Sitting, or more often standing, in Preservation Hall, it’s tempting to think that a single tube of caulking might ruin the place.
The physical condition of the historic music venue is famously threadbare, going way past weathered patina. It is a cultivated look rather than an active wasting away, part of a timeless ambiance that has become part of the fascination of this place for generations of music-lovers.
At least during the last generation or so, those music-lovers have come largely from the ranks of tourists. But it’s a mistake for locals to relegate Preservation Hall to out-of-towners. A visit here is a unique experience, and knowing how to handle its peculiarities makes it all the more enjoyable.
Lately, the hall has been inviting a greater diversity of local musicians to perform in its nightly shows, which seems like a bid to lure more locals through its carriageway gates. It worked for us last weekend, when our little group of four made an outing to see local jazz singer Ingrid Lucia.
We approached the place as neophytes. Of the four people in our party, only one had been to the hall recently and two had never been at all. We knew the basic drill was that people queued up outside prior to the hall’s 8 p.m. opening time to vie for a small number of seats. We knew the hall served no drinks and had no heat or air conditioning beyond the action of a few ceiling fans. What we didn’t know was how easy and fun our visit would be.
It was a chilly Sunday in the Quarter, and there were few people around. There was no line when we arrived just before 8 p.m., so we ducked into the nearby bar Finnegan’s Easy to have a pre-show drink.
Surprise No. 1 came when we found we were allowed to bring our go-cups of beer into Preservation Hall. This cleared up the “no bar” problem. We also learned our $10 tickets allowed re-entry, so the set breaks could become cocktail breaks for us. We were pleased to see signs advertising a no-smoking policy.
It being a slow night, we had our choice of sitting on stiff, durable mats on the floor or on benches that look as though they were pulled from a rural chapel. We picked the mats and found ourselves right underneath Ms. Lucia and her band as they began the show.
The stripped-down ambiance of the room is important not just in setting an antiquated mood. It also puts you very close to the performers. It has a way of riveting the attention. Those who have strained to hear favorite musicians perform through a miasma of chatter and cigarette smoke will especially appreciate the focus and clarity here. Even though Ms. Lucia was singing through a tinny vintage microphone attached to a guitar amplifier, she was transmitted directly and intimately to her audience, who laughed along with her jokes and smiled at the gently bawdy references in some of the classic old jazz numbers.
After 45 minutes came the first set break. No one has to leave, but most people wander outside at this point or jockey for better seating. Ask for the restrooms and you’re directed to Pat O’Brien’s next door, which does a brisk business serving cocktails to (and handling the inevitable associated needs of) Preservation Hall visitors during each evening’s two set breaks. In fact, the whole 700-block of St. Peter Street serves as a concession area of sorts for the hall.
Boondock Saint, an Irish-style pub, is directly across the street and is an ersatz green room for some of the musicians. On our visit, we knew it was time to request go-cups and head back to the hall when we saw Ms. Lucia depart from her own perch at the bar and stroll across the street.
She had been talking at the bar with another local jazz singer, Ellen Smith, and during the last set she was invited up as a guest for a few numbers. This casual familiarity, where it appears that friends simply drop in to join the performance as casually as calling on a cousin on a Sunday evening, plays on another authentic strength of the New Orleans music scene. Our musicians do know each other, perform with each other often and support each other. Even in the rather rigid format of a Preservation Hall show, with its carefully timed sets, you really never know who might show up and take the mic next.
We will certainly be back, and in fact embracing this singular place felt a bit like reclaiming part of our New Orleans heritage.
Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., New Orleans, LA 70116, 504-522-2841