Saturday, February 02, 2008
Hard to Leave the Big Easy
I’m continuing to depressurize. Trying to reintegrate right and left brains. Weaning myself off of Pimm’s cups and Ramos fizzes and Sazeracs. Occasionally shaking from gumbo withdrawal.
Of course, I already miss New Orleans, and it’s only been a couple of days since I left. I actually began to pine for the city as I pulled away from the French Quarter and headed for Louis Armstrong Airport. (And if that name ain’t a promise of good times as you arrive in town and an invitation to melancholy as you leave, I don’t know what is.)
Carnival is in full swing, dressed in the traditional green, gold and purple of Mardi Gras, and heading for its ecstatic culmination next Tuesday. (The green stands for faith, the gold for power, and the purple for justice – so decreed by the membership of the New Orleans social club the Krewe of Rex over a century ago.)
Showing up for the first few days of what amounts to a week and a half of increasing dementia allows one to avoid the massive crush of yahoos and loonies looking to get completely plastered and heedlessly bare body parts by the end of the celebration. At the start, the numbers are smaller and the behavior more civilized. Nonetheless, the spirit of revelry was in the air this past weekend. Yes, there were some remnants of what a couple of locals warily/bitterly called “that weather incident.” The French Market is being renovated and, the promise of renewal aside, its husk is a sad sight. The Lower Ninth Ward is still largely a mess.
But the people are still warm and welcoming. Construction is happening throughout the town. The Quarter and Magazine Street in the Garden District are pretty much back to speed. New businesses are opening – and a few storm-devastated old businesses are reopening. The restaurants – from the familiar and classic to the recently spawned – were, as expected, producing the delectable regional cuisine that has inspired watering mouths and rave reviews - nay, poetry! - for decades.
Certainly, the music-- particularly at the clubs on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny-- was superb and rollicking and wistful and even hopeful, just like the residents who stayed or returned, and endured.
Last Friday night, pianist Ellis Marsalis-- patriarch of the renowned musical clan-- had his small ensemble cooking on the standards as usual at Snug Harbor. At d.b.a. (the New Orleans branch of the New York City/East Village brew pub), the weekend schedule was top-notch and delightfully indigenous with torchy blues-rock chanteuse Ingrid Lucia doing the early evening show on Friday, followed by some rousing frenzy from the folk-rockin’ Zydepunks; jazz crooner John Boutte and band opening the Saturday bill, with a wild R&B/Tex-Mex-fueled late show from the roots-rockin’ Iguanas; and retro le jazz hot singer/cutie-pie Linnzi Zaorski playing a happy-hour set on Sunday, with the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio wrapping up the night.
There is no greater ambassador for genuine New Orleans jazz in this day and age than the terrific, tradition-wise singer-trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who, with his band the Barbecue Swingers, done tore up the Blue Nile on Saturday night. Very few artists can turn a club into a carnival at will. Kermit is one of them. And Monday night’s jam session at Ray’s Boom Boom Room, led by drummer/DJ Bob French, was a wonderful, improv-heavy ramble through Tim Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook.
It would be a mistake to forget the fabulous band that played Saturday night’s annual costume ball hosted by a New Orleans artist of note. The group’s horns-and-all cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” done-- no lie-- Parliament/Funkadelic-style, almost shook the filled-to-the-rafters warehouse apart. Nor should I neglect to mention the amazing Sunday night all-45 rpm vintage-soul-and-rockabilly DJ set at the Saint bar in the Garden District. And the melodies that waft from legendary venues, hot spots and dives as you walk past or are produced by street performers that are far too accomplished to be relegated to passing the hat.
This is on top of the parades (raining beads and doubloons on fervent crowds of onlookers) by the krewes that roll through the area on the early weekend. And the yearly Krewe of Barkus dog parade through the Quarter, with the 2008 theme “Indiana Bones & the Raiders of the Lost Bark”-- complete with canine fashion plates and their owners in Indy fedoras, pushing along lovingly-forged Arks of the Covenant on wheels.
My last evening in town featured an orgy of exquisitely delicious food shared with three friends Uptown at Jacques-Imo’s restaurant-- cornbread muffins, stuffed shrimp, fried green tomatoes, onion rings, succulent glazed duck, blackened redfish, collard greens, and strawberry shortcake, washed down with Abita’s Mardi Gras Bock. We topped it off with nightcaps at La Crepe Nanou, where we talked music and the beauty of Southern Louisiana with Vicki and Debbi Peterson of the Bangles who were in town for a couple of shows.
Like Vicki and Debbi, I harbor an inordinate amount of love for the city of New Orleans. Call it what you will: Nola, the Big Easy, the Crescent City, the City That Care Forgot. Its socio-economic problems and precarious, post-Katrina condition notwithstanding, it’s like no other place in America-- a cultural cauldron rich with history, art, music, culinary delights, and the joy of living. I encourage everyone to visit and drop a little cash there. The Jazz & Heritage Festival is coming up in the spring-- and, judging from schedule, it looks like it’s gonna be one to remember. So go. Or visit some other time. Help the regeneration of this national treasure. You will be repaid a thousand times over with peak experiences that will linger in your memory long after you return to your everyday biz.