Standing on the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Marigny Street on a Monday evening, it’s hard to believe that just inside the door of the Hi Ho Lounge, a menagerie of bluegrass and old-time country musicians are gathering, tuning their guitars, lifting banjos from cases and putting rosin on their soon-to-be sawing fiddle bows.
But once inside, and as the deep-roots music cranks up, it’s suddenly hard to fathom how the inner-city scenes of Faubourg St. Roch could persist all around this rustic diamond in the urban rough.
Monday is the night for the Bluegrass Pickin’ Party, an ad hoc jam session that is free and open to all who want to jump in with their acoustic instruments or just listen to the tunes from the bar. A big pot of red beans and rice, the New Orleans Monday night tradition, awaits self-service on a folding table sideboard for a nominal dollar charge.
There’s no guarantee week to week just who will show up or how large the jam session circle will grow, but the crowd is reliably diverse. As rap music thuds from the overgrown stereos of passing cars, middle-age professionals with serious bluegrass hobbies haul banjos and mandolins in from their sedans. From the hatchback of a tiny German sports car comes a huge, upright bass and out of a station wagon tumbles a lady with an assortment of stringed instruments. Young men and women who appear fresh out of college set up their own instruments and look to whoever is leading the next song, or just jump in along the way. Locals dusting off their old instruments for the first time in years, traveling talent with a free night and session musicians with a soft spot for bluegrass tunes are all in the mix.
There are story songs and working songs, train whistle sound effects, group sing-alongs, ballads and solos. And there seems always to be an intense game of dominos going on at the corner of the bar nearest the beer taps.
The Hi Ho Lounge had long been an oddball fixture in the New Orleans nightlife scene, with a past more notorious than noted. Raucous local bands like the Morning 40 Federation played early shows here and built a following, and the room often hosted performance art and even traveling freak shows. There was an anything-goes feel to the place, which was about as nicely done up as a frat house basement. Not even the most halcyon nostalgic view could cloud the fact that the old Hi Ho Lounge was a dingy pit, a place of unpleasant ambient odors, deteriorating furniture and low drop ceilings.
John Hartsock and Lori Bernard bought the business in the spring after Hurricane Katrina, when the future of this and many other one-time New Orleans fixtures were in doubt. They planned to reopen it as a neighborhood bar, but had a somewhat different idea for its potential. Hartsock is a millwork craftsman, specializing in complex turned carpentry pieces, and there’s no missing his master’s touch throughout the place today. Freshly restored and newly installed woodwork glow with amber warmth. The Hi Ho’s original Deco-style bar itself was restored to its rightful glory, and period light fixtures hang from the towering ceiling, where gleaming wooden planks give the room’s acoustics a surprising boost.
It’s the kind of open, welcoming room that could host any sort of gathering and in the few years since reopening, the Hi Ho has certainly racked up an impressively diverse array. There is a good deal of the punk, the edgy and the downright experimental going on here, just as before. But now the Hi Ho regularly hosts community gatherings, including after-parties for second line parades and offbeat events like the "Not-So-Super Super Hero Party," where guests dress as dysfunctional comic champions. Burlesque dance troupes and stage productions of some (far) off-Broadway plays visit the Hi Ho as well. The line-up of music for any given month ranges from DJs to touring hardcore bands (with names that can’t appear on a family-friendly blog) to deeply traditional acts, like the Ivory Coast sounds of Seguenon Kone or the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of New Orleans street culture.
Which brings us full circle to the traditional bluegrass music on Mondays. New Orleans is not known as a bluegrass or country music hub, but those who love to hear the music or play it, and those trying to learn, have been finding their way to the Hi Ho on Mondays. For anyone who thought they were alone with their mandolin in this city of the jazz trumpet and funk guitar, there’s a spot waiting in the jam session circle here.
The Hi Ho Lounge is located at 2239 Saint Claude Ave., and the phone number is 504-945-4446. Red Beans and Blue Grass Pickin’ Party is held each Monday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. No cover.