While most of my friends and half of the entertainment industry headed out to the desert to get sunburn, ingest substances, and see the last remaining Beatle (Ringo doesn’t count) at Coachella this weekend, I decided to take the chance to get away from Southern California, get away from triple digit temperatures and secret after-parties, get away from card trading, ecstacy and paparazzi, get away and head to New Orleans for their annual French Quarter Festival.
According to the forecasts, Nola was going to be in the grips of a thunderstorm for the whole weekend. Preferring lightning and rain to the furnaces of hell, AKA Indio, CA in April, I packed my raincoat and headed to the Airport on Friday morning.
The plane ride was forgettable and I don’t remember drinks costing seven dollars, but we took off and landed on time, so really, there’s not a whole lot to complain about.
The sky was a thick grey canopy when we reached the Big Easy, the clouds looked like the child after a romantic night between cotton balls and steel wool. This being my second trip to New Orleans, I headed to the Jazz Alley lounge at the hub of Louis Armstrong International Airport to have a drink and wait for My Darling to arrive from Chicago. A gin and tonic later, she had arrived and we were off to the Quarter for the rest of the weekend.
We stayed at The French Quarter Courtyard hotel, not to be confused with the Marriot Courtyard hotel near the airport. Our cab driver, in fact, was, confused about this. The French Quarter Courtyard is located at the edge of the Quarter on Rampart Street, the west end boundary of Vieux Carre (the Quarter). The place was typical Nola, charming, ancient, and run by a group of awfully nice and in-over-their-head Louisiana boys and girls. Polite as all get out and hilariously novice in regards to running a hotel. We had an excellent four-poster bed and a Balcony over looking Rampart. The fountain below us had a bit of an algae problem and our doors were freshly painted, so at times they tended to stick, but overall a fantastic and remarkably cost-effective place to spend the weekend. Another excellent feather in the hotel’s cap: all of the beer left over by past guests is taken to a couple of mini-fridges at the bar next to the front desk. It’s free for everyone staying at The Courtyard.
After a bit of down time, we headed down to Frenchman street, just on the other side of Esplanade, the northern edge of the Quarter. Frenchman is a wonderful stretch of bars and clubs that sits away from the ruckus of Bourbon and Royal streets on the edge of the fray. You’ve got smaller venues and better music, without the bombast of top 40 blaring out of every third bar, like Bourbon Street. You won’t find the signature hand grenades, the green plastic souvenir cups filled with what might as well be diesel fuel, or frozen hurricane machines on Frenchman. You’ll find a bunch of train-hopping hobo kids playing unbelievable French gypsy music on the street. The bearded, bear of a bass player standing on his instrument, towering over the crowd and slapping crazy rhythms into the night. You’ll find The Apple Barrel, the smallest venue in town, with two tables, strong drinks, and bands like The Hip Shakers playing to a standing room only crowd who somehow always find enough room to dance. You’ll find The Spotted Cat, a few doors down from the Apple Barrel. In terms of physical reality, The Cat is little more than a long wooden bar and a haphazard arrangement of widely varied seating accoutrements, from a broken-down antique chair to lawn furniture, but the spirit of the place is all encompassing and as elegant as a pharoh’s tomb, most certainly while the music’s playing and the crowd is dancing. This is my favorite spot in New Orleans and possibly one of my favorite places in the world.
We hit all of these spots for a good while, drinking and dancing and tearing it up as one can only do on Frenchman. We wandered back towards the hotel, through a thick crowd, more than I’d yet seen on Frenchman. We came across The Loose Marbles playing on the inside on the corner of Esplanade and Frenchman (don’t quote me on that, it was late, I’d had a few). The vibe inside was more refined than that of the easy, raucous haunts farther back on the street, but that didn’t take away from the joy and ebullience in the crowd. Everyone, it seemed, had taken at least a few swing classes and the rug was being shredded to ribbons, with everyone paired off and pulling out their best moves for their partners and every one watching. We closed this place down and headed back to The Courtyard for the rest of the night.
Morning broke and with the unrelenting hunger that only a grade A hangover can provide we headed to Eat at the corner of Dauphine and Domaine, two blocks from Louis Armstrong Park. We enjoyed a lazy brunch, accompanied by mimosas and some of the best breakfast fare I’ve had in a long time. Fried Green Tomato Benedict, Biscuits and Gravy with Bacon, Lox and fruit. For the history bugs, and good lord is the Quarter filled with history, Eat occupies the first floor of the former residence of one Tennessee Williams, while he lived in the New Orleans.
The Festival itself was in full swing following our brunch, so we took a long walk down Bourbon and caught glimpses and shouts of a gaggle of different bands along the way. Smoky rhythms bounced out from beneath the shade of dive bars along the street, a few small four and five pieces had official sanctioning and played to gatherers from atop modest stages thrown up by the city and stationed at every other block. It was balmy. The wind swirled at just the right speed, keeping everyone cool enough and moving the clouds along so they couldn’t get a foothold and stomp down with rain.
Down on Royal, the crowd was mostly families and boomers, easing through their Saturday’s beers in hand. New Orleans has that strange affect where you see a family, mom pushing the empty stroller, a daquiri in it’s drink holder, the youngster on top of dad’s shoulders while his old man sips from a Tall boy, you see this and you think, “I love America.” That, and, “in Utah, all of these people would be arrested.”
We continued towards the river, for we were intent on catching Little Freddie King on one of the main stages. We made our way across the train tracks onto the river walk, and entered Quarter Fest proper. Vendor’s booths lined the landside of the river walk as to not obstruct the view of the mighty Mississippi, which churned down steadily far off into the Gulf. The vendors provided a bevy of food and drink, creamy crawfish pasta to hot sausages to classic rice and beans. A burger or two was offered for those shy of Creole cuisine. Medieval, bludgeon-worthy turkey legs also seemed to be all the rage, weighing down the arms of children and adults alike.
The crowd was an American Gumbo, all ages, races, sexes, true to what I know of the Quarter on any given night. After a couple of misfires (there were 4 stages along the river), we finally found Little Freddie, fiddling away on stage in front of a healthy crowd. We came up as he was in the final throes of his take on The Godfather’s “Sex Machine” and the crowd bopped and hopped and pulsed in a way that could only have made Mr. James Brown proud. Although the sky above was gray, the mood of the revelers was imbued with enough sunshine that everyone kept their shades on, though they weren’t needed. Catching only two of Little Freddie’s songs was a bit of an unintended disappointment, but luckily we were able to amble down to the brass band stage and catch The New Era Brass Band and see them shake the crowd down to their toes. The day was soothing itself into night and the cloud cover, protecting all fest-goers from the ravages of day-drinking in the sun left reserves of energy and enthusiasm that New Era teased out and drove into a frenzy. The Big Easy shuffle was being practiced by everyone with a pair of legs and even a few wheel-chair bound men and women. Spirits were at their highest and the horns sang the songs of everyone’s soul.
We headed back to the hotel after New Era, called it quits for a shower and a change.
As night falls in the quarter, the quality of the air seems to change, the history of the place begins to become tangible, the notoriety of many evening’s past is perceptible in the flicker of a gaslight, the seductive ambivalence of a half-shuttered door, a warmly lit courtyard’s mysterious delight. You realize then that this place is so ultimately and perfectly human, transcendent of piety and sin, of country and race, of past and future, you just let go and allow yourself to simply be alive. Life marches on, and if what amounted to little more than a swamp 400 years ago can turn into the Quarter, than perhaps there’s hope for humanity yet.