Bryan Tarnowski Photographs
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.
The hall is venerable, but the new-by-comparison Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel has quickly become just as valuable, bringing quality jazz to Bourbon Street. On Friday night Joe Krown was hunched over the piano playing a driving version of Ray Charles’ “Mess Around” on a stage backed and flanked with rich, red curtains, and that red echoes visually behind the bar. The Friday Piano Professor happy hour series presents a number of the city’s top piano players for solo shows, and it taps into the city’s proud piano tradition.
The Jazz Playhouse made regular appearances on the HBO series “Treme.” Jon Seda’s Nelson Hidalgo often mixed business with pleasure there and Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown – the trumpet player who ghosts for Rob Brown’s Delmond Lambreaux – is a regular performer as well. The booking policy is inclusive, presenting brass bands, members of Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Jason Marsalis, traditional jazz, and even late-night burlesque.
At the other end of the French Quarter, the Palm Court Jazz Cafe sits, a more mom-and-pop monument to traditional jazz. The business, owned by George and Nina Buck celebrates the music with jackets of albums released by George’s G.H.B. Records in the front window, along with yellowed newspaper clippings dating back to at least 2007 – and some look older. One of the Palm Court’s heroes, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, passed away last year and he’s remembered on the window. Another, Lionel Ferbos, is now 101 and stories on his last few birthdays have been taped up as well. Ferbos still plays every Saturday night at the Palm Court, but on the Friday after Mardi Gras trumpeter Charlie Miller sat calmly at center stage leading the band.
Focusing solely on the locations that are destinations misses much of the music of the French Quarter. At night busking on Royal Street comes to a halt, but during the day it’s one of the points of call for street musicians from around the world. Even the Moonwalk is alive with eccentric, scruffy music performed by people with varying commitments to skill and shelter. On Friday night a marimba player and a conga player jammed on one side of Decatur Street while Ted Graham’s All-Stars shuffled out the blues across the way in Margaritaville. Another couple of musicians playing dobro, mandolin and kick drum serenaded customers on a haunted tour on Royal Street.
The French Quarter’s hotel bars split the difference between the happenstance of street corner buskers and shows around which an evening’s plans are made. The Hotel Monteleone renovated its Carousel Bar last year to expand it toward Iberville Street, and on Friday night the space was packed, some enjoying cocktails at its signature revolving bar, while others awaited Louis Prima’s daughter Lena, sitting first through a tenor sax-led version of “What’s Going On” by her backing band.
Nearby in The Ritz-Carlton, Jeremy Davenport’s playing to a packed Davenport Lounge. “It must have been moonglow,” he sang, bringing a bit of old-school Vegas to the Crescent City. His band can swing, and with the audience rapt he kept the Rat Pack patter to a minimum, letting his and his band’s chops do the work.
It often seems like Las Vegas is the model civic leaders envision for New Orleans: a tourist-friendly playground fueled by big bucks from Topeka, Des Moines and Terre Haute. Unlike Vegas, there is a there here. The French Quarter is a neighborhood, and musicians aren’t simply entertainers; they’re part of the community. It is one of the things that “Treme” got very right, and that means that most of the musicians in the French Quarter offer a fair exchange of music for your money. The French Quarter, unlike the Strip, isn’t a grift; it’s their home, even if just for a while. They have to represent.