Notes from New Orleans: Part 4

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 fourth in a series:

Kermit takes the stage and launches into the first track with his signature phrase: “All Aboard!” For the next two hours, Ruffins — something of a New Orleans ambassador to the world — performs a variety of joyful tunes in his signature raspy voice. All while blowing that trumpet as only he can.

Ruffins mixes it up with selections like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Iko Iko,” “Holy Cow,” and “Skokiaan.” You can almost hear the crowd break into a collective smile when Ruffins launches into “I’ve Got the World on a String.”

Ruffins is ready to close his first set when his band starts playing a familiar tune. He invites all the women to dance on stage. I can almost place the song when he starts singing: “I gotta feeling … that tonight’s gonna be a good night.” Back home, I’d sooner put my hand in a lawnmower than listen to that dreck. But something about it just clicks with Ruffins. He’s such a naturally happy, easy-going guy; you feel like he means it. It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment and have a little fun.

I smile and sing along.

———

I stop by Mother’s for dinner. I place my order and step to the drink counter for my iced tea. An elderly man is slinging drinks from behind the counter.

I ask how he’s doing. “I’m ready” is all he says.

That about says it all right there, doesn’t it?

“I’m ready.”

———

The four-day French Quarter Festival features more than 20 music stages, and it takes until lunchtime on the fest’s first day for me to confuse two of them. I unwittingly sit in on Bernie and the Party Gators — a German jazz sextet — and stick around only because it’s in the shade. It turns into one of the best decisions I make all week.

I know the set’s going to be good when the lead singer launches into “Basin Street Blues.” He’s channeling his inner Louis Armstrong by singing the classic tune in the most gravely voice imaginable — all with a deep German accent. It’s hard not to smile at that.

Elsewhere in the set: The trumpeter shows up two songs in. The pianist never shows, and no explanation is given. The trumpeter’s fiancée comes out of the audience to fill in on piano. The scattershot nature of the band – and its member’s mysterious whereabouts – adds to the atmosphere. They sing about not having any beer and are rewarded with cold cans of Abita, courtesy of a festival volunteer. A wide smile never leaves the lead singer’s face. Mine, either, come to think of it.

I leave early and only regret it after reading this stellar review.

———

Preservation Hall is where you’ll fall in love with New Orleans. It’s old, crowded, and sweaty. The stained walls look like they haven’t received a touch-up in decades. The worst seat in the crowded venue is still only about 20 feet away from the band. The last time I was there, the trombone player joked — I hope — that he hit a few fans a year with his slide. The songs are decades old. And it’s always hot, even with the cursory ceiling fans slowly spinning. Close your eyes, and you feel like you’re back in the 1960s.

I love the hall so much, I stop by the Old U.S. Mint at the Louisiana State Museum on Easter Sunday to check out an exhibit celebrating its 50th anniversary. I receive free admission when the security guard tells me that there’s no one around to take my money. I don’t argue.

The exhibit itself is interesting. It shows how the hall got its start and grew through the years. The second half of the exhibit showcases some of the musicians that have graced its stages through the years. It ends with a brief video featuring testimonials from current musicians; the video wraps up with one of my new favorite quotes:

“That’s what I find amazing about the hall, is that the right people always find it.” – Tuba player and Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe

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