I was recently in New Orleans for a week over spring break (I won’t tell you what I was actually doing down there, at the risk of sounding like a complete nerd and losing all hip credibility.) Suffice to say, I tried to soak up as much of the local music scene as I could. Before I say anything else, though, one thing I cannot stress strongly enough is that New Orleans is alive like no other city I’ve seen. It’s not as busy 24/7 like New York City, but it’s alive in a different way. The people in New Orleans are so full of the joys and experiences of life that the excess spills out into everything they do.
Naturally, music is one of the prime outlets for this joie de vivre. From the homeless guy on his bicycle stopped on the side of a back alley just clapping his hands and singing with anyone walking by to the burlesque singer in a local cafÉ in the middle of the afternoon, New Orleans is bursting with music. It was an absolute treat to spend a week in this city, and I would highly recommend anyone reading this to travel there, and for those already in the city to rabidly take advantage of the myriad opportunities New Orleans has to offer. Here is a brief catalog of my findings, replete with excessive editorializing, merciless critique, and genuine admiration.
This probably goes without saying, but there are millions of bars on Bourbon Street. Okay, that guesstimation might be a little high, but in all seriousness, I visited too many bars and clubs to keep them all straight. I did my best to keep track of the names of all the venues and bands I saw, but I wasn’t always as successful as I hoped. (I’ll leave it to you to judge why that may have been the case.)
On Saint Patty’s Day, I went out with some friends to see what Bourbon Street was all about. The first live band I saw was at the Fat Catz Music Club. Some local band was playing old Journey and Kansas covers, so I was naturally a little skeptical. I stayed for less than an hour, but by the time I left, the band had (tastefully) moved on to AC/DC and Guns “n’ Roses. Sure, that’s about as derivative as you can get, but originality isn’t what most people look for in a covers band. These guys were having a good time, enjoying the crowd, and appreciating the chance to play some music and put out a tip jar. So far, so good.
Next stop was at the Bourbon Blues Company. I had high hopes, given the fact that I’d actually heard about this place before I arrived in town. To my chagrin, I found that the Bourbon Blues Company was much more a raucous hang-out than an authentic blues joint. I would describe the musicians more as wanna-be DJs than an actual band, but that’s what the bead-ensconced patrons wanted. I’m sure they were satisfied.
Walking back down Bourbon Street, I happened upon the musical jewel of the week. I found this dive bar named Sing Sing near Bourbon and Conti. By this point, it was well past midnight and the crowds were only getting more excited. Yet, as I walked by this bar, I stopped dead in my tracks. The sound that hit my ears was clear as day, even over the noise of the local partygoers: real blues. Sing Sing was one of the more unimposing and less ostentatious bars on the strip. Inside, there are barely any furnishings whatsoever, but the unfinished stone walls only add to the rootsy feel. (If the bar was empty, I’m sure the acoustics would have been abysmal, but it was packed with people who were actually listening to the music! a first for the night.)
The local band had five members: a drummer, a bassist, a keyboardist, a guitarist/vocalist, and the female lead vocalist. They played a phenomenal mix of covers and some original jams. They played with such feeling and passion, complete with true mastery of their craft. Not only were they all talented musicians, but they knew what timbre they wanted, and how to get there. From the acoustic guitar paired with the upright bass and the simple piano, to the Les Paul with the Hammond B3 organ effects and the 5-string bass, they knew how to achieve any sound they wanted. And the chick singer! I cannot say enough good things about her. The best way I can describe her is a cross between Lucinda Williams’ voice and the mannerisms of the fictional Marie DeSalle from High Fidelity. She was phenomenal. She really knew how to sing the blues, and I loved it.
My penultimate stop for the evening was the world-famous New Orleans House of Blues. The HOB is, without question, one of the most famous venues in this country. They are renowned for their high-class acts, their atmosphere, and their drinks. (The day before I arrived, Ani Difranco and Over the Rhine played, the week after I left, The Bravery played, and just last week, HOB hosted the legendary B.B. King.) I’m not sure the name of the jazz band performing that evening, but they had packed the house. The most standout aspect of this group was their breathy, tenor sax, wielded by a musician who looked like he stepped straight out of the 1940’s. I would have loved to spend just twenty minutes listening to the stories the grizzled, black man assuredly had. One could imagine hearing about the time he ran into Rosco Gordon on Beale Street in Memphis, or about his experiences with the development of the jazz-blues genre in the Deep South. Nonetheless, I only had the privilege of hearing him play, but one can always dream.
I will only briefly describe my last stop of the evening, because the band I heard deserves even less attention than I’m according them. I don’t remember the name of the bar they were agonizing, but when I walked in, they were in the middle of an altogether too-rowdy version of Brick House by The Commodores. Things only went downhill from there. The “musicians” were dressed like the lovechildren of an ostentatious British gangster and a swamp-dwelling tramp. In a perverse sense, this was one of the most entertaining acts of the night, but probably not for the reasons they would have hoped.
Besides the clubs I visited, I was amazed at the quality of the street musicians deployed throughout the French Quarter. The most impressive street musicians that I found were generally near Jackson Square, an absolutely beautiful garden on the Mississippi River. The most noteworthy group of minstrels was a seventeen-piece pickup band playing some old big-band music from the 40’s. I’m sure they were part of some formal group, but the fact that they all played together seamlessly, without a conductor, was truly impressive.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to visit the Palm City Jazz Club during the trip, to my bitter disappointment. It was not my choice, but hectic schedules and large groups with varying interests being what they are, I was never able to do more than ride my bike past it and imagine what it must be like to hear some authentic jazz inside. One thing is for certain, I will definitely visit New Orleans again, and I’m glad there are a few places I have yet to explore.
Shant Boyajian is a student at Rutgers-Camden School of Law.
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