In these post-flood years, New Orleanians have racked up an extraordinary amount of practice comparing then to now. From the look of childhood homes and favorite restaurants to the condition of entire neighborhoods, we’ve grown accustomed to the imprecise, often nostalgia-laced measurement of how things were before the levee failures, how the flood left them and what has become of them since –– for better or worse.
Such experience is helpful when entering the new Rock ‘n’ Bowl (née Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl), the music club/bowling alley that for 21 years had done business about a mile-and-half up the road from its present address.
The original Rock ‘n’ Bowl suffered relatively little damage from the Katrina flood because it was located high up in the second floor of its old Mid-City building. Being a second-floor bowling alley was just one of the improbable details of the place. But last April, following a long-running lease dispute, owner John Blancher built an all-new Rock ‘n’ Bowl at Earhart Boulevard and South Carrollton Avenue, taking over the old Helm paint store and shortening the club’s official name to reflect its new neighborhood. It signaled a new chapter in an unlikely journey for this eminently New Orleans institution.
Blancher, a New Orleans native, bought the old Mid-City Lanes from the Knights of Columbus in 1988 when the 1940s-era bowling alley was all but abandoned. After nearly going bankrupt trying to revive it, he began booking live music, and in time the place was a destination for locals and tourists. In particular, he carved out a niche for the club as a zydeco venue in a city where indigenous jazz, blues and funk are far more prevalent. Before long, Rock ‘n’ Bowl became the local showcase for the big name zydeco players touring from the Creole music heartland of Acadiana. Swing, swamp pop and New Orleans R & B also played big on the Rock ‘n’ Bowl calendar, and the club was the original venue for the Ponderosa Stomp, a grassroots music festival.
The original Rock ‘n’ Bowl was a quirky, iconic piece of the New Orleans nightlife. It was hard to imagine how it could be re-created down the street at a new address. Yet while the new club looks quite different from the original, it feels remarkably the same, thanks in part to a collection of vital components that made the move; a floor plan modeled closely on the old place; and, more than anything, a similar spirit brought to its doors by patrons and stoked by the bands and management.
This new Rock ‘n’ Bowl is much, much larger, and the metal warehouse that forms its shell can make the hall seem cavernous. The vintage patina of the old place –– the solid, big-boned original engineering and generations of patched-up repairs, the feeling that you were drinking Abita in the kind of place where your grandfather might have lolled back Jax bottles on post-war bowling nights –– is gone. But a big part of the Rock ‘n’ Bowl appeal always was the interplay of the people, often of different generations, mixed with the bands on stage and the rumbling, clattering bowling action across the room. That is alive and well at the new Rock ‘n’ Bowl.
Show up on any given night, enter through the unusual cabin-style front door, make your way down the long hallway lined with framed memorabilia and emerge into the huge new space, and you’re still likely to see people of three generations rocking and bowling together while distinctive Louisiana music fills the air. As with the old Rock ‘n’ Bowl, this new place is one of the growing number of local night spots to voluntarily prohibit smoking. Add a kitchen, the happy pursuit of bowling and earlier start times for bands (8:30 p.m. is the weeknight norm, 9:30 p.m. on weekends), and it’s easy to see why Rock ‘n’ Bowl draws a diverse crowd.
If you had a mental map of the old Rock ‘n’ Bowl layout, it still applies here, though on a larger scale. The stage, the dance floor, the bar and the bowling lanes are all situated on the same basic plan as they were down the street. The cove of tables at stage left has been re-created, and it is once again lined with the great mural of nostalgic New Orleans scenes, a work of art by Tony Green that Blancher commissioned back in 1991 and which was painstaking removed and reinstalled here.
The music mix remains on target, as well. Bayou bluesman Tab Benoit plays this week’s big New Year’s Eve show, but otherwise the Thursday zydeco night tradition continues. Look for young Creole accordion studs Lil’ Nathan, Chris Ardoin and Geno Delafose booked for successive weeks in January.
This new space does not yet have the accumulated grit of its oddly endearing predecessor. But in a community that has shouldered a vast amount of unforeseen change in these recent, roiling years, Rock ‘n’ Bowl is a happy example of how the seemingly irreplaceable can be successfully reimagined.
Rock ‘n’ Bowl, 3016 S. Carrollton Ave., 861-1700