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The maddening crowd
Jason Raish Illustration

In a city that never changes, it seems anathema – even nonsensical – to point out that things are always changing here. It kind of follows the time-honored (and time-proven) notion of how New Orleans always gets everything wrong – but in all the right ways.

But you have to admit, there’s a certain charm to the unpredictability of life here in the cosmopolitan tropics. And a certain unpredictability to our charms.

For instance: It’s festival season. Which to attend? In the fall, the Fine Arts season kicks off. Which Arts District to patronize? At Mardi Gras: What krewe to join? Planning for a night of music? What street?

Dining out? Do the math. With three quarters of our pre-Katrina population, we have twice as many restaurants. Go figure.

These used to be simple questions with simple answers. In past eras, cultural and geographical monoliths like Jazz Fest, Julia Street, Rex, Bourbon Street and the Brennan family made those decisions for us. Now, where to invest your leisure time and money is dependent upon the circles which you occupy inside of New Orleans’ cultural Venn Diagram.

In recent years, the city’s food, music, arts and festival scenes have faced constantly shifting memberships, challenges, competition and allegiances. Much of it best characterized by the great 20th century philosopher Yogi Berra, who once said of a popular nightspot: It’s too crowded; nobody goes there anymore.

Let’s start with Bourbon Street. For decades, it was ground zero for the city’s entertainment industry. Until it became too commercial, with too many tourists. Too crowded. So nobody went there.

That begat Frenchmen Street, whose explosive growth and popularity in the aughts earned it the unfortunate designation as “Bourbon Street for Locals.” Until it became too commercial, with too many tourists. Too crowded.

Which begat St. Claude Avenue. “Frenchmen Street for locals,” they call it now. But it’s getting mighty busy down there these days, what with traffic at a crawl and parked cars piled up on the neutral grounds and the sidewalks packed with…crowds.

What St. Claude shall beget remains to be seen.

Sometimes things come full circle. Remember when Tipitina’s ruled the music scene? Then its financial troubles begat the Howlin’s Wolf’s ascendancy as the go-to place for rising national acts. Then the House of Blues muscled everybody out of the way. Now HOB is a tired and uneventful venue. In recent years, Gasa Gasa on Freret Street and Siberia on St. Claude started drawing the “in” crowd to hear the “in” bands.

And now, in a cosmic (literally) reboot, thanks to the investment by, and new ownership of the club by the local band Galactic (cosmic; get it?), Tipitina’s is rising from the ashes to reclaim its mantle as the high holy church of New Orleans sound and music.

Welcome back, Fess.

When the bohemians and creative classes who populated the French Quarter for decades were priced out in the late 20th century, they moved to the Marigny. When that became too expensive, they moved to the Bywater. Now, gentrification has made life for writers, artists and waiters unlivable there, forcing a mass migration to the 7th Ward.

And so on.

And now we’re on the cusp of Jazz Fest, the city’s crown jewel festival. Until, of course, it got too expensive and too commercial and too crowded. Which begat French Quarter Fest. Jazz Fest for locals. Which has become uncomfortably crowded.

Me, I prefer Bayou Boogaloo out on Bayou St. John. It’s French Quarter Fest for locals, but with kayaks and canoes. A designation which no doubt portends its ruination.

And don’t get me started on the seismic ascendancy of the “alternative” Mardi Gras, with its DIY mini-krewes and dance troupes celebrating James Brown, Chewbacca, shoe box floats, alt-rock monarchy, Elvis impersonators riding motorized recliners, the loa, weed, female genitalia, and galleries of Saints (real) and sinners (imagined).

They all make the 610 Stompers look as retro as, well…the 610 Stompers.

And Barkus has all but gone to the dogs.

It’s become impossible to know which underground krewes, clubs and co-ops to align with anymore to maintain one’s hipster cred. As the city shrinks, the bohemian buffet expands. The more things change, the more things change.

Except, of course, the Rolling Stones. The inscrutable Mount Rushmorians of rock and roll have been bestowed an unprecedented and newly minted Jazz Fest designation and honorific this year – a day essentially all to themselves.

It’s on the second Thursday of Jazz Fest. They used to call that “locals’ day.” Now it’s too crowded.

Beget that.


 

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