New Orleans Music Saturday, Mar 1 2014 

It’s that time of year again. I got excited today because the March 1st temperature in New Hampshire climbed above freezing. I eat well, actually too well, on a regular basis, but the food I normally eat is nothing like that found in New Orleans. But the magnetic pull that I feel in the week before I head to the Crescent City is not the warmth or the red beans and rice: it is the music.

John Boutte, d.b.a., March 2011.

John Boutte, d.b.a., March 2011.

This is when I WWOZ’s Livewire daily to see what will playing while I’m there. I look at Nola.com, Gambit, and sites for individual music venues to see what will be happening. Te tragedy is that it will be more than I can take in; but that is the beauty of music of New Orleans. It is an embarrassment of riches.
I hear the drums and tambourines of the Mardi Gras Indians. I hear the funky growls of the brass bands. I see the nonverbal glances that jazz musicians pass to one another as they hand off the next solo. I am swept up in the joy of locals two stepping to zydeco at the Rock n Bowl. I see people twerking on front porches and dancing on roofs. And it makes me want to be there even sooner.

Most visitors to New Orleans miss the real music. They are to busy accepting that the crap on Bourbon Street is what there is to hear. They never experience Frenchmen Street because it is three blocks outside of the French Quarter. They miss out on Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. Kermit at Bullet’s. Big Freedia at Siberia. Or John Boutte at d.b.a.

Rites of Swing, Sunday afternoon at the Spotted Cat.

Rites of Swing, Sunday afternoon at the Spotted Cat.

As tragic as it is, I will not lose any sleep over their ignorance. I know it that as they are crowding some bar on Bourbon Street, drinking a watered down drink out of a plastic green hand grenade, listening to bad classic rock; I will be somewhere somewhere else. Listening to some of the best live music America has to offer.

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10 Things I Like About New Orleans Tuesday, Feb 26 2013 

St. Louis Cathedral from the Algiers Ferry.

St. Louis Cathedral from the Algiers Ferry.

OK, nearly in the “10 days to New Orleans” window. So much to do; so little time. Yet the anticipation is building.

So, let’s do a random, stream of consciousness exercise: name 10 things I like about New Orleans that are probably not on the radar of the average tourist. In no rational order:

1) The ferry to Algiers. You can hop on a free ferry from the end of Canal Street to Algiers, part of New Orleans, but more like a quaint village on the turn of the Mississippi.

2) Friday night fish fries during Lent. They are everywhere throughout southern Louisiana. The food is often great and the opportunity to meet and talk to locals is outstanding. Best combination ever: Friday night fish fry with my friends Bruno and Ani in Algiers.

Jazz Mass at St. Augustine's Church

Jazz Mass at St. Augustine’s Church

3) Jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Treme. Words can’t do it justice because you have to experience the sights and sounds for yourself. The sign of peace goes on the 15 minutes — and it ends too soon.

4) Grilled meat sandwiches at a second line parade. Never tried the grilled pork chop sandwich because the smell and taste of the grilled sausage sandwich is like heroin. Last year I found myself getting upset because the vendor did not make my sandwich fast enough.

5) Sunday afternoon at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street. Traditional tunes by the Rites of Swing, with vocals by the lovely Yvette Voelker. The vibe is almost as good as the afternoon sunlight coming through the windows.

Jackson Square.

Jackson Square.

6) Sitting on benches people watching. Favorite spots: Jackson Square, the Moon Walk along the River, and Washington Square Park in the Marigny.

7) Abita Amber in “go cups” from Fritzel’s Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street. It is pretty much the only thing that brings me to the touristy part of Bourbon Street when I’m in the French Quarter.

8) Hole in the wall po’boy shops. Jimmy’s, a gas station near I-610, where you can get an enormous, wonderful po’boy for well under $10 bucks. This year, I’ll be staying across the street from a combination tire dealer/po’boy shop in the Lower Ninth. I expect it to be fabulous.

Louis Armstrong statue, Louis Armstrong Park..

Louis Armstrong statue, Louis Armstrong Park..

9) Walking the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery. I don’t think my students get it, but I love walking the battlefield where a rag-tag army under Andrew Jackson defeated the British Army in January 1815. The adjacent cemetery, which mainly hosts the remains of African-American soldiers from the Civil War, is equally peaceful and moving.

10) Louis Armstrong Park. Recently reopened, it contains monuments to New Orleans cultural icons, from Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong to “Tootie” Montana. And then there are the ghosts of Congo Square.

I could come up with more, but it is time to go to bed. And I’m sure that in a few weeks, I’ll be able to come up with 10 more.

24 Hours in New Orleans Sunday, Apr 8 2012 

One of my favorite travel columns is in the Sunday New York Times; it is called “36 Hours in…whatever.” It can include places that I never thought of going to (until I read the column), but it always fun to see what the writer includes in a visit that last barely 24 waking hours. For cities I know, I generally quibble, but I’m prone to that anyway. And then a few weeks ago, they featured New Orleans, and my antennae were out…big time.

St. Louis #3 Cemetery, March 2011

Although I’m generally in New Orleans for a week or more or at time, I was impressed y what they included. And for the most part, they included things that I consider a must. And while I eschew the highfalutin bar and restaurant scene (first, I am of Scottish descent and second, the heart of New Orleans is its working class citizenry and I much rather eat and drink with them). They did include a visit to the cemeteries (check), a visit to the Lower Ninth (check), and various musical venues (check, check and double check). The one thing they included that I had not done was the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s in Treme, and I took care of that first chance [see: Cruising from New Orleans] However, when we returned to New Orleans, I had that karmic opportunity to experience my beloved city by the hour.

I was not awake, but because we were approaching the mouth of the Mississippi at midnight when I retired, I suspect we docked about 5:00 or 6:00 o’clock a.m. Our return flight was scheduled for 6:00 a.m., so we had exactly one day in New Orleans. If left entirely up to me, it would have been a mad, maniacal rush to cram as much in as possible. Luckily, my wife has common sense.

Jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, Treme, March 2012

We were all packed, bathed, dressed, had a full breakfast on board (seated, not the buffet), and were through customs before 8:00 a.m.

8:00 a.m.: we took a cab with our luggage to the Queen and Crescent Hotel on Camp Street. They were full, so I clearly expected to check our luggage and be put out on the street. However, they had a no show the night before and they checked us in! Luggage stowed. Bathroom. E-mail for the first time in a week. Glorious.

9:00 a.m.: we started across the French Quarter for our second trip to St. Augustine’s in as many weeks. It’s something to be in New Orleans and with a wild, hankering for a jazz mass. But it is worth it.

10:00 a.m.: the most moving, welcoming, mind blowing mass imaginable. From ushers, to alter server, to musicians, to the priest, it is perfection. Even though over half of the “participants” are guests, the mass is personal, welcoming, and an immensely spiritual experience. The sign of peace lasts for ten minutes. And hour and forty minutes, you are walking the streets of Treme so thankful for the experience you have had.

Congo Square Fest, Armstrong Park, March 2012

Noon: Louis Armstrong Park for Congo Square Fest. Food, music, crafts, and food. Food twice, because the fest is also the start of the Revolution Second Line, so you have all of the food and drink vendors that accompany such events. Fried chicken, beans and rice, and greens for lunch, $2.00 beers, Latin jazz, a shaded lawn, and a second line. What more could one want?

1:00 p.m.: Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club Second Line, with the To Be Continued Brass Band. OK, here is where having my wife along is a good thing. I could have been lost following this thing for miles, but we saw it off, had another beer and walked back through the French Quarter. A bright, Sunday afternoon. Royal Street resplendent with light and entertainment.

2:00 p.m.: Pat is resting comfortably. I do so for…15 minutes. We make plans to meet at the Spotted Cat at 5:00 p.m.

3:00 p.m.: OK, I left the “36 Hours in New Orleans (NY Times version)” compound. I grabbed a cigar and local brew and did some intense people watching, most of which focused on the…

Stella’s Balcony, Stella and Stanley Yelling Contest, March 2012

4:00 p.m.: Tennessee Williams Literary Festival “Stanley and Stella Yelling Contest.” I look at the videos from this every year and I wasn’t going to miss it the one time I was in town. It was hysterical from the time participants started lining up to register. Photographs don’t do it justice and as soon as I can figure out how to extract the video from my camera, I will share. Suffice it to say, how often do you see hundreds of people crowded around to hear theatrical yelling?

5:00 p.m. I got to the Cat a little early, but Pat was already there, besieged by a drunken opinionated carpenter with bad teeth. I’ve run into this guy before, so I felt bad, but once I got there, he decided to make an awkward, smelly, and argumentative exit. The wonderful Cindy, who was behind the bar, was most comforting and the music, by Yvette Voelker and the Rites of Swing was predictably enjoyable. By the time we left, I think Pat understood why I spend so much of my evening hours there.

Rites of Swing, Spotted Cat Music Club, March 2011

6:00 p.m.” Lovely evening to walk across the French Quarter. First on Chartres, then on Royal. Ended up at the Acme Oyster House, where there was a healthy wait. But we were there, it was nice, and there was a place nearby to get drinks, so why not.

7:00 p.m. After a wait, classic, modest, non New York Times dining. Shrimp po’ boy (her); fried oyster plate (me). Great food and exquisite company.

8:30 p.m.: OK, let me whisper this, very quietly, with a 3:00 a.m. wake up call, even I was willing to call it a day. We went back to our room, finished packing, and after an action packed day, made it an early night.

3:40 a.m.: Airport shuttle. And all that boring, yet frenzied stuff afterwards at the airport.

6:00 a.m.: flight home. Daylight shortly after.

24 hours in New Orleans.

Spotted Cat Music Club, Frenchmen Street, March 2008 Saturday, Jan 28 2012 

Yvette Voelker and Rites of Swing, Sunday afternoon performance, Spotted Cat Music Club, Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, March 2008. Photograph by Bill Ross.

A Super Week Tuesday, Mar 22 2011 

Late in the week one of my students asked me to rate this week. I have to admit, I was rather unprepared to give him a straight answer, plus I didn’t want to give him a big head. And over the last 48 hours, I’ve had a chance for it all to sink in; to reflect upon the week that was. It was my sixth spring break on the Gulf Coast since 2006 and yes, I think I am prepared to say this is the best.

Kyle and Molly, March 2011.

This bunch has been somewhat quiet in class, so I didn’t quite know what to expect, but their true colors came through over the past eight days. I believe they really “got” the experience. Add to that a group of experienced leaders who did their utmost to promote group cohesiveness. In addition, with Molly and Duncan, we had two experienced Operation Helping Hands leaders who were attentive both to the job and to the students’ potential as volunteers. Moreover, we had near perfect weather – no rain and temperatures in the high 70s. And finally, all 36 of us were able to work on two work sites less than a block apart. That in itself is a singular work experience.

So two days after the fact, I’d have to say yes: it was a super week.  But unfortunately, the thing that capped it off was something the students totally missed: Super Sunday.

Super Sunday, March 2011.

Most aficionados eschew the name “Super Sunday,” but that is how most in New Orleans refer to it. To put it correctly, let’s call it the Uptown Indian parade. But it was clearly super.

I spent the morning chilling in my air conditioned room. After walking the streets of Treme well after dark the night before, it was nice not to have morning plans or responsibilities. I ate the hotel sponsored breakfast – ok, I admit it, coffee and glazed donuts. And I organized my photos and videos.

Around noon I picked up my new friends, Jen and Brendan, who attended the blues brunch at the House of Blues. We headed Uptown where I parked near Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Simon Bolivar. We then walked up towards Washington and LaSalle, where the parade traditionally begins.  Since they were coming from a luxurious brunch, I broke away to have a sausage on French bread, with a beer. It was exquisite. And, as I was finishing my sandwich, the Indians began converging on the parade route.

Young Indian, March 2011.

Even though I have witnessed most “Super Sundays” since 2007, it is always a unique visual and aural experience. This year, I almost ignored the second line music, even though the Hot 8 Brass Band was playing. Instead, I found myself concentrating on the costumes and the Indian music. And in that, there was no way that I could be disappointed.

Jen, Brendan and I walked down Simon Bolivar, checking out the costumes of each tribe and listening to the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of each tribe. It was a hot, sunny day, so we prized the oak shaded neutral ground before the turn onto Martin Luther King.  Several miles and beers later, it was nothing short of awesome.

Molly and Duncan, Super Sunday, March 2011.

After we made the turn, Molly and Duncan, our Operation Helping Hands leaders, caught up with us. It was great to touch base with them and for them to enjoy this unique New Orleans experience. We all stood and watched as the parade made a turn back to the beginning. We had seen pretty much everything, so we broke off at that point.

Rites of Spring, Spotted Cat, March 2011.

I dropped Jen and Brendan at their hotel and headed back to the Hotel St. Pierre. I went down to Frenchmen ad caught the Rites of Swing at the Spotted Cat. I met a local couple and we spent some time exchanging notes about the local music scene.  Afterwards, I went for a lovely dinner of a half dozen oysters, seafood gumbo, and an Abita amber. It had been a long day and a long week, so after that I headed back to the Hotel St. Pierre and a quiet evening by the pool.

And all totaled, I knew it had not only been a Super Sunday, it had been a Super Week.

Frenchmen Street Saturday, Mar 5 2011 

I visited New Orleans three times before Katrina stuck in late August 2005. In those visits I dutifully stuck to conference hotels, the French Quarter, the Garden District, and one memorable visit to Treme for chef Austin Leslie’s collard greens and fried chicken. But, the rest of the city I usually saw from an airport limousine travelling on I-10.

That changed for the better when I returned for my first volunteer stint in March 2006. I was met by my friend Bruno who took me for po-boys at Domilise’s, to his rental home uptown, and for a heart-rending visit to his flooded-out home in Lakeview and the recently opened Lower Ninth Ward. He deposited me at a FEMA camp in St. Bernard Parish. I’m certain that, at that point, the volunteers at the camp that week outnumbered the parish residents who had returned.

Rites of Swing, Spotted Cat, March 2008.

One day, as we were gutting houses, one the young women in my group shared that  her friend had told her about a place called Frenchmen Street. It was not in the Quarter, but it was the place where locals went to hear real music. It was not the bad classic rock, zydeco, and stultifying jazz that make up most of what you hear on Bourbon Street. I didn’t have a car, but the first chance I had to get into the city, I went to Frenchmen Street.

It was in the Marigny, just to the east of the French Quarter. It was named to honor the Frenchmen who led the rebellion against the Spanish authorities who assumed control of New Orleans in 1762. A governor with a firmer hand had them summarily executed near where the street intersects with Decatur. History shows that he got his point across. But from this tragic beginning, this place has yielded wonder and joy.

If you like good music, Frenchmen Street is like no other. You don’t even have to enter one of the many establishments; you can walk from doorway to doorway, to hear blues or jazz or klezmer or brass band music – it stretches the imagination. Folks dance on  the tight dance floors or on the sidewalks outside. That first week, I kept going back to a disreputable pile of boards called the Spotted Cat. How in the Hell did this three story shack make it through a hurricane?

The Spotted Cat, March 2007.

But the building’s smoky, cash only innards were golden. It was loud, dirty and occasionally the toilets would flush, but for the price of couple of drinks you enter a world of great music and exquisite people watching. I became acquainted with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, the Pfister Sisters, Washboard Chaz and St. Louis Slim. I got to sit and talk to a wildly entertaining bartender named Bucky and watch as Uncle Lionel Batiste shuffled in, raised his bowler hat and did a soft shoe to the music. I was smitten, and years later my love has not diminished.

Snug Harbor. Apple Barrel, DBA. Blue Nile, Mimi’s and the rest. Frenchmen is a continuous, musical smorgasbord. But the Spotted Cat remains my favorite. Bucky is gone, but Uncle Lionel is still there. Along with a non-stop line of musical acts. So, when we head down at spring break, my students know where they can usually find me. It is my refuge; “The Street” is my office.

Praline Connection, Frenchmen Street, March 2009.

Frenchmen Street. From street performers, to street parades, to taco stands, to sidewalk cafes, to Creole food at the Praline Connection. And while I hesitate to invite anyone else to encroach upon my joy, to crowd my places of refuge beyond capacity, Frenchmen Street is opposite of Bourbon Street. If you like music and want to take the pulse of the city, you have to cross Esplanade and explore the Marigny. Frenchmen Street is where it’s at. Even CNN has discovered it; just in time for Mardi Gras!