I could hear a piano tuning up inside BJ’s Lounge even as I walked toward this weathered old Ninth Ward dive the other night. It didn’t have much competition from other sounds. It was a hot, drowsy Monday down near the bottom of the Bywater. All around, the streets were dead, televisions glowed blue behind window shades and cars were parked for the night.
But one person’s night to stay in is another’s night to party, and it seemed the crowd that materialized at BJ’s came ready to do the latter. Monday at BJ’s has been the standing gig for a while now for King James and the Special Men and soon they would have the place rocking to vintage New Orleans R&B as that piano got going for real and found company with electric guitars, drums and a deep, bellowing sax.
BJ’s Lounge is a neighborhood joint for the ages, a craggy old den with a corner entrance, faded clapboard siding and all windows either covered by plywood or occupied by wheezing air conditioning units. Inside, this small place feels a bit cramped even when it’s practically empty, thanks to the patina of clutter. The bar stools are ratty, the bathrooms are worse and the drink options are cheap and straightforward. There’s a pool table in the corner, a bank of video poker machines and shelves of well-worn paperbacks. Little Freddie King, our senior senator of the blues guitar, plays here often, but usually BJ’s is a quietly funky watering hole, a repository of neighborhood stories and neighborhood characters that every corner of New Orleans needs. Back when the nearby riverfront docks were the main venue of employment, Bywater bars like this were where the shift ended.
It’s the kind of place you can safely assume will provide a slow cooker of red beans and rice on a Monday night, and indeed there was one in the corner this time. But since King James and the Special Men started playing here, Monday’s are also when a young crowd turns up to dance to New Orleans tunes from way back.
King James is Jimmy Horn, and the Special Men are a collection of local musicians, all better known from local outfits like the New Orleans Jazz Vipers and the New Orleans Cotton Mouth Kings. Even if you can’t quite put faces to the names Robert Snow, Bruce Brackman, Dominic Grillo and John Rodli, if you frequent Frenchmen Street clubs or follow the local swing scene you should recognize their faces from those bandstands.
As the Special Men, they plug in, amp up and get into a very different songbook, one propped open to old school, down and dirty R&B from the likes of David Bartholomew and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Chris Davis handles drums and Casey McAllister (of the Happy Talk Band) was the guy I’d heard earlier warming up the piano – a battered, upright, open face instrument that seems as much a part of the wall behind it as a mantle piece. Even when heard live, these songs seem to have the crackle and hiss of the old 45s that DJ Billy Delle spins on his Records from the Crypt radio show.
The Special Men roster adds up to a lot of personnel packed into the tight confines of BJ’s, and all the firepower shows. This is blustery, bare knuckle, barroom R&B that comes on strong, and Jimmy Horn is not bashful about calling people up to dance.
The crowd hardly seems to need encouragement though. By 11 p.m. the place was in full swing, with patrons running two-deep at the small bar, hefting bowls of red beans from the communal pot and filling up the ersatz dance floor before the band. Like a service industry night of sorts, there were
familiar faces from other bars all around the room.
All well-known, the jazz musicians were clearly having a blast playing outside their customary genre, and bartenders from the area were partying on the leisurely side of the bar. For many, Monday marks the quiet start of the work week. But for others, it’s a time to cut loose after a weekend of long, hard shifts.
4301 Burgundy St., New Orleans, 504-945-9256
King James and the Special Men play Mondays, beginning around 10:30 p.m.