For years Saints fans have known the former Handsome Willy’s as a great place for drinks and eats close to the Dome with happy hour specials and DJ nights. However, as of last September, the venue has taken on new ownership and is now called Fontaine Palace. While much of the same laid-back neighborhood atmosphere remains, it has two new additions that are sure to generate a lot of excitement: Louie Fontaine and the Beat Machine.
Louie is a musician, nightclub owner, hotelier, one-time politician, and inventor from Copenhagen with an entrepreneurial green thumb. His fabulous Beat Machine, the largest mechanical drum machine in the world, is perhaps his crowning achievement and is settling into its new home at Fontaine Palace. It is a 15-foot wide, 10-foot high mechanical behemoth made of air tubes, drum parts, old chemical drums and 600 pounds of iron. It has a 2.5-horsepower motor that uses air pressure to manipulate 24 arms which can be programmed to play any song on the spot. Give it a Google and see for yourself. It’s sure to become a New Orleans must-see.
Louie built the Beat Machine in his father’s workshop in 1999, the product of his frustration with not being able to find the perfect drummer for his band. When he introduced it to the public it became an instant hit. Louie and the Beat Machine toured Europe for three years through 15 countries. The Beat Machine made its recording debut on the album Soul Satisfaction on Clean Sheets. Eventually Louie decided it was time to take the act to The United States, particularly to New Orleans.
Both Louie and the Beat Machine have a history with New Orleans. Louie is best known in town for his work with local legend Rockie Charles, the “President of Soul.” They worked on two albums, Evil Love and Don’t Bring the Kids, in 2003 and 2006. Over the years Louie has built a strong relationship with the local music scene, often booking New Orleans acts in his original Fontaine Palace in Latvia.
The Beat Machine had a much different experience coming to New Orleans. Apparently, when Fontaine tried to bring the Beat Machine to the U.S. for the first time, the FBI were so suspicious of its size and mechanics that they confiscated it. “This machine has a very hard history on U.S. soil,” says Fontaine. “When it first came here it was basically arrested by the FBI. That was right after 9/11 when everyone was so paranoid.” Things escalated further when the FBI then suspected that Louie was a terrorist. “They surrounded my house with about 15 combat soldiers thinking the Beat Machine was a bomb to blow up the Superdome. Everyone was questioned. All my emails were opened a year later. So I said goodbye United States, I’m not living here. That was the end of the Beat Machine here in the U.S. I think we played it one time for a private event. I took it back with me.”
After many years and a whole other life in Latvia, Louie and the Beat Machine have returned to New Orleans. This time around there was only a minor amount of trouble from the authorities. “The container was held back and had to be X-rayed. It stayed in customs for like three weeks. I had to pay thousands of dollars extra to get it out,” says Fontaine.
Fontaine Palace is the perfect place for Louie and the Beat Machine to set down roots in New Orleans. With its well-established reputation and a tucked-away, yet convenient location near Tulane Medical Center, visiting music fans and curiosity seekers will surely start wandering over to see the Beat Machine for themselves. “I just believe that it’s a piece of my life and I figured it deserves to be seen, because it hasn’t gotten the attention it should have,” says Fontaine.
He’s built the venue around the Beat Machine, giving it star billing several nights a week with his band and booking an eclectic mix of local and international touring acts to augment the schedule. With his longtime experience as a musician and a booker, you know he’s going to be bringing in some really great musicians. He’s even expanded the physical structure of the venue, refurbishing the front bar and indoor stage area and adding an outdoor deck area with plush seating shaded by a sprawling mulberry tree. Though it still offers the same kind of ambiance, drink specials, and pub food Handsome Willy’s became known for, it is clear that the venue will blossom under the influence of its new residents.
There are plenty of opportunities for Jazz Fest goers to hear the Beat Machine at Fontaine Palace over the two weeks of the festival, as well as many other acts, including a special performance from Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters with Les Getrex.
Louie Fontaine and the Beat Machine are performing at Fontaine Palace at 218 S. Robertson on April 27 and 28 at 10 p.m. and Midnight; April 30 – May 4 at 6, 9 and 11:30 p.m.; and May 5 at 1:30 a.m. Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters with Les Getrex are performing on Saturday, May 5 from 9–10 p.m.