My Dearest Stella:
I was filled with an overwhelming joy upon learning that you will be visiting the City of Sin for the Jazz Fest celebration. Knowing that you are a bohemian sort and a lover of good food and music, I’m sure you will want to spend as much time as possible wandering amongst the booths, tents and stages at the Fair Grounds.
However, you must not restrict yourself to just the Jazz Fest. Scattered across the Crescent City are dozens of fine establishments that offer a steady diet of the best jazz, blues, rock, pop and gospel found on the planet.
Although I won’t have time to take you around personally, any friendly local or cab driver should suffice. To provide you with a blueprint for your musical explorations, I recruited my friend Eddie (you remember Eddie, the hyper-charged drummer from Fresh Young Minds) and did a lightning-strike mini tour of some of New Orleans’ better music venues.
We were unprepared for the massive dose of authenticity that hit us at our first stop, the Islander’s Paradise Restaurant and Bar (2112 Elysian Fields Ave.). As we entered the nondescript wood-frame building that stands next to a fire station, we were broadsided with the smell of conch soup and the sounds of imported reggae and Caribbean dance tunes. It seems we had wandered into a sort of transported piece of Central America. Owner Carlton Stamp said many Caribbean immigrants visit his establishment. His DJ, Markus, is himself a recent arrival from Belize. The Plantation Posse, a reggae outfit, plays upstairs on Thursdays.
The culture shock between the Islander and our next stop would have killed lesser men, but Eddie and I were up to it. We arrived at Café Brasil (2100 Frenchmen St.) just as local pop-rock favorites Tribe Nunzio were finishing their opening set. I’ve been in Café Brasil—a big, white room garnished with occasional neon, local artists’ works and a tile floor—during improvisational jazz shows when less people were in the audience than on the stage. This night, though, it was packed to the gills with an uptown/Tulane, artsy/intellectual crowd.
Eddie and I found Pete Ficht, the House Levelers’ lead bassist, leaning against a car outside. We were chatting music when Eddie, for no apparent reason, suddenly cut in with a graphic description of some scenes in a new artsy X-rated film. The conversation was appropriate for Café Brasil, where as much coffee as beer is sold, even though “What matters is the stage—the beer is beside the point,” according to a bartender.
We stuck our heads into Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen St.) to catch some of Charmaine Neville’s midnight set. Snug is a legend around town…it’s small and intimate, and just the right kind of place to hear some of New Orleans’ modern jazz masters do their stuff. They also have killer burgers in the restaurant.
After the foreign flair of the Islander, the hipness of Café Brasil and the jazz at Snug, it was time for…the French Quarter.
Just a short walk away on lower Decatur Street is the Palm Court Jazz Café and Record Center (1204 Decatur St.). Nina Buck’s comfortable little jazz café has some of the best traditional jazz in town. Legendary jazzman Danny Barker had just finished his last set by the time we got to the Palm Court, so we walked on down Decatur to catch some tunes of a different sort.
We zipped into Jaxfest atop the Jax Brewery (the enormous structure near the River and Jackson Square) to investigate the piano bar, Singalong Sam’s. The music had ceased, but a waiter let us peak into the innards of the bar’s two electronic grand pianos—I had never seen one. Upstairs, the younger set was hard at work moving to the constant pulsations of the Hurricane Dance Club (“Ex-tasy, ex-tasy”). Not exactly live music, but live nonetheless. The view from the terrace is great for camera buffs and probably is worth a trip just for snapping some pix of the Quarter.
A pleasant surprise awaited us in the Bourbon Street Gospel and Blues Pavilion (227 Bourbon St.). Only open for three months, the club is the brainchild of Canadian Ian Hardcastle, whose life was changed forever by a 1972 visit to the Jazz Fest gospel tent. After moving here three years ago, he acquired a small French Quarter hotel and, eventually, the Bourbon Street property that formally housed Pete Fountain’s old club. His new venture is an open-air facility, with a huge canvas covering the stage and part of the patio, providing protection against the elements and a gospel-tent feel.
The “R&B Punch” (rum, Southern Comfort and fruit juices) or Spanish Coffee (coffee, Kahlua and brandy) sounded fun, but we were working.
From new gospel to old blues…we stepped back in time to the Old Absinthe House Bar (400 Bourbon St.), where blind bluesman Bryan Lee, along with and his Jump Street Five band, has been singin’ and playin’ his guts out for over six years. Founded in 1806, the club was a haunt of the British warlock Aleister Crowley, pirate Jean Lafitte and writer Mark Twain.
Since neither Eddie nor I are much of a dancer, we stopped, mostly out of curiosity, at Michaul’s (701 Magazine St.). For a Cajun dance hall, it’s in an odd location—in the Warehouse District, a brief cab trip from the Quarter. Michaul’s is cavernous, decorated with nets, crawfish and wooden pews—like a dance place in Breaux Bridge. The music sounded authentic, and by that time all the Cajun two-steppers had worked up quite a sweat on the dance floor (which resembles a small wooden football field—I guess you need lots of space for waltzing Cajun-style). Eddie and I were dragged onto the dance floor by a couple of the waitresses, who give Cajun dance lessons for free, and by God, we actually learned something. By that time the kitchen was closed, so we decided to ramble on in search of music and some edibles.
Late night—time for Uptown. Many clubs, not much time… let’s jump right in.
Muddy Water’s (8301 Oak St.): Down the street a large black dog was being thrown garbage, which he would rip to shreds and throw up in the air (late night entertainment, folks!). Inside, George Porter, the Meters’ bassist, had just finished a show with the Runnin’ Pardners. George had stripped down to a T-shirt and was chatting with admirers near the stage. Eddie said Muddy Water’s is one of the best places to play. After this observation, we sat around and traded rumors about various New Orleans musicians before heading across the street to…
The Maple Leaf: Basically, two long, narrow, pressed-tin-ceilinged rooms (and a pleasant patio out back), with chess tables near the door. A reputation for excellent Cajun and zydeco shows.
Jimmy’s (8200 Willow St.): Brick building that is one of the better rock venues in town. Just a few blocks over from The Leaf and Muddy Water’s, Jimmy’s was voted New Orleanians’ “Favorite Club” in last year’s Gambit Big Easy Awards and “Best Club” by a Reader’s Poll of Musician Magazine. Jimmy’s has been around a long time, and has hosted some of the biggies: everybody from Professor Longhair to the Radiators to Iggy Pop.
Carrollton Station (8140 Willow St.): Across from Jimmy’s, a cozy joint with good blues, R&B, rockabilly and sometimes modern jazz.
And finally, Benny’s (938 Valence St.): Just when you can’t take any more, it’s time to chill with a longneck and jam in what was once somebody’s living room. Benny’s is a gutted house in the Neville Brothers’ old neighborhood that kicks until around 4 a.m. The rockabilly blues of the Backsliders or the R&B of Wes Raven and the Kingbees is the way to end the night, although I once saw a French horn player straight from his gig with the N.O. Symphony sit in with a reggae band, which was pretty cool too.
There is more, but Eddie and I had enough. This should get you started. Although Eddie and I didn’t make it, we think you should check out the bizarre and recently hip-trendy Rock ‘N’ Bowl show at the Mid-City Lanes. Boogie and/or bowl a few sets. Can’t focus on the bowling pins? Dance on the bar—it’s been known to happen. And of course you know about Tip’s, the legendary shrine that holds the record for Densest Crowd at a Neville Brothers Show.
Looking forward to seeing you and letting you spring for the drinks…