyone seemed to be smashed out of their minds, carrying plastic cups of beer or cocktails— in New Orleans you can take your drink from bar to bar. The après Jazz fest crowd was out in force and the street was clogged.
I ducked into a bar for a beer. I only wanted one, but the barman insisted I take a second as it was free. I watched a pretty good classic rock covers band (Thin Lizzy, Nirvana and some other stuff) while I sipped my pint and then headed back out into the mayhem.
A friendly transvestite helps a tourist cross an intersection on Bourbon Street.
The further you go down Bourbon St. away from Canal, the less seedy and more genteel it becomes. By the time you get to Lafitte’s Blacksmith you are a world away from the chaos at the beginning of the street. It’s around this point that you can stop watching out for pavement pizzas and start to look up and admire the beautiful French Colonial architecture; homes with verdant balconies covered in flowers and ivies, in front of shuttered windows, all imbued with a sense of calm decay.
At the end of Bourbon Street is the Marigny district, centered around Frenchmen Street – home to many of the most famous music venues of New Orleans. This is where the real fun begins if you are a music fan. I stopped into a restaurant for a glass of wine and a plate of crab cakes and then took in three bands in three different bars over the next 90 minutes. Again, no notes were taken, but I saw a kid of about 20 playing the hell out of soul classics on an Epi Dot, backed by a couple of middle –aged dudes on drums and bass. Then in the next bar, a cool jazz combo with sax, trumpet, bass, guitar and drums. Frankly it was all a bit of a blur. But I do remember putting five and ten dollar bills into buckets that were passed around and I bought a CD that I mislaid somewhere.
By 10pm I was shattered. I hailed a cab and headed back to Metairie.
Work work work
Monday was in theory a vacation day for me. A chance to get out and explore the city, see more bands and generally chill out. I woke late, with a slight fuzzy head and saw the red light blinking on my Blackberry. Fortunately due to the time difference it was still early in Phoenix, but unfortunately I’d have to work, putting together PowerPoint for our company’s quarterly Board of Director’s meeting that Wednesday. Monday was in the end spent in the hotel room iterating the slides and conferring with my boss in Phoenix. But no complaints, I knew this was a risk when I booked the flights and I’ll just take the vacation at another time.
The Birthplace of Jazz
Tuesday was spent at the conference. Taking a rental car for this trip was a dumb idea, as by the time I had fought my way through traffic and found somewhere to park, I was pretty late. Taking taxis in and out from the center to Metairie would’ve been cheaper too. But at least I got to listen to Radio WWOZ while stuck in the little metal box on four wheels.
I left the conference a little after 4pm and drove into the city. I parked on North Rampart Street, close to the entrance of Louis Armstrong Park and went inside. It’s a nice place, but very quiet. The reason I went there was to pay a small pilgrimage to Congo Square, the small paved area where slaves would gather on Sundays to sing and dance. Some people consider this the Birthplace of Jazz.
The skies were grey and it rained intermittently. I stayed a while to reflect. Slavery is something that ties my ancestors with this place. My father’s family worked in the shipping business in Liverpool, the city that was once the biggest port in the British Empire, one corner of a triangle that also took in West Africa and The New World. Ships would sail from England to Africa with money and goods to trade for slaves, then cross the Atlantic to ports such as New Orleans to sell the slaves and pick up cotton, returning to Liverpool to sell this cotton to the mills of Lancashire. Both New Orleans and Liverpool are cities built on slavery. Of course as so many died they are also built on genocide. It’s difficult to know what to feel. On one hand the slave trade is part of the past, something for historians. On the other hand we still feel its influence every day. America is a country still riven by the aftermath of slavery. Segregation and Jim Crow only ended in the 1960s, just a few years before my birth. Today of course if you are an African American you have a disproportionate chance of being poor, of suffering from crime and of being discriminated against. All directly because of what some people were prepared to do in order to make money.
After visiting Congo Square I walked back towards the river. I was now north of Bourbon, but still in The Marigny. The houses were beautiful. Lots of balconies and window boxes. This may sound like a cliché, but late on a Tuesday afternoon I could also lots of people practicing their instruments. Music drifted out of houses and apartments, across the streets.
The Iberville Projects are adjacent to Armstrong Park, just a few minutes’ walk away from the northern part of the Marigny. These are the projects he cab driver was referring to on Sunday. A local man in his fifties stopped me and asked if I was lost. I said I was just wandering. He pointed and said “Bourbon Street is that way”. After this I noticed the neighborhood watch signs that said something like “All suspicious activity will be reported to NOPD”. On several of these signs someone had used a stencil to spray-paint two stick men. One knelt while the other stood with a gun pointed at his head. I wanted to take a picture of this, but felt too self conscious.
I moved my rental car from outside the park down to a side street off Frenchmen and then continued my walk back through The Marigny into the Quarter, past the French Market and down to Jackson Square at around sunset. I then returned to Frenchmen and went looking for bands. But it seems that Tuesday (or maybe just the Tuesday after Jazzfest) is a poor night to catch live acts. I saw another small jazz combo while I nursed a single Budweiser, then decided I would return to Metairie for dinner.
Grilled Oysters and Rock’n’Roll Karaoke
I ended up eating in at a restaurant close to the hotel: The ACME Oyster House. My expectations were not high, but upon entering it seemed pleasant enough, with nice wooden booths and a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere. I took a seat at the bar, ordered a drink and a menu was delivered, but the barmaid recommended the chargrilled oysters as an appetizer—done the local way. Now I love oysters, but have always been of the opinion that they should be eaten raw, the subtle essence of the sea etc. But I thought I’d try them local style. They ended up being fantastic and rather than having a main I just ordered up another plate.
After dinner I headed back towards the hotel. But I felt somehow a little cheated. My time in New Orleans was nearly at an end. Jazzfest had been brilliant, but I’d had precious little time in the city itself. I was still hungry to see more live music. But then as I turned the corner to go into the hotel lobby I thought I could hear the sound of a live band emanating from the dive bar across the street. In fact it was not just a dive bar, the place was actually called The Dive Bar. I headed inside. The place was packed with what I assumed was students and sure enough a live band was playing. I grabbed a beer and took a seat.
The band was all-female and playing some kind of indie rock. They were OK, nothing mind-blowing, but OK. But then at the end of the song, they put down their instruments. I’d got in at the end of their set. Some kind of compare (looking like a 25 year old Robert Plant) came on and asked the audience to give them a big hand. The audience obliged and then a bunch of guys came on stage and picked up the same instruments and began bashing out a classic rock cover. Then the compare returned to the stage, thanked the singer and asked “Who’s next?”. After looking at a sheet on a small table in front of the stage he called the next singer. This was Rock’n’Roll Karaoke.
The standard on the whole was extremely high, the band (guitar, bass, drums and keyboards) was really tight and seemingly able to play anything that was required of them. I noted that the guitarist had a Thinline Telecaster of some kind, from which he was able to coax any kind of tone, with just a few pedals and his amp – from Tele twang, to saturated Les Paul neck pickup lead a la Slash for Sweet Child O’ Mine. I felt embarrassed that I had talked myself into the idea that you need multiple guitars to get lots of different tones. It’s all in the fingers, as they say.
I settled in on a stool overlooking the stage had a couple more beers and enjoyed the show. Occasionally someone would also want to play guitar as well as sing. The guitarist graciously offered up his Tele and conferred with the punter in order to get the tone right, before retreating to the bar.
The audience was appreciative, obviously stacked with friends of the performers. But the standard was actually really high. But then the mood shifted. The Robert Plant alike compare checked who was next then began apologizing “I’m sorry, but it’s time. You all know who’s up next. Michelle – you’re on”.
A strange mixture of boos, laughter, applause and a few cheers rang out as a heavily made up, skinny woman with a huge head (or possibly wig) of curly bleach-blonde hair took the stage. It’s also worth pointing out that she was at least 60, possibly 70 years old. She was clearly drunk, teetering a bit on high heels as she climbed up onto the stage. She then began to sing, badly, in some kind of indistinct Eastern European accent. I don’t remember what she chose. Probably an eighties power ballad. Simply The Best or something like that. She also climbed down off the stage, to the limits of the mic cable and began to strip off her clothes. It’s at this point I realized that the audience members closest to the stage had made themselves scarce before she came on. Her striptease routine was not practiced or elegant. She shuffled off her skirt and nearly tripped up on it. She struggled with the mic cable as she took off her top. Then there she was, an elderly lady in too much makeup belting our a karaoke classic in her bra and panties. Thankfully that’s as far as she went.
The audience reaction was mainly mockery and laughter. My jaw was of course on the floor. I mainly felt embarrassed for her. But then, after her song, after she had got her kit back on, I saw her chatting with the compare and a couple of other folks who I assumed were regulars. She looked stoked. High on adrenaline. They were laughing and joking with her, not at her. I then reexamined my own reaction. My embarrassment was patronizing. She’d had a great time. She’d performed in front of an audience and she looked thrilled. She was accepted by the band and the regulars.
When I’m 70 it’s entirely possible that I’ll be playing in some dodgy covers band or chancing my arm at an open-mic stage somewhere. At least I hope so. Even though I’ll keep my clothes on, people may mock me. I just hope I’ll have the balls to do it. In the end Michelle’s performance was simultaneously horrifying and curiously life affirming. A truly bizarre last act to see on this trip.
Until next time…
Wednesday was spent at the conference, before I caught my flight back in the evening.
Even though I spent only a tiny amount of time in the city, I fell in love with New Orleans. There are many great cities in the world that I love (London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, Stockholm, Rome ect), there are only a few that really get under my skin and that I start to think of as somehow magical. In fact it’s a very short list; Hanoi, Florence and now New Orleans.