In 1994, New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe and his wife, Antoinette, opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge (named after the singer’s 1961 hit single). Located at 1500 N. Claiborne Avenue, in the city’s Treme neighborhood, they hoped the lounge would infuse new life into the singer’s career. It did just that, and the bar and music spot soon became a cultural hub of the community.
Following her husband’s death in 2001, Antoinette K-Doe continued to own and operate the Mother-in-Law Lounge (which was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005) until her own death in 2009. The club closed the following year.
But in January 2014, the Mother-in-Law found new life when it reopened on Martin Luther King Day under the stewardship of New Orleans jazzman and native son Kermit Ruffins. Today, with its vibrant exterior murals and predominantly local clientele (as well as a smattering of tourists), the Mother-in-Law is reaffirming its place in Treme, providing a venue and gathering point for a variety of area musicians.
The renowned Treme Brass Band’s weekly Sunday gig happily coincided with my first night in town. So at the encouragement of Andy Rubin, a Baltimore-based friend and the Treme Brass Band’s General Manager, I set out on the mile-and-a-half walk from our digs at the French Market Inn on Decatur Street.
The residential streets surrounding Esplanade Avenue, in Faubourg Marigny, are quieter, more empty, and within a few blocks of the Mother-in-Law it becomes evident that you’re no longer in the tourist-driven combine of the Quarter. The words “I told u who hold the fuckin power!” are hand-scrawled in black Sharpie across the warped clapboards of a nearby house. And then, farther up the street, the visages of Ernie and Antoinette manifest in the form of a colorfully loud mural. A bronze plaque beside the door commemorates the previous owners.
Inside, the Lounge is comparatively nondescript (save for a flamboyant life-size statue of Ernie K-Doe), comprised mainly of two utilitarian rooms – the bar side and the stage side – separated by a cinderblock wall, patrons in the former dancing to the brassy strains emanating from the latter. Benny Jones, Sr., the Treme Brass Band’s leader since the 2012 passing of Uncle Lionel Batiste, and five or six other band members generate their signature sound with little, if any, amplification from the tiny stage, which is little more than a raised platform. Five or six patrons stand watching the band, their backs to the dividing wall; unlike the bar side, no one facing the music is dancing. Not in the corporeal sense, anyway.
For once, I don’t feel badly for sweating through my pressed, button-down shirt; in this climate, everyone does, especially in late June. I found the staff to be very friendly, and I downed a couple of reasonably priced beers during the roughly 45 minutes of the Treme Brass Band’s set that I caught. Despite its simplicity, the place exudes an identity, a sense of history and atmosphere, much more on par with the classic juke joints and gin mills of old than their more modern, sanitized corporate counterparts.
The band wrapped up their set, and I dropped a few bills in the metal urn in front of the stage that serves as a tip jar. I bought a copy of their 2008 album, New Orleans Music, which the band members graciously signed to the attention of my 8-year-old son. From hard rock to hip-hop to traditional folk, he loves live music – the enthusiasm and energy – in all its forms. And the CD, by proxy, will hopefully tide him over until the day I can bring him with me back to see and hear and appreciate for himself the singular city of New Orleans, and the resilient, unvarnished character that appears nightly in places like Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge.
Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge
1500 North Claiborne Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70116
P: (504) 975-3955