Unlike other "music cities" in this country, New Orleans has remained so despite (or, perhaps, owing to) the lack of an industry presence. Musicians move to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville in hopes of making it big, surrendering to the strictures of the record industry in pursuit of fame. New Orleans, however, has been able to produce successful soul, jazz and rock acts that maintain their musical identity. What would Little Richard sound like if he came from Cleveland? Where else could someone like Professor Longhair become an icon?
This writer spent a short but formative time living in New Orleans, absorbing the various styles of live music and learning that this city lives off the pulse of its musicians. I recently spent a long weekend in New Orleans in the middle of August, mainly sweating and rehydrating, but principally to check out the music scene a year after Katrina. It would be foolish to take this four-day musical bender and turn it into an overall status report for the health of the city's music scene (or to consider it a microcosm of the city itself). Instead, think of it as a snapshot of a musical cradle that never really stopped rocking.
It seemed appropriate to start the trip with a performance by a brass band, perhaps the best-known style of music that came from New Orleans and nowhere else. Brass bands represent the city's ability to inspire younger generations to not only play an older form of music, but to infuse and reinvigorate it. In every other city in America, kids dream of growing up and shredding guitars or rocking the mic as an emcee; here, the coolest kids in the neighborhood play trumpet for the local brass band.
The Soul Rebels Brass Band holds court every Thursday night at Le Bon Temps Roule, a free event that routinely packs the club with locals, tourists and students from nearby Tulane and Loyola universities. As the band prepared to take the stage, the loudspeakers blared a ubiquitous summer hit, Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous Girl." Seemingly just for his own amusement, sousaphone player Damion Francois began doubling the song's bouncing bassline. It was a small reminder that this music doesn't thrive on preservation, but on a continual reconfiguring and reinvention of ancient forms.
Once the Soul Rebels' seven members crammed onto the tiny stage, it didn't take long for the room to pulsate along with the relentless, overlapping blares of trumpet and trombone. More than the other big-name brass bands in town (Rebirth, Dirty Dozen), the Soul Rebels proudly show off their love of old soul and R&B alongside New Orleans standards. It took a few minutes for the crowd to pick out the melody to Levert's "Casanova" amid the competing horns and pounding bass drum.
Thursday's show was the high-energy night for the weekend, and so my friends were interested in a more relaxed setting on Friday night. This led us to a bar named Carrollton Station, named so for its proximity to the garages that house the famous street cars that used to (and will one day again) run up and down the neutral ground on St. Charles Avenue. A good friend was holding court at singer-songwriter night, playing originals and covers to a near-empty tavern. (I doubt that this was post-K fallout; have singer-songwriter nights ever been a big draw?)
Located just off Esplanade Avenue on the northeastern end of the French Quarter, Frenchmen Street is like a much cooler cousin to the excess and embarrassment of Bourbon Street. These three blocks house just about every type of live music; Latin, reggae, hot jazz and swamp rock can be heard in the front windows and back stages of clubs such as the Spotted Cat, the Apple Barrel, Snug Harbor and d.b.a.
On most Saturdays, young torch singer Linnzi Zaorski performs at d.b.a., the kind of bar where a musician can blow his clarinet for a 45-minute set and then relax with a nice game of Golden Tee. Despite the fusion of retro and modern, Zaorski routinely wins over crowds with her Betty Boop-like vocals and '30s-era parlor jazz. (The golden curls and pink cocktail dress don't hurt either.) The retro fetishism can seem a bit contrived one wonders what she really sounds like beneath all the affectations but her songs are a sweet, satisfying treat before heading into the heart of New Orleans music: the Ninth Ward.
Of course, much of the Ninth Ward (the Lower Ninth to be exact) was obliterated in the flooding that followed Katrina. Many of the streets that reared brass bands, jazz trumpeters and soul singers are still in shambles. Fats Domino was famously saved from his Lower Ninth Ward home by rescuers a few days after the hurricane. The Upper Ninth Ward remains intact a year later, and this neighborhood is home to Vaughan's, a spot where beloved trumpeter Kermit Ruffins performs (and serves barbecue) every Thursday night. But it's nearly midnight on Saturday, and while there's no Ruffins and no barbecue, there is Billy Ding and the Hot Wings.
The makeup of the Hot Wings is a lesson in New Orleans' multi-ethnicity. A young Latino man coaxes tones from a Fender guitar; an older, white, biker-looking dude thumps an upright bass; and a middle-aged black man bangs the bongos, while Ding himself looking like a younger Dr. John pounds an old upright piano. As heard through a fuzzy PA and inebriated eardrums, the music sounded like a mix of swampy grooves, early rock & roll and gritty soul and whatever it was, it moved the crowd. Mission accomplished.
Sunday night is traditionally a dead night for many New Orleans clubs, but there was a near-capacity crowd at Mid-City Lanes' Rock 'N Bowl venue. If it's not obvious enough, Rock 'N Bowl is a dual purpose bowling alley/concert hall, and this night it was host to Paul Varisco & the Milestones. Varisco had a regional hit in the late '60s with "Gotta Have Love," a sweet rock & soul number complete with a three-piece horn section. He and the band relished their one-hit-wonder status with the over-50 crowd, playing their signature song alongside "Let's Get It On" and a few Van Morrison songs.
The show was a chance for the crowd to sing, dance and drink: three things highly prized in New Orleans. These are homeowners, New Orleans lifers who can't imagine living anywhere else but are stymied by forces both natural and bureaucratic that keep them from rebuilding.
As is true for many events in this city, Varisco's show was largely about rebuilding community and rebuilding the city. Katrina and her wrath are never far from people's minds one year on; as people try to wash the paint and plaster from their hands, they're constantly reminded of the huge task of healing this badly beaten town. Varisco's show may have only been a brief respite from the daily fight to revive New Orleans, but it may have reminded them what they were fighting for.