The world doesn’t need another wanna-be writer penning a paean to the city of New Orleans. So I’m bringing together a mish-mash of notes, memories, scenes, vignettes, stories, and quotes from my trip to the Crescent City. The first in a series:
I slide up to the bar at Felix’s for dinner. I’m nearly finished when I let it slip that I’ve never tried oysters – the dish for which Felix’s is famous. The admission prompts the bartender to announce “I have a virgin in my bar.” She whips together a dipping sauce with ketchup, whiskey, and a few mystery ingredients in a small container. I ask later on what went into the sauce. “Love” is all she says.
She plops down a single raw oyster in front of me. It’s delicious.
“We are America’s premier sousaphone-guitar-washboard trio.” – Alex McMurray of the Tin Men.
After seeing the trio perform a deft blend of gospel tunes, blues-inspired rockers, fun covers (like Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”), and one John Phillips Sousa march (!!!) … I would be hard-pressed to disagree. If there’s a weirder mix of musicians performing a more eclectic set list, I’d love to see it.
I stumble out of John Boutte’s soulful set and onto a positively electric Frenchmen Street scene. Frenchmen is like no other street in America. Top-notch acts are taking the stage in clubs up and down the street. The sidewalks and streets are jammed with people talking, drinking, smoking, dancing.
But what catches my ear above the alchemy of music and humanity: A brass band is playing for tips on the corner, and a crowd of 50-75 has spilled into the street. I find myself so taken by the music that I dance my way into the path of an oncoming taxi. A fellow reveler guides me out of harm’s way.
Eight of us are about to take a bike tour of the city’s less tourist-infested neighborhoods. Our guide delivers a positively historic safety speech at the tour’s onset: It starts with the news that helmets aren’t required in Louisiana. It ends with the tidbit that, thanks to the city’s lax open-container laws, we can nurse a beer while pedaling around town. Miracle of miracles, we all escape unscathed.
I head out to the Candelight Lounge to see the Treme Brass Band. A couple from Washington D.C. sits down at my table before the show starts; I don’t know it yet, but we’ll get to know each other, see a few more shows together, and periodically run into each other throughout the week. We’re roughly a third of the audience before a tour bus of retirees fills out the club, just in time for the show to start.
It starts out slow, with trumpeter Kenneth Terry leading a few slow dirges. Over the next three hours, roughly 20 musicians will crowd into a stage area no larger than my childhood bedroom. Most of the retirees sit at their tables, but 30-40 of us crowd around the band and dance to our heart’s content. It’s impossible to tell where the crowd ends and the band begins; the closest audience members are literally standing between bandmates.
The night ends with a bar-wide sing-along to a few lines from the “Treme” theme. My goosebumps get chills, that’s how magical the moment is. Singing the “Treme” theme, as performed by the Treme Brass Band, in the heart of the Treme neighborhood … that’s meta, right?
On my way out, our waitress gives me a hug and thanks me for coming in.
I’m bicycling through the Garden District and along St. Charles Avenue. To my right, never-ending rows of picturesque million-dollar mansions. To my left, the creaky St. Charles streetcar, rumbling down the line. Above me, 200-year-old oak trees provide shade and keep me cool. And you wonder why people wax romantic about this city.