Monday morning I awoke for the last time in my big, comfy bed in the Hilton with a cold still clawing at my throat thanks to Saturday night’s debauchery; but I at last felt rested and filled with possibility. Today, after all, was Lundi Gras.
YES MA’AM, THOSE ARE IN FACT BLACK MEN IN BLACK FACE
For most of its history, the day before Mardi Gras was an off-day filled with scarce activity. In 1987, however, the King of Rex, Mardi Gras’ oldest Krewe that parades Mardi Gras morning, resumed an old tradition of arriving via boat the day before Mardi Gras. At the same time, a journalist had stumbled on an obscure term used in a remote neighborhoods and attached it to the festivities. Thus Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) was born and carnival season took its next quantum leap forward. The revived arrival now took place at the gigantic Riverwalk Marketplace (what would have seemed science fiction absurdity in the early twentieth century when Rex last arrived via water) and grew into a day of concerts and festivities. Soon King of Zulu began to meet with the King of Rex upon his arrival, though I’ve yet to stumble upon just how far back this tradition dates. Zulu, an African-American organization born out of defiance much like the Indians, is the second-oldest marching Krewe, thus making this meeting a mildly reassuring gesture (though only mildly ’cause it feels like just that–a gesture) of racial unity during an event largely dominated by white riders wearing hoods and robed costumes (no one said Mardi Gras can’t be oddly creepy too.) Of all these robed and hooded parade costumes, Rex’s are the most regal, but their lack of clownishness actually gives them more implied menace, and it doesn’t help that Rex’s lieutenants ride on horseback.
Nevertheless, Rex and Zulu do meet and Zulu is now one of the most if not the most anticipated parade of the season. Zulu began when, barred from mainstream celebration, revelers from traditionally black neighborhoods began to dress in silly costumes to mock stereotypes thrust upon them and to mock the lavish parades from which they were barred. First-timers are often shocked to see riders in black-face, gaudy afro wigs, and cartoonish props such as gigantic plastic cigars but, much like the re-appropriation of a term I shall refrain from using, Zulu originally reflected these stereotypes back at the white community in defiance. Now Zulu, while holding to their roots for parts of its route, proudly rolls down St. Charles to Canal like all the great krewes. Times have changed, but the make-up hasn’t. But I think I’ve well established that Mardi Gras is comfortable with contradiction yet not with political correctness.
THE RISE OF FAT MONDAY (AS IF NEW ORLEANS NEEDED ANOTHER EXCUSE TO PARTY!)
As concerts flourished in the wake of Rex’s renewed river arrival (originally snuffed out by WWI and never revived for reasons unknown), Zulu followed suit in 1993 by establishing their own festival that is currently held on the other side of Uptown in the Audubon Park area. While Cowboy Mouth, an all time N’Awlins favorite of mine, was playing right outside my hotel at Riverwalk, Zulu was hosting two other of my local favorites, Kermit Ruffins and Rebirth Brass Band (along with BTE, that makes 4 of my N.O. top 5!) across town, providing me a tough Lundi Gras decision that was ultimately decided by proximity.
The Super Krewe Orpheus, founded in part by Harry Connick Jr., cinched Lundi Gras’ place in the Mardi Gras pantheon when it formed twenty years ago to host what has become one of Mardi Gras’ biggest and most beloved parades, rolling Lundi Gras night. The actual parade ends in the convention center where the gigantic Orpheus Ball, open to the public (for a price–and a substantial one) is raging. The ball includes a line up of concerts, this year headlined by Connick himself.
AN IDIOT’S GUIDE TO MAKING YOURSELF MISERABLE HAVING FUN
So with all this excitement in store I immediately got up and . . . took my time packing and organizing. I had to be out by noon and was trying to meet with a Krewe of Rocckus member for an interview about her international travels. The morning melted away before I knew it, and when I showed up downstairs at 11:15 breakfast was over. I walked over to the main restaurant and sat down with a menu, but I had little appetite for the heavy seafood offered and less appetite for the heavier prices attached. What had begun as a morning of new optimism began to fade into yesterday’s malaise. I retreated to the coffee shop on the next floor where I had been forced to post all my articles (the only free Wifi in the hotel) and tried to make a simple change to the blog–adding a ‘HOME’ button up top per the advice of a friend and fellow blogger back in Jax. As is often the case with web tinkering, a simple fix threw my page into chaos and I was forty-five minutes wringing my hands and cursing at my computer before I figured out how to repair the damage from my simple five-minute update. Barbara soon arrived for her interview and I tried to put on a happy face, knowing breakfast was nowhere in sight.
By the time I wrapped up our chat and checked my luggage in with the bell desk, it was well after one o’clock as I dragged my computer case down Poydras seeking breakfast. Knowing the Ruby Slipper had no connectivity I headed to the Quarter. It was an overcast day promising intermittent showers, yet I passed several promising spots hoping to reach the Camilla Grill’s new location two-thirds the way down Chartres Street. When I arrived the line was around the block. I turned and headed back towards the hotel. Cowboy Mouth would take the stage at 4:30 and I wanted to post something beforehand, but it was already after two by the time I found a seat at a sliver of a table barely inside the door of the Fleur de Lis Cafe where I banged out my article while chewing on a dry omelette and bland potatoes and hoping for rare-as-Sasquatch-sightings coffee refills. Another disappointing meal in a city that rarely dispoints and, of course, no connectivity, so I would have to trudge back to the Hilton if I hoped to get my interview online.
As I arrived back at the hotel, I was angry at myself. This whole adventure was supposed to be fun, yet I had near-wrecked my health Saturday night and now I was stressing myself into a funk. Still, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read Mardi Gras articles two months after the fact, so I felt compelled to keep posting and telling people how much fun I was having, no matter how miserable it made me. Trying to relax, I bought a bloody mary in the hotel lobby to sip as I posted, but as I set up in the coffee shop, I realize I’d left my power cord in my room and my computer was dying. How could I do this at a time when my computer was my lifeline?! I went to the front desk who sent me to the bell desk who sent me to the community phone to talk to lost & found (not turned in) who send met upstairs looking for housekeeping (no luck) where I talked a bellman into lettin me in the room (no cord), who sent me back to to the community phone to track down housekeeping who put me on hold forever. Finally, after another frantic hour wasted, my cord was rescued off a housekeeper’s cart. By this point, I could have cared less how my article read as I joylessly posted it.
THEY CAN’T STOP THE RAIN, BUT THEY SURE CAN SAVE YOUR SOUL!
The sky was still darkening as I exited the hotel and headed to the river front for the show. A local weatherman took the stage as I arrived and assured us the worst had passed to the north–we’d get only light showers, but the sky was as dim as my mood. Things were looking dour, but fortunately I knew enough to know where to be. Cowboy Mouth was about to take the stage led by Fred LeBlanc, a manic singer/drummer who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer when inviting his audience to celebrate life. The band always brings the energy of manic punk band, though infused with positivity and perseverance rather than anger and aimless rebellion. The music, though all rock, is a rich blend of local styles delivered with gospel zeal. The greatest concert review line ever–with which I agree 100%–sums up this high energy quartet perfectly:
“On a bad night they’ll tear the roof off the joint and on a good night, they’ll save your soul.”– Cake Magazine
A veteran of countless Mouth shows and line-ups (I miss Paul, but that’s neither here nor there), I can testify that these guys (and gal) muster a tent-revival energy rivaled only by Bruce Springsteen, in my experience. Preaching life, love, and rock-n-roll from his stage-front perch, I’ve seen Fred single out slacking fans until they acquiesce, leave stage to sit on fans who won’t stand up and dance, and tear his drums apart to re-assemble them in the middle of the crowd and dance around, beating them like some Native American war ritual. This is more than gimmick, though. Cowboy Mouth back up their rock-n-roll proselytizing (“Are you with me?!” is Fred’s battle-cry to catharsis) with excellent songwriting and ridiculously underrated musicianship. The band has arrived at a unique take on rock-n-roll in an ‘it’s all been done’ world by combining the bayou punk, 80’s new wave, traditional cajun, and acoustic folk influences of its members past and present. The result is as catchy as it is quirky and it’s a shame the band hasn’t gotten more national attention in world that punishes rather than rewards originality. (A fact not not lost on the band, who documents their revolving record label woes in “The Ballad of Cowboy Mouth”: All the record labels don’t know what to do [with us]./You’d think with all that money they could buy a clue.)
ARE YOU WITH ME?!?
Nevertheless, it’s a weird pressure, feeling like you have to have fun. I had set this whole premise in motion and now felt like I had to live up to my own hype. I was sinking under the weight of my own expectations and feared nothing could salvage my mood at this point.
Silly me. I was at a Cowboy Mouth concert!
From the moment the band took the stage I felt a rush of excitement. Fred crashed the drums, pointed his sticks at the crowd, and demanded we leave our trouble behind: “This is a COWBOY MOUTH SHOW!” I obeyed. The quartet crashed though a set of crowd favorites such as the propulsive “Light It On Fire,” the humorously cynical “New Orleans” (Take me back to New Orleans and drop me at my door, Cause I might love you, yeah, but I love me more!), and the coy “Everybody Love Jill” that uses the adjective ‘red’ a kazillion times until fans throw red spoons on stage as guitarist John Thomas Griffith sings: “She eats her red cake, with her favorite red spoon.” Apropos to the occasion, they also added in a couple of high-octane takes on Mardi Gras classics such “You Got to Go to the Marid Gras.” It began to rain steadily during the set, yet somehow the clouds parted. We were outside and there was no roof to raise, so CM had no choice but save my Lundi Gras soul!
As Fred continuously worked the crowd into a frenzy, he kept reminding the crowd that New Orleans, the greatest city in the world, was the only city that did this [Mardi Gras, at least on this scale.] Suddenly I remembered why I wanted to move to New Orleans. Are you WITH ME?!? Hell Yes!