Bryan Tarnowski Photographs
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If the sun were visible, it would have been starting to set on Mardi Gras while Chegadao played at the Balcony Music Club (BMC). The location, at the corner of Decatur Street and Esplanade Avenue has been The Mint, The Matador and even a short-lived club owned by comedian/magician Harry Anderson, and it has become the French Quarter terminus of the Marigny’s Frenchmen Street strip. Musically, it leans toward bands on the rise these days, and on Fat Tuesday the self-proclaimed samba-funk band played to a comfortably full room squeezing the last hours of fun out of Carnival. Singer and percussionist Tedo Oliviera’s conga had beads hanging from the lugs as a white Afro wig could be seen bobbing above the other dancers.
The French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans, but zoning laws restrict live music to certain areas and the largest, Bourbon Street, specializes in covers for tourists. A lot of good musicians perform there, but few are playing distinctive music because that’s not their job. They are there to offer familiarity to travelers, but there are outposts of individuality. Big Al Carson lives up to his name; he’s the size of a huddle and wants to be your lover man all night long. He is also back at the Funky Pirate playing the blues after some time off for health reasons.
The most audacious music performed on Bourbon Street the Friday after Fat Tuesday was made by a skeletal marching band outside Rico’s Drunken Burrito. They performed James Brown’s “Superbad” to the delight of the crowd that encircled them. They weren’t in the local brass band tradition despite the horns-and-drums lineup; when each player soloed, the others laid out except for the drums, but the crowd loved it nonetheless.
“We’re from Miami,” the trumpeter in a dark blue fraternity T-shirt announced as he worked the circle, hat out. “We’re trying to raise money to get home.” And maybe they were. The French Quarter in general and Bourbon Street particularly comes at you offering “big-ass” beers, four T-shirts for $20 and it knows where you got them shoes. It is the place where capitalism gets democratic, and anybody who can think of something to trade for a buck – even a song or a story – will find a taker.
At the same time, two tour buses sat parked behind barricades in front of the House of Blues. Flogging Molly has been playing Irish-inflected punk for nearly 20 years, and it returned to the Decatur Street club as part of its anniversary tour. The House of Blues has been one of the city’s most consistent live music destinations since 1994, usually presenting popular touring acts in a relatively intimate space. The smaller Parish elsewhere in the building features emerging national and local acts, and variations including hip-hop, EDM and Americana. The House of Blues is part of the Live Nation family of music locations which translates to a less laissez-faire musical experience, but it also means that shows often start at more audience-friendly times such as 8 and 9 p.m.
In general, The House of Blues’ shows are ones you plan to attend rather than ones you adventure into, but the location has something for the spontaneous as well. The free Local Songwriter Showcase Wednesday nights presented Blue Mountain’s Cary Hudson, as well as Luke Winslow-King, who recently signed to Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. Thursday nights, comedian Leon Blanda hosts the Allstar Comedy Revue, another free show that regularly features some of the city’s top comedians as well as touring comics passing through town. There are also happy hour shows Friday and Saturday nights on the back patio.
On Fat Tuesday, nearby One Eyed Jacks set up a stage outside on the street for bounce rapper Katey Red. On Friday night it was an indie rock showcase with Blind Texas Marlin, White Colla Crimes and Steve Eck. One Eyed Jacks has been a theater and a cabaret space; now it’s one of New Orleans’ leading spots for local and touring indie rock. This spring it will feature NPR darling Kishi Bashi, Waylon Jennings’ hard-rock son Shooter, soul man Charles Bradley in a Jazz Fest show and Pittsburgh’s psychedelic collective Black Moth Super Rainbow. Because of One Eyed Jacks’ theatrical past, its floor slopes toward the stage, giving the showroom unusually good sightlines. That also makes it a natural home for the Fleur de Tease burlesque troupe.
A few blocks away, it was shortly after 8 p.m. and the line outside of Preservation Hall had stretched down St. Peter Street almost to the door of Pat O’Brien’s, where the doorman tried to sell drinks to those who were waiting. Preservation Hall remains a very pure experience – no drinks to sell, no smoking allowed and no amplification necessary in the tiny room that has been New Orleans’ spiritual home for traditional jazz since 1961.
Since Ben Jaffe took over as the hall’s artistic director in the mid-1990s, the performances have been reliable and true to the hall’s vision of giving New Orleans’ traditional jazz musicians a place to practice their craft, but it has also become part of the contemporary club scene. On occasions including Jazz Fest, Preservation Hall presents special midnight shows that offer rare performances including My Morning Jacket and Robert Plant in a room that might hold 100 people. Recently Earl Scioneaux, engineer for many of the Preservation Hall recordings, debuted his Brassft Punk project there, with a brass band assembled to perform the music of electronic dance music pioneers Daft Punk.