WHAT IS AND WHAT NEVER SHOULD BE (BOURBON V. FRENCHMAN)
I have always loved music, with my passion blooming into obsession in adolescence as my shyness and insecurity discovered a constant, non-judgmental companion. In my early twenties I discovered jazz, and I was just beginning to explore New Orleans brass rhythms when I first visited the city in 1998. Being the music nerd that I am, I rushed to Bourbon Street ready to embrace jazz history and modern innovation. Instead I found seedy strip clubs, cheesy daiquiri bars, corny t-shirt shops, and sleazy dive bars full of bands playing the same stringy-haired southern rock you could find in any bar south of Philly. (I swear these same damn bands were playing Duval Street on my first trip to Key West where I expected to find steel drums and the next young Buffett! Doh!)
One of my reasons for writing this blog is that, while I’ve come to love New Orleans, it’s not an easy city to get to know. Jazzfest was the perfect gateway because it encapsulates all that is great about the food, music, and culture in a confined, accessible area, but beyond this fleeting utopia it took effort, research, and years of visiting to begin to crack the code of a city that can be as intimidating as it is welcoming. Thus, I aspire to provide a point of entry for uninitiated but curious readers who would otherwise step onto Bourbon, say “This is it?” and head home wondering what all the fuss is about. So, if you are such a reader, take note: Frenchman Street is everything I thought Bourbon Street would be on my first visit.
Meeting Decatur Street at a diagonal, and thus cutting Marigny (mare-i-knee) into triangles (housing ads advertise ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ triangle addresses), Frenchman stretches on for several miles but the clubs and restaurants are crammed into the first two blocks. This narrow strip, however, must house a dozen notable music venues such as Blue Nile, dba, Apple Barrel, Cafe Negril, The Spotted Cat and Maison. Several notable restaurants are sprinkled throughout such as Praline Connection, Mimi’s and Adolfo’s, and some places such as 3 Muses are equally known for tunes and tastings, making this an all-inclusive destination.
Snug Harbor anchors the far end of commercial development. Owned by local pianist Ellis Marsalis, father to Wynton and Branford, this upscale jazz club ala New York focuses on traditional jazz as opposed to the popular stylistic mash-ups surrounding it, and has ticketed seating for multiple sets each night as opposed to constantly rotating patronage. Although this is the most specialized spot, every club on Frenchman has its own niche. The Spotted Cat and Apple Barrel are smaller and more intimate to accommodate acoustic acts and small ensembles while Blue Nile and Masion are wide-open and ready to kick some brass and funk. Yet they all attract a cross section of the local music that makes New Orleans great. While locals avoid Bourbon, on Frenchman they rub elbows with savvy tourists who have cracked the city’s code; thus, this tiny corridor is crowded and hopping most every night. While I’ve read that this renaissance began in the eighties, the explosion in popularity seems fairly recent and some locals are starting to oppose this growth, irritated by the noise and crowds that have appeared.
RANDOM HISTORICAL ASIDE BY AN ADHD BLOGGER
Frenchman is thus named because, after a revolt against Spanish authority during that empire’s rule, the governor rounded up the leaders of the plot, who were not all necessarily French, and put them before a firing squad on this ground.
LIKE HIGH SCHOOL, ONLY HIPPER (AND IN COSTUME)
Much like Frenchman mirrors Bourbon’s better aspirations on a typical night, it has grown to have its own Mardi Gras traditions, as well, including a neighborhood parade. This is a hip, artsy, up-and-coming neighborhood and the streets were teaming with creative energy as I arrived. Masking actually appeared as ubiquitous as it had been at Gay Mardi Gras, and the creations were more elaborate and clever than those on Canal and tourist-Bourbon. And, unlike Bourbon, it was already shoulder-to-shoulder from end to end.
The downside to this being so local-centric was that it was harder to plug in. Cheerful tourists on Bourbon were more than happy to stop and chat, and locals Uptown embraced the inquiries of a wandering Mardi Gras vagabond, but Frenchman seemed composed of tightly knit groups partying in proximity with limited interaction. Soaking up the sights and snapping a few photos, I made it to the far end where Snug Harbor sat dark for the holiday. Across the road, The Spotted Cat offered refuge for a one-drink minimum.
I was still abstaining from alcohol, and the crowd was too formidable to approach the bar for water, so I found an abandoned seat in the corner, knowing they couldn’t enforce the mandate in this mess, and rested my aching feet. As I sat, the room was too loud and I was too spaced-out to follow the band, though I did strike up a conversation with a group of transplanted locals dressed as characters from Alice in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter had moved from Texas a decade ago and stayed because “there’s always something to do” while Alice was a lawyer from North Carolina who never left after graduating Tulane. Young, professional, creative, local immigrants—they seemed to represent the key demographic of the Marigny.
MUSIC LAUNDERING: BRING ON (& UPDATE) DA’ FUNK!
Soon Wonderland departed in search of food and I followed not long after seeking a smaller crowd and better view. Stepping into Maison, I stumbled upon an excellent band playing 70’s funk ala Tower of Power or Parliament, yet, while retaining the raw energy and vibe of the decade, they managed to strip away the dated, cheesy veneer to give it a modern sound. I was entranced. Craving healing vitamins, I ordered a virgin Bloody Mary from a waitress (yes, the crowd was manageable enough that I actually got table service!) and sipped along in ecstasy to one of those divine finds that happen so frequently in New Orleans, though I could kick myself now for not writing down the name!
The groove of the music called my soul to dance, but my body was far too broken down. Still, this didn’t dampen my enjoyment. The sun had fallen and I lingered on well over an hour, making the most of my spicy tomato juice. My sister-friends from Rocckus, Megan and Amanda, texted as I lingered to ask where I was. They were on Bourbon and seeking an exit as the party was now raging out of control. I replied with my location but they hadn’t arrived by the time I wandered back down the street, listening briefly in several clubs before finally easing into B.M.C. (Balcony Music Club) where another excellent yet nameless ensemble was performing. Megan, Amanda, and another friend soon caught up with me despite the fact that I butchered the bar’s initials in a text. As we swapped stories of observed absurdity, the crowd suddenly parted to admit two Indians still in costume. They made their way to stage where the band ripped into a spontaneous set of Indian classics such as “Iko Iko” and “My Indian Red.” It was my third sighting of the day and I had not even been chasing Indians. Despite a raging cold, aching feet, a massive hot chocolate stain, and a muck-soaked hobo pack, I took this as a sign of a successful holiday and good omen for the kickoff of My Year of Mardi Gras. Iko, Iko ah nay.
Traditionally Mardi Gras ends at midnight with police on horseback clearing Bourbon Street, but I knew I didn’t have it in me to stay to the very end as my New York friends planned. My night was gradually petering out, as was my resolve. It was pleasant to have company and conversation after a day of solitary wandering, but in terms of literary merit, my journey seemed to culminate with the Indian sighting. The rest was postscript.
As the Indians departed and the set ended, it was getting late and I hadn’t eaten since my King Cake back on St. Charles four or five hours ago, so we headed up Esplanade to Port of Call, a late-night spot famous for messy burgers and loaded baked potatoes. As we arrived, though, the doors were depressingly shuttered. We all sat on the stairs, dejected, and pulled out smart phones to futilely search for an open table at an inexpensive spot while people continued to wander up, expressing equal disappointment at being turned away. Finally we wandered back down to Royal Street where we found a little Italian spot, but it too was closing. Some British tourists in line, though, recommended the East African restaurant next door.
East African cuisine. In the Quarter. On Mardi Gras night. The day had taken another bizarre turn.
As we took a seat, the hostess informed us they had no liquor license–it was BYOB. Amanda’s friend ran out to get alcohol, but I politely declined her offer to pick something up; nevertheless, she returned with a six pack of Abita and set one before me. Rather than explain my dry day, it was easier to just drink the Purple Haze, which couldn’t contain more alcohol than a steady diet of cough syrup (needed medicine which I foolishly never purchased).
The menu was translated with English equivalents and the ‘chicken noodle soup’ I started with was piled high with chicken and noodles, normally a bonus, yet I was craving only soothing broth. The stock, though, was hearty and flavorful, granting slight relief to my raging cold symptoms. The lamb stew with broccoli, on the other hand, tasted more like beef stroganoff than anything even mildly exotic like an Indian lamb curry. Here I was, winding up Mardi Gras in, of all places, an East African café and yet I wound up with the uninspiring equivalent of college comfort food. Sigh.
As dinner wrapped up, my companions tried again to convince me to stay till midnight—it was already after ten—but I pleaded exhaustion from my day’s travels, not wanting to whine about my cold. Besides, I was worried about finding a cab, which can be notoriously dicey during Mardi Gras. I’d caught this cold after staying out till 3am following Better Than Ezra’s House of Blues show, yet I’d attended the same concert back in 2011, and, although I tried to return to my friend’s home when the show ended at 1 a.m., I wandered up and down Canal and Poydras for hours trying to hail a cab. It was after 4 a.m. when I got home, and I was now weary of relying on cabs, though it was much to far to walk back to my truck in the dark.
The girls were headed to Café Du Monde and I thought I might have a better chance catching a cab on Decatur so I started to follow them, ready for a lengthy wait. The luck of three Indian sightings was upon me, though, and an empty cab immediately rolled by us on Royal. The driver quickly became impatient during my farewells and I had to cut them short else lose my bit of good fortune.
Driving away, I felt a little guilty abandoning these ladies to the night and wimping out on midnight, but my body was in full revolt. It had been a wild ride, though, and I wouldn’t trade a second of it, but my body would exact harsh vengeance in the coming days.
When I said the Indian sighting was the last notable moment of the evening, I was overlooking one more slapstick moment of near-disaster to come. As the cab dropped me off at my truck, I began to take stock of all I was carrying. I had money and keys stuffed in a fanny pack (cut me some slack—pirate pants don’t have pockets!), beads and other loot stuffed in my Rocckus tote bag, and an umbrella, water pack, etc. wrapped in my hobo pack. As I dumped all of this into my truck, I checked off my valuables. Wallet: check. Wad-of-cash: check. Keys: check. I-pod: check. Cell phone . . . OH SHIT!!!!!!!!!!
Fortunately my cab was forced to drive further up St. Charles and do a u-turn. So let me leave you with the image of a run-down, ragged, chocolate-stained, muck-smelling pirate hobo running down the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue at 11 o’clock Mardi Gras night waving his arms madly and screaming like a banshee after that cab. It’s gonna be a wild-ride of a year . . . .