The Hi Ho Lounge, one of the anchor clubs of the St. Claude entertainment district, has been sold to the owners of the Frenchmen Street restaurant Maison.
Brian Greiner and Jeff Bromberger’s partnership officially took over the operation of the Hi Ho in early February from John Hartsock and his wife Lori Bernard, who still own the building at the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Marigny Street. Greiner has experimented with his bookings during his time operating Maison, rolling numerous bands and DJs through the venue.
“We were initially hired to do the booking and promotion by the previous owner of ‘Maison de la Musique’ in August 2009,” said Greiner. “When he was unable to run the venue anymore, we were able to acquire ownership in November of that year.” Since that time Frenchmen Street has become more and more of a high volume tourist destination, but Greiner sees the St. Claude district as a different market that is still in the developmental stage. “There will definitely be some crossover [bookings] even though they are much different audiences,” said Greiner.
“People on Frenchmen Street love that New Orleans sound… jazz, brass, funk etc. I think you can do a lot more variety on St. Claude… rock, bounce, electronic, hip hop, metal, punk… that the Frenchmen crowd wouldn’t embrace as much. But the New Orleans music scene is pretty diverse in that you may have someone who plays in a jazz band who also plays in a rock band, so there will be crossover in that regard. I think Hi Ho will give us a chance to discover bands that would be great with the Frenchmen crowd that we might not have known about otherwise. We are also excited to work with a lot of bands and people we haven’t had as much opportunity to work with as we would have liked on Frenchmen.”
Hartsock was in an expansive mood as he hosted his last Mardi Gras party at the Hi Ho, serving pulled pork and turkey to his guests and members of the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra and Red Baraat. Hartsock’s eccentric taste and homespun approach to booking the Hi Ho made it one of the city’s most unpredictable venues and the ideal home for the MGIO. “We’ve had a great time here,” he said. “I’m relieved to see it end on such a positive note.”
The Orchestra was celebrating its fifth renewal, finishing Fat Tuesday with a flourish as Chief David Montana, wearing a white suit, fronted the band during a spirited final set that touched on the sacred music of “Indian Red,” the 19th century verses of “Little Liza Jane” and a new chant that Montana made up on the spot. The band itself sounded at its best whether backing Montana and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes or on hypnotic jams that ranged from funk vamps to harmelodic collective improvisation. The players knew this music by heart. Bassist Reggie Scanlan’s background playing New Orleans R&B and its second line rhythms with Professor Longhair prepared him to work as a fulcrum for the juggernaut of beat syncopation he partnered with drummer Kevin O’Day, and his bandmate in the New Orleans Suspects, keyboardist C.R. Gruver. Guitarist Camile Baudoin, who played with Scanlan in the Radiators, is the perfect accompanist for Indian funk, playing wicked rhythm patterns and fills. When Baudoin did step out you knew it, but he never overplayed.
The instrumental stars of the show were the universalist Tim Green on tenor saxophone and the ever-evolving Helen Gillet on cello. Gillet wore a white suit and played a white cello in the first set, then returned dressed in black and playing a natural wood finish cello. In addition to her virtuoso playing, Gillet sang Indian choruses and repeatedly jumped up from her chair to urge the raucous crowd on. Jazz and Heritage Fest scouts at the show told the band to be ready to close out opening day at the Heritage stage.
Hartsock, a millwright by trade, used his skills to rescue and remodel the fabled nightspot from the ravages of the 2005 flood. He and Bernard, who managed Cosimo’s French Quarter bar, ran the place together, but now have two young children and decided that the bar business was taking too much time from the family. Last year the Stooges Brass Band, who played a popular Thursday night residency at the Hi Ho, tried to take over management of the club, but when that arrangement didn’t pan out Greiner and his partners stepped in. Before the Maison, Greiner owned Handsome Willy’s bar and ran a nightlife promotion business called New Orleans Partying from 2007 to 2009. Bromberger was the GM of Ampersand Bar and Greiner’s brother Russ managed Lucy’s and Fellini’s.
The team has established itself as a force on Frenchmen Street. “I feel we built our presence on Frenchmen Street by doing stuff no one else was doing,” Greiner said. “Obviously our no-cover format has been great for exposing the next generation of Nola bands to a wider audience. Bands like Earphunk, Yojimbo, Brass-A-Holics to name a few are really starting to get recognition. We have also had hundreds of great national bands of all different genres come through from big names like Snoop Dogg to rising indie stars like Purity Ring.”
The changes in the music scene on Frenchmen are becoming obvious, as the eccentric, laid-back atmosphere of the city’s traditional entertainment industry is being influenced by younger entrepreneurs. To be sure, some of the nature of the city’s indigenous club music may get lost in the process, and the bohemian vibe of St. Claude may also be a thing of the past before too long. The homogenization of American culture is an inexorable historic inevitability, and New Orleans is apparently no longer immune to it.