Small Spaces with Big Heart on Frenchmen Street

Frenchmen Street is big-time these days, yet part of the charm of this nightlife strip is how small-scale and intimate some of its best clubs remain.

The sad news last week of Coco Robicheaux’s untimely death brought this home in a dramatic way. The hoodoo blues singer has fans around the world and a personal legend bordering on the mythic. And yet there seemed always to be an even shot of running into the guy during any random stroll down Frenchmen Street, especially one that detoured into the Apple Barrel, the hole-in-the-wall bar where he performed frequently and would hang out even more often. 

But that’s Frenchmen Street. The three blocks stretching from Esplanade Avenue to Washington Square Park is nightlife central, now dutifully documented in travel guides and on the list for any well-informed traveler with taste for New Orleans music. And still it remains a very real place – a short, densely-packed corridor of New Orleans culture where all walks of life mix it up.

In the music realm particularly, it’s a place where legends are within arm’s reach, and where you can easily bump into them at the bar or outside on the sidewalk between sets. Meanwhile, the hard-working talents who keep the New Orleans music scene so vibrant — and perhaps a few of tomorrow’s legends in the making — find a nightly stage here.

Those stages are, in many cases, tiny. They’re set within venues that weren’t built to be music halls, but buildings that were first used as storefronts, offices, maybe even homes – now converted into restaurants and bars. Music flows through open doors, you can often preview an act through the old storefront windows and the velvet rope scene of big nightclubs seems very far away.

One of the newer additions to Frenchmen Street follows this spirit down the line. Three Muses opened in 2010 as a combination bar, restaurant and music venue. That’s a lot under any roof, but here it’s all orchestrated in a narrow room about the size of a starter apartment. While waitresses carry around orders of tapas from the kitchen, musicians perform on a stage hard against the windows.

There’s an upright piano wedged up there by the door somehow, and it seems it will be getting a workout soon. The piano-led blues, jazz and R&B group the Bill Malchow Trio performs there tonight, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Malchow has been backing up acts all over town lately, and tonight marks the debut of his own trio, which includes Iguanas alums Joe Cabral and Doug Garrison.

The whole month’s schedule at Three Muses looks pretty impressive. This weekend alone, the vintage stylized singing sounds of the Pfister Sisters share a bill with New Orleans jazz wild man Glen David Andrews on Friday, Cabral returns to start things off on Saturday with St. Louis Slim following, and Helen Gillet performs Sunday.

Next week on Dec. 9, New Orleans piano virtuoso Tom McDermott will begin playing a weekly happy hour set at Three Muses starting at 4:30 p.m. on Thursdays. McDermott is a mesmerizing player, and the opportunity to see him in so intimate a setting is worth cutting out of work early to catch.

Small Spaces with Big Heart on Frenchmen Street

Photo by Ian McNulty

Just down the street, another piano legend will be sitting down for an arms-length show this weekend. Jon Cleary is on the schedule at d.b.a. this Friday, Dec. 1, for an early solo show starting at 7 p.m. Cleary does sets like this periodically, and they’re reliably amazing. Easy access to such world-class gigs are part of the joy of living in New Orleans, and certainly the enduring appeal of Frenchmen Street.

Three Muses
536 Frenchmen St.
(504) 298-8746

618 Frenchmen St.
(504) 942-3731

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