Category Archives: Louisiana

Music: Shotgun Jazz Band and Tuba Skinny (New Orleans)

Music is as fundamental to the character of New Orleans as red beans and rice, which is why I always stop by the Louisiana Music Factory whenever I’m in town. The place focuses on regional music, from New Orleans jazz and R&B to zydeco and early rock ‘n’ roll, and its multiple listening stations are an aural smorgasbord. Every trip unearths a few gems; here are a couple of my favorites.

Shotgun Jazz Band
Shotgun Jazz Band

SHOTGUN JAZZ BAND – Don’t Give Up the Ship

Much like “Johnny B. Goode” sounds as fresh in concert today as when Chuck Berry first recorded it in 1958, the Shotgun Jazz Band’s old-school jazz selections are infused with a vitality that belies their age. Indeed, tracks like Zilner Randolph’s “Old Man Mose”, the opening number on SJB’s 2013 album, Don’t Give Up the Ship, spring from a nearly century-old repertoire.

SJB sweeps aside the at-times too-cool-for-school jazz of the mid-20th century onward, and instead lunges straight for its roots in the New Orleans of Satchmo, the Kingfish, and Prohibition. The band’s “fairly consistent” core lineup – including Christopher Johnson (tenor saxophone); Michael Magro (clarinet); Peter Loggins (trombone); Justin Peake (drums); John Dixon (banjo); and Tyler Thomson (bass) – produces a tight sound that still affects the breeziness of an impromptu hootenanny.

But the proverbial ace up SJB’s sleeve is vocalist and trumpeter Marla Dixon, whose vibrant and soulful style at once recalls blues queen Bessie Smith (notably manifest in her interpretation of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”) and poet Dylan Thomas’s summation of novelist Flann O’Brien’s raucous 1939 masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds: “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” (The sentiment applies to both band and book in the best possible ways.)

Other highlights include jaunty covers of Wooden Joe Nicholas’s “All the Whores”, Sam Morgan’s “Short Dress Gal”, the Harlem Hamfats’ “Weed Smoker’s Dream”, Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, and a few infectious originals, such as the title track and “Girl, You Better Use Your Head”. The album’s cover art (and title) draw upon Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag commemorating the dying words of Captain James Lawrence during the War of 1812.

 

Tuba Skinny

Tuba Skinny

TUBA SKINNY – Pyramid Strut

Fellow New Orleans jazz revivalists Tuba Skinny launch their latest full-length effort, Pyramid Strut (2014), with their take on Bunk Johnson’s “Big Chief Battle Axe” and from there throw an all-hours party.

As the Cramps famously did for forgotten garage and rockabilly, so Tuba Skinny resurrects obscure and long-forgotten tracks from the early days of jazz and blues, such as Victoria Spivey’s “Blood Thirsty Blues” and “Mean Blue Spirits”, a variation of Bessie Smith’s “Blue Spirit Blues”. The band’s line-up includes Todd Burdick (tuba); Westen Borghesi (tenor banjo); Jon Doyle (clarinet); Barnabus Jones (trombone); Shayne Cohn (cornet/fiddle, as well as the album’s cover artwork); Robin Rapuzzi (washboard); and Erika Lewis (vocals/bass drum), whose voice can conjure heaven, hell, and everything in between within the span of three minutes.

What’s more, the band is insanely prolific. While Pyramid Strut (Tuba Skinny’s fifth full-length record since 2009) was just released in early 2014, as of this writing (August 2014), the band’s website already reports the completion of its next album, Owl Call Blues.

While both bands amply demonstrate their musical chops, the music they play itself hearkens back to the bouncy simplicity of early-era jazz, much like the early days of rock and roll and Chicago blues, before both were overrun by dorm-room wankers and 12-minute guitar solos. Both albums are available through Louisiana Music Factory, or directly from the artists’ websites.

Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge

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.

Kermit's Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge
Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge

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.

Kermit's Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge
Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge

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.

Kermit's Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge
Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge

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.

Kermit's Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge
Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge

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.

Kermit's Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge
Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge

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

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kermits-Treme-Motherinlaw-Lounge/674959599217170

Stalking Fictional Characters: James Lee Burke’s New Iberia

“The air smelled like Bayou Teche when it’s spring and the fish are spawning among the water hyacinths and the frogs are throbbing in the cattails and the flooded cypress.” ― James Lee Burke, Creole Belle

James Lee Burke Sign on Main Street in New Iberia
James Lee Burke Sign on Main Street in New Iberia

The minute I heard of an upcoming work conference in New Orleans, my first thought was not of Bourbon Street and sanctioned drunken revelry, but the small southwestern Louisiana town of New Iberia. As a fan of writer James Lee Burke, I have been reading about New Iberia for more than a decade. Burke writes for the senses. His lyrical descriptions of place make New Iberia itself a character in his novels — every bit as much as the recurring Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell. For a book person, this was something of a pilgrimage. I wanted to feel the morning dew on my arms, to smell the rain, to hear the birds, to taste a cup of coffee at Victor’s, and to watch storm clouds build in the distance.

I did all that and more.

In Burke’s books, Dave, Clete, or both, often make the two-hour-plus drive from New Orleans along US-90. His words came alive as we passed swamps, broken down trailers, agricultural fields, and rusty looking bars. We drove through Morgan City, and before we reached New Iberia a storm gathered and the clouds seemed full-to-bursting. The rain finally came, and I was in heaven.

U.S. 90
U.S. 90

Pulling off of the highway, I was initially disappointed by the strip malls and fast food joints in New Iberia. I was expecting something untouched and idyllic. We found that just ahead, once we reached Main Street. While “progress” has reached the area, much of it remains intact. We turned onto Main Street and found Teche Street just to our right.

Bayou Teche Guest Cottage
Bayou Teche Guest Cottage

At the end of the road we found our accommodations for the next three nights – Bayou Teche Guest Cottage. When I started planning the trip I was thrilled to find this place. I had figured on a shady motor court just off the highway, like where Clete might stay, but instead I found a cottage nestled along the Bayou Teche

Bayou Teche Guest Cottage
Bayou Teche Guest Cottage

When I called to make reservations I spoke with the owner, Ms. Gayle, who told me to just bring a check – no credit cards and no pre-payment required. This somehow spoke to the New Iberia I had read about. We arrived and met Ms. Gayle. She lives in the house on the property. When I fessed up that the whole reason we were there was James Lee Burke she told me that his grandfather used to own the property and that the film crew for In the Electric Mist had rented out her house and the cottage. We then conspiratorially agreed there had never been a truly successful film adaptation of his books. When she said she had a pirogue for us to use I may have gone all giddy. May have. Definitely did. Might have squealed.

The storm was moving out, leaving sun showers in its wake, and we walked into town on the Main Street that James Lee Burke has described as the most beautiful in the country. I had reviewed a map provided by the town that highlights spots to check out.

New Iberia Sheriffs Dept
New Iberia Sheriffs Dept

We walked past the Burke House, the sheriff’s station, Books Along the Teche, the local library, Evangeline Theater, and Victor’s Cafeteria. As we turned around there was a rainbow over the town. Are you fucking kidding me? Well done, New Iberia Chamber of Commerce!

Main Street, New Iberia, Louisiana
Main Street, New Iberia, Louisiana

We stopped at a local bar, but the smoke and dead-animal heads were a buzzkill after the rainbow, so we took our “go-cups” of scotch and soda and strolled around town. They are amazingly lax about imbibing in Louisiana.

Along the Teche
Along the Teche

I loved the cottage. Each morning, I enjoyed my coffee on the porch and then drifted down to the dock along the Bayou Teche. I was surrounded by cypress knees and dripping trees, and on the second morning I saw a nutria swimming near the bank. We took the pirogue out for a little while one morning, as Dave often does in the books. I wanted to go out again that afternoon, and we managed to experience both a leech in the boat and a torrential downpour. Both of these were amazing, each in their very different ways. The leech explained why we hadn’t seen anyone swimming.

On the Bayou Teche in a pirogue
On the Bayou Teche in a pirogue

 

Leech in the pirogue
Leech in the pirogue

The afternoon of our last full day we stopped by the drive-thru daiquiri trailer (again, something mentioned in the books). I should note that I am not enough of a devotee to either go completely dry or on a bender; Dave’s drinking problems are his own. I learned that daiquiris are legal and do not violate open container laws because there is tape on the cup and paper on the straw. Tape and paper = totally legal. Did you know you can get ticketed for jaywalking in Washington, D.C.?

Drive Thru Daiquiris
Drive Thru Daiquiris
Totally legal
Totally legal

We also stopped by Books on the Teche. We browsed, and while paying for our books, I found out that the store offered signed first editions of “Jim’s books.” The proprietors knew him from way back, and he only does this for Books on the Teche and a bookstore near his current home in Montana. “Jim.” Giddy alert level 7. I pre-ordered his latest book, Wayfaring Stranger, despite the fact I was in the middle of reading an advance copy that a friend acquired for me.

Books Along the Teche
Books Along the Teche
Books Along the Teche
Books Along the Teche
Signed Copy of Wayfaring Stranger
Signed Copy of Wayfaring Stranger

We got up early on our last day in Louisiana so we could go to Victor’s Cafeteria before heading back to New Orleans for our flight home. They are open for early breakfast (6 a.m. – 10 a.m.) and lunch and we arrived a little after 6 a.m. The coffee was good. Watching the locals have breakfast before heading to work, I had no trouble imaging Dave amongst them. They even have a mock bait shop in the restaurant as homage to the character that has made the place famous.

Victor's Cafeteria
Victor’s Cafeteria
Victor's Cafeteria
Victor’s Cafeteria

Louisiana felt very alive – something I had to experience to truly appreciate. There is something about the air, water, and rain that are tangibly vibrant. The people there also helped make the trip – from the woman at the Goodwill with an accent so thick I had to translate for Patrick to the young cashier at Simoneaud’s Grocery & Market who carded me (yes!) and seemed pleased to hear how much we liked the area.

New Iberia was everything I hoped for and more. I traveled there because I wanted to experience a Louisiana that I knew I might not find. I was basically stalking a fictional character and written descriptions of a place. James Lee Burke’s power as a writer made every day feel like it was imbued with the magic of fiction. The place was real. So yes, the trip was about writer James Lee Burke, Dave Robicheaux, and Clete Purcell, but I loved southwest Louisiana well past those literary connections. And now I understand why Burke writes about it with such love, respect, and concern.

New Iberia, Louisiana
New Iberia, Louisiana

The only thing that could have made it better was if Budget had had an old convertible Cadillac to rent.

Urns of Justice, John M. Shaw U.S. Courthouse, Lafayette, Louisiana

The Urns of Justice, by sculptor Diana Moore, sit outside of the John M. Shaw U.S. Courthouse,  in Lafayette, Louisiana. While they are meant to evoke decorative, anthropomorphic urns of the South and antiquity, one is instead struck by the thought that justice is both blind and brainless.

Urns of Justice

 

Urns of JusticeMore information.

 

The Serendipity of Travel

Buddha at Jungle Gardens, Avery Island
Buddha at Jungle Gardens, Avery Island

Things happen on the road. Small miracles that could go unnoticed in daily life. But when you travel you look at everything with a different awareness. You look for signs, literal and figurative. Travel offers answers and also asks questions. It gives you moments that you might never quite understand, but you revisit for years afterward, like a 65mph koan.

I thought nothing of the older couple taking careful steps around the Buddha at Jungle Gardens on Avery Island. The wife asked about the flowers and I answered that I thought the flowers were spider lilies, but I wasn’t exactly sure. A little while later I was walking the path to Bird City and slowed because an older gentleman using a cane was ahead of me. Instead of hurrying past him (as I might normally), I said hello. He reminded me that we had just met at the Buddha. I kept pace with him as we walked toward the observation platform. He was traveling with his wife because their house in Pensacola, FL had been destroyed in the flooding on April 30th. They were waiting for it to be rebuilt. He looked sad and angry all at once, but was making the most of his exile. We watched the snowy egrets for a bit and eventually he left to continue his journey.

The rest of the day held an unexpected level of magic for me. I wanted to see a raccoon in Louisiana (for my own ridiculous reasons) and one appeared for me. Baby peacocks and supermodel lizards happened too. It was a day where I held a consistent level of joy and lived in the moment – something I’m not always very good at doing. We drove out to the Gulf of Mexico and eventually returned to our cottage in New Iberia to freshen up. We decided to go to Lafayette (about 20 miles away) for dinner. We went to a small Thai restaurant in a strip mall that was inexplicably perfect. As we finished our meal a couple approached our table. It was the older gentleman and his wife. He said with a smile, “I’m not sure who is following who.”

After they left I looked at Patrick and asked, “Was that future us?” How did they end up there? How did we? Avery Island was about an hour away from Lafayette. What are the odds?

When I begin editing photos a few days later I found a photo of the older gentleman. I had completely forgotten taking it. I seldom take photos of strangers, but I just liked how he looked amid the huge trees and verdant landscape.

These unexpected intersections are part of the appeal of travel that is impossible to explain. I hope I see them on the road again.

Path to Bird City at Jungle Gardens, Avery Island
Path to Bird City at Jungle Gardens, Avery Island

Napoleon House

Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana

Following their final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte on the plains of Waterloo, Belgium, in 1815, the British sent the former French Emperor into permanent exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena. But even a remotely imprisoned Napoleon remained the best bet going for many with a bone to pick with the Brits (and there were many).

Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana

Among these was one Nicholas Girod, a former New Orleans mayor whose cooperation with Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 had as much to do with his hatred of the British as any pro-American sentiment. In 1821, Girod went so far as to offer his house at 500 Chartres Street in the city’s French Quarter as a residence for Napoleon pending the success of an alleged plot to break the exiled emperor off the rock and bring him back to New Orleans.  However, Bonaparte died before any such effort could take place.

Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana

But his would-be association with the house at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis Streets lived on; nearly a century later, in 1914, the Impastato family opened the Napoleon House Bar and Café in Girod’s former home. Today, Napoleon House remains a throwback to a twice-bygone era, where the white bust of the former French ruler that stands behind the bar holds court over the locals and tourists alike who are drawn to its decayed old-world ambiance.

Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana

The café serves Euro-Creole-inspired cuisine such as muffuletta, boudin, and a variety of salads. But the real draw, for me, is the bar’s house drink, the Pimm’s Cup. The concoction’s base ingredient is a gin-based, herb-infused liqueur that can be mixed with anything from lemonade and club soda to ginger ale or champagne, and typically served in a Collins glass garnished with a cucumber slice. It’s a most refreshing libation in the paint-warping heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer; to be sure, meted out, one might drink it all night long to maintain a pleasant buzz without ever feeling any adverse effect.

Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Napoleon House, New Orleans, Louisiana

If you’ve never had a Pimm’s Cup, Napoleon House is a great place to acquaint yourself. Indeed, over the years, it has become ritual for me, upon arriving in New Orleans, to drop my bags wherever I may be staying and head straight for Napoleon House to plot my next move over a Pimm’s (or three) within the peeling walls that once might have housed the man who first sold the city to America.

Napoleon House Bar and Café
Address: 500 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA 70130
Phone: (504) 524-9752
Email: info@napoleonhouse.com
Website: http://napoleonhouse.com/

Hours: Monday: 11:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday – Thursday: 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Friday – Saturday: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Sunday: Closed
Bar Hours: Bar open till.

 

Louisiana Wildlife

I was blown away by the lushness of southern Louisiana. There were birds everywhere and the animal encounters were frequent and amazing. My favorite spots were along the Bayou Teche early in the morning – Muscovy ducks, nutria, turtles, spiders, and birds singing high in the tree canopy. For bird watching, Bird City at Jungle Gardens on Avery Island and the small island just outside of Rip Van Winkle Gardens in Jefferson Island were unmatched. There were hundreds (thousands?) of nesting snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, ibis, herons, and egrets, plus gators, water snakes, and turtles. Within Rip Van Winkle Gardens we saw a mother raccoon and a mother peahen with her young. Out on Lake Martin we saw all ages of alligators, cormorants, herons, a whistling duck, anhingas, wood ducks, turtles, and swarms of dragonflies and damselflies. For me, Louisiana was wild and magical.

Click on the images to make them larger.

Spider along the banks of the Bayou Teche
Spider along the banks of the Bayou Teche
Snowy Egrets at Bird City, Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, LA
Snowy Egrets at Bird City, Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, LA
Bird City, Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, LA
Bird City, Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, LA
Gallinule among the elephant ears at Bird City, Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, LA
Gallinule among the elephant ears at Bird City, Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, LA
Penchicks with peahen at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Penchicks with peahen at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Penchicks with peahen at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Penchicks with peahen at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Mother raccoon at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Mother raccoon at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Mother raccoon near her nest at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Mother raccoon near her nest at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Green anole at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Green anole at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Dragonfly on lotus at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Dragonfly on lotus at Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Huge rookery just outside of Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Huge rookery just outside of Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Jefferson Island, LA
Alligator at Lake Martin, LA
Alligator at Lake Martin, LA
Wood ducks at Lake Martin, LA
Wood ducks at Lake Martin, LA
Dragonfly and baby turtle at Lake Martin, LA
Dragonfly and baby turtle at Lake Martin, LA
Great blue heron at Lake Martin, LA
Great blue heron at Lake Martin, LA
Alligator at Lake Martin, LA
Alligator at Lake Martin, LA
Leech in the pirogue, Bayou Teche, New Iberia, LA
Leech in the pirogue, Bayou Teche, New Iberia, LA
Damselfly at Lake Martin, LA
Damselfly at Lake Martin, LA
Anhinga at Lake Martin, LA
Anhinga at Lake Martin, LA
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck at Lake Martin, LA
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck at Lake Martin, LA