We have weeks to go before the big parades and community-wide abandon of Mardi Gras, but as momentum builds in New Orleans, the signs of Carnival season are everywhere. King Cakes are turning up in offices and classrooms. Krewes are building floats behind the metal walls of drafty, nondescript warehouses. People across town are singeing their fingers with hot glue as they assemble costumes.
And on the airwaves and in the music clubs, the familiar, sing-along sounds of Mardi Gras anthems are taking hold. One of the places where they ring most fervently these days is Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, especially on Monday nights when Three Piece Spicy is holding court on the tiny stage in the back room.
Led by Tom Worrell on piano, with Chris Jones on conga drums and shake-dancer Ashley Thibodaux in constant motion between the players and the audience, Three Piece Spicy runs through the Latin-tinged, rollicking rhumba-boogie numbers of Professor Longhair, among other New Orleans party standards. This is music most locals know by heart, and it’s hard to hear the whistling intro to "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" without feeling at least a little excitement for impending Carnival revelry.
Three Piece Spicy makes the Mother-in-Law Lounge feel like a house party during the band’s standing early-evening Monday gig, which starts at 7 p.m. Chafing dishes of chicken and red beans are laid out on side tables, and the crowd always seems to include a local brass band musician or Mardi Gras Indian (albeit in civilian attire) eager to sit in on drums or bellow along with the band.
Truly, though, if any bar is primed to foster that house party feel, it’s the Mother- in-Law Lounge. This Seventh Ward spot has always been about more than serving drinks and hanging out.
Ernie K-Doe started the lounge with his wife, Antoinette, in 1994, naming it for his most successful hit number from back in 1961. It served as a showplace for his comeback career as a local celebrity, and it was his throne room as he began calling himself "Emperor of the Universe." Antoinette, widely credited as the driving force behind his second act of stardom, was known as the "Empress of the Universe."
As the K-Doe photos, artwork and memorabilia expanded over the walls, the lounge began to resemble a grotto to his living legend. When he died in 2001, it quickly became a temple to his legacy, with Antoinette still behind the bar and increasingly at the helm of countless community events and benefits hosted under her roof. Since Antoinette’s death last year on Mardi Gras morning, the lounge is now run by her daughter, Betty Fox, and its role as secular shrine has expanded to cover both emperor and empress.
Just as before, the small, riotously colorful place attracts a diverse crowd, with solid contingents of musicians from K-Doe’s own generation and their groupies, neighborhood folks, adventurous travelers drawn by its mystique and local hipsters who still embrace the late couple as mascots of eccentric New Orleans. It is an over-the-top place, a tribute to a playful fantasy of rhinestone royalty and flamboyant showmanship.
The Mother-in-Law Lounge pulses along like this year-round, but it seems to come into flower at Carnival time. After all, that’s when New Orleans dons its own costumes, puts on its new Mardi Gras Indian suits, trots out its make-believe monarchs and finally catches up with the way K-Doe always seemed to roll.
Note: Tom Worrell will also play next Wednesday, Jan. 20, at the ongoing Professors Piano Night series at the Louisiana Humanities Center (938 Lafayette St., (504) 523-4352). The show begins at 7 p.m., and admission is $5.
Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge
1500 N. Claiborne Ave., New Orleans, (504) 947-1078