If you like live music, New Orleans is the place for you.
For choices, accessibility, affordability, variety, quality and just plain fun, I can’t imagine there’s a better place in the country.
Mark Mullins of Bonerama performs at Rock ‘n’ Bowl
NYC, just for its sheer size, probably has as many choices. Nashville, another music town, could compete. Maybe Seattle, possibly Memphis. There’s probably a few others in the discussion, but when you look at the whole package, it’s hard to beat the Crescent City.
On a recent trip, we managed to take in five different shows in four nights. And that’s only counting the formal shows, not the street musicians or the shows we glimpsed while strolling past various bars. And none of those shows were on Bourbon Street or in the French Quarter, the city’s two best known locations.
Our first night, we hit two different shows on Frenchmen Street, which has become the place to be for live jazz. We caught two sets by Miss Sophie Lee, who styles old-time jazz, at the Spotted Cat. And then we walked across the street and caught a set at d.b.a. by the Stooges Brass Band, which plays a hard-driving funk-rap-jazz-rock style of music.
The Spotted Cat is a simple little bar with a nearly ground-level stage. The audience is only arm’s reach from the band — and you’re never more than a couple dozen feet from the show.
Across the street, d.b.a. is a much bigger venue with lots of floor space for listening or dancing, and the band is spread across a large, elevated stage. A big wooden bar is accessible from two sides of the building. It offers a large variety of beers from across the country and even around the world, including a large selection of beers on tap, which isn’t always the case in NOLA. It also offers a number of specialty cocktails, but the night we were there, the bartenders weren’t keeping up with the simple orders, let alone the complicated ones.
We try to stop by the Spotted Cat every time we’re in town, but lately, we’ve learned it’s best to visit on a weeknight. Frenchmen Street, which is just steps beyond the French Quarter, may become overwhelmed by it’s own good reviews. If you don’t get into some of the bars early on a weekend, you’ll have a hard time getting in the door or claiming a spot of your own. If you like the crowds, by all means, visit on the weekend. But if you want a little elbow room, get there early or visit on a weekday.
Keeping my own advice in mind, we decided to head to Chickie Wah Wah, 2828 Canal St., on Friday night. Easily reachable by the Canal Street streetcar but far enough away that you have to put out some effort, this neighborhood bar is quickly becoming a favorite.
The drinks are reasonable, food’s available, the crowds aren’t overwhelming, the stage is easily viewed and the talent is top-notch.
Paul Sanchez accompanied by Susan Cowsill at Chickie Wah Wah
We listened to New Orleanian Paul Sanchez, late of Cowboy Mouth, and he was joined for a few songs by Susan Cowsill, who sang one of my favorites, “Crescent City Sneaux. “
Sanchez has a long history of performing in New Orleans and around the country. He has appeared on and contributed to the HBO show “Treme,” including the song he co-wrote with John Boutte, “At the foot of Canal Street.”
Sanchez has also been working on a musical adaptation of the novel “Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans,” a book I read after our first trip to NOLA in 2008. The city’s story is told through the lives of nine people, sketched out between hurricanes Betsy in 1965 and Katrina in 2005. Sanchez and colleagues have written 39 songs for the musical and have released one CD of the music. I’ve searched, but can’t tell the status of their drive to get the show on Broadway.
On Saturday night, we headed to Rock ‘n’ Bowl, 3000 S. Carrollton Ave., for a performance by the high-energy trombone-centric Bonerama.
The sets included covers of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and the jazz classic (and a personal favorite) “Lil’ Liza Jane.” From their own catalog, they played “Bayou Betty” and, off the new CD, “Close the Door,” among others.
As you might guess, Rock ‘n’ Bowl lent itself to an eclectic crowd: there was a 60th birthday party, a class reunion, bowlers and, come 9 p.m., there was a dance-floor full of revelers, including the owner and one bartender doing things with a hula-hoop that would make the girls on Bourbon Street jealous. If you like brassy, up-tempo, funk-rock, Bonerama is the band for you. We’ve seen them once in Iowa (yes, Iowa) and once in NOLA, and I’d see them every chance I can.
We closed out the trip at Tipitina’s, 501 Napoleon Ave., on a Sunday night. Tip’s has great music throughout the week — generally rock or funk or rap or the like — but Sundays is (generally) reserved for the Cajun Fais Do-do, or Cajun dance party. It draws the locals itching to stretch their legs with a two-step and features the music of Bruce Daigrepont and his band.
This is the second time we’ve made the Fais Do-do, and we’ve had a blast. You’re likely to get asked to dance by the locals — particularly if you’re a female — and Bruce will serve his home-made rice and beans and shoot the breeze with customers during the intermission. He asked for requests at one point in the show, and they were happy to accommodate my plea for “Jolie Blon.”
Rock ‘n’ Bowl and Tip’s are both reachable by a combination of streetcar and buses, or you can take a cab to either, which is what we did this trip to save time.
Four nights, five widely different venues, and not a bad stop in the bunch. Every place in NOLA is fair-game for a show, including the streets and parks. If you make it to New Orleans, be sure to leave plenty of time to take in the live music shows. And, if time permits, you might even stroll down Bourbon Street.
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In this YouTube video, Paul Sanchez tells the story behind the writing of “At the foot of Canal Street:”