Big Easy: Bands galore, dark joints, good eats
So what happened in New Orleans besides Jazz Fest? Glad you asked.
Don’t worry: I won’t tell you ALL that happened; about seeing pianist John Cleary play at Chickie Wah-Wah, where it was so crowded the first rows of fans could have touched him, or about the surf ’n’ turf po’boy (roast beef and shrimp, with gravy) at the Parkway Bakery and Tavern, or about the guy passed out in the French Quarter around 10 a.m. with one leg wedged against the jamb at an impossible angle, or about the Vietnamese bakery in New Orleans East where po’boys cost less than $3.
So, I was sitting at the upstairs bar in Elizabeth’s in Bywater, finishing dinner and watching the Celtics beat the Hawks. Turns out the bartender, Nathan, is from Northampton. My Jazz Fest runnin’ pardners were Dennis, also from Northampton and Mike, from Boston — and Nathan was only too happy for an excuse to tune in the Celtics. The owner sat on the stool next to Mike’s, and she comped us a few beers.
As we toasted her in gratitude, a woman came up the stairs wearing pink shorts and T-shirt and a sousaphone. A band casually formed, most in their 20s and 30s: trombone/attitude, drums and the aforementioned sousaphone player — plus a trumpeter of about 75 who approached the bar for his comped Miller High Life and complained to me: “This doesn’t LOOK like the Ritz.”
Diners expecting a quiet meal got something else, for sure. That band was good, and loud! The place was so packed that servers had to time their dashes around the trombone slide thrusting into the doorway.
The next night we went to Buffa’s in the Treme to see the Royal Rounders, which also included an ancient trumpeter, play a special set they called “The Royal Rounders Go Hawaiian,” which meant ukulele complications. They’d decided to do something different during Jazz Fest, said pianist David Roe, and “different” can mean almost anything in New Orleans. This was like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five hijacking Tom Waits to Waikiki.
Afterwards, we followed the sousaphone player outside just to see how, or if, a sousaphone could fit in a car. He pulled off the bell and spun it onto the rest of the instrument somehow with a theatrical flourish, popped open the trunk of a vast, red 1970s Oldsmobile and tucked it cozily inside.
Devil of a time
Right then, a large, loud Cajun dressed like Satan — six-inch red platform shoes, red pants and shirt, red makeup on face and hands and a red hood with horns — appeared out of nowhere and climbed into the trunk to stand there, yelling. Fearless, he called everybody bad words and posed for any cellphone photos or videos anybody wanted to shoot. He ran around to the front, stood on the bumper then sprawled on the hood posing languidly like 1950s pin-up Betty Page. Then he shook down the crowd for modeling fees, proclaiming “[Biggest obscenity I know]! I’m pretty, but I ain’t free!”
Some made cash donations while the rest of us wondered: Where the hell was this guy coming from or going to?
In the 7th Ward we visited Bullets — the owner had reportedly taken one to the head but seemed undamaged by this. Shown in a “Treme” episode, this is a cozy neighborhood joint where we were the only white guys in sight and where motorcycles lined the sidewalk alongside. In the front window a tremendous five-piece band played hot funky fusion music (violin, guitar, keyboards, bass and drums), drawing a nicely dressed (in purple), spry woman about 80 to her feet to dance beside her table.
It was about the friendliest place I’ve visited in a long while, an informal meeting of the United Riders, a motorcycle gang of a very classy and prosperous kind. The bikes were immaculate and so were the riders: Everybody’s leathers looked tailored. I asked a member standing outside to show me his ride and he proudly displayed a polished-to-knockout-perfection black-and-chrome Harley. He said he had also just bought a Honda Gold Wing, and riding with his wife on the back to Pensacola, he reported, was smooth as the back of a limo.
We also visited the Saturn Bar on St. Claude, a place Mike and Dennis had tried to visit over years of Jazz Fests but never found open. We entered through a battered wooden door into a vestibule where thick, clear plastic slats hung like in a commercial freezer. The Saturn is the only place in New Orleans that offered actively bad music, and no two furniture items matched in the whole dim place. Want a dive bar? This is your joint. It was nearly as dark as Snake and Jake’s, reputedly the darkest bar in New Orleans.
That’s a distinction I’m willing to concede; and maybe Snake and Jake’s is so dark because naked women are said to drink free. The owner, reportedly desperate to draw customers, had reportedly invited stripper friends to visit after their gigs, then extended the policy to include any women willing to doff their duds on their birthdays. We saw a dog so contented he seemed to live there, but no other naked skin. We must have been too early; we got back to the hotel not far past 2 a.m.
A woman seated at the Snake and Jake’s bar turned out to be an off-duty bartender there; she’d just moved around to the other side. The dog was hers. She knew the guys who ran the Saturn Bar and told us the back room had once hosted amateur boxing matches. Great! — blood and sweat added to an amazingly funky vibe.
On arriving at Snake and Jake’s we’d been greeted by a high-blarney individual who asked us three graybeards if we had IDs. Startled, we reached for our wallets, but he didn’t need to see them; he was satisfied that we simply claimed to have some. Hearing Mike and Dennis were from Massachusetts, he said he had degrees from Harvard and MIT, less plausible claims than the bar’s reputation for selling more Schlitz, per foot of bar, than any drinking establishment in America.
He took umbrage at an Oregon bar’s counterclaim and recalled a surprising encounter outside the bar to explain the origins of the bar’s specialty drink. He said an opossum had fallen onto his head as he entered Snake and Jake’s one night. The opossum fled, but an idea was born: to drop a shot of Jaegermeister into a glass of Schlitz — what else? — to form the Possum Drop. He claimed it tasted a good deal like Dr. Pepper. None of us chanced it, but some along the bar seemed to be enjoying it.
We had arrived at Snake and Jake’s still full from Jacques Ymo’s restaurant on Oak Street, where dinner had begun with a remarkable appetizer: cheesecake with alligator sausage. It tastes better than it might sound.
That place is seriously popular. It sprawls through several neighboring houses, now connected to the original bar/restaurant, and out onto the sidewalk, tables lined up outside the door. Best table at that place, though, is in the back of an ancient Datsun pickup parked half on the sidewalk, half on the street.
At the Maple Leaf
Next door is the Maple Leaf, a famous music bar. Ruthie Foster (who sang at Jazz Fest that afternoon with the Warren Haynes Band) was to start at midnight, followed by the North Mississippi All Stars. In the street in front of each place was a separate barbecue cart, with a bar tucked in the alley. A band was playing across the street at Frenchy’s gallery.
Frenchy is a painter I met at Gathering of the Vibes one summer in Mariaville, where his “roadies” toted in and set up an easel and oils and he rapidly painted the bands playing on stage, hoisting the finished canvases over his head as each set ended, to reap applause and auction off the work.
Our wait at Jacques Ymo’s was expected to be 90 minutes, so we grabbed beers (Abita Amber, brewed right in New Orleans) and waited on a sidewalk bench in front of Squeal, a barbecue place that was already closed but intriguing looking. The chef came over to schmooze us on his way home and persuaded us to come back the next night, and it turned out to be well worth it. Meanwhile, we didn’t sit down to dinner at Jacques Ymo’s until almost midnight, and the place was still super-loud with happy diners.
Nobody naked there, either, and, surprisingly, no sousaphones.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.