A Wednesday in May in New Orleans
Although I missed my two current crushes, Messrs. Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, at the HBO Treme signing at Louisiana Music Factory, I was still lucky to have my shoes on Decatur Street yesterday. I locked up my bike a couple minutes after noon and had just missed the Treme gang, but Kermit Ruffins was just getting started. I had been waiting months to order a DVD about Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. called Guardians of the Flame. I'd found it on Music Factory's website but thought I'd just grab it on my way in the door. No. I was told. No. It might be on the website but they don't have it and don't know where to get it. Momentarily deflated, I waded in through the huge door to door and out both doors crowd. I noted the Treme printed white hanky some were carrying and chided myself for having been late. But ah well, Kermit was playing.
The place was full of locals and visitors to Jazz Fest alike. (More on the Jazz Festers later.) They loved him. I heard so many of them saying, "And this is FREE!" Yeah, and while yesterday's lineup at the Factory was unusually packed, the level and quantity of music in New Orleans is always high. It was fun to see the look of incredulity on the visitors' faces as they enjoyed themselves, were astounded to see people in the crowd in a store with beers in their hand at noon, and browsed the rich CD bins they were in front of, grabbing something they hadn't known they'd wanted when they first came in. Imagine if they'd had access to the other bins, but that was not to be. Where they were is pretty much where they had to stay unless they wanted to fight their way through the crowd.
Kermit ended his set and headed to the cash register to sign CD's. I happened to be standing next to him as an elderly couple from Vancouver who had just purchased the CD waited patiently for him to notice them. By now, Irvin Mayfield is starting to play. They waited and looked confused as Kermit was listening to Mayfield get started and cracked a beer. I asked them if they were waiting for him to sign it for them. They said they were, looking bewildered. I leaned over the counter between us and said, "Kermit, would you mind signing this CD for these nice people?" "Of course!" he said warmly, grabbing the CD, talking to the gentleman about an inscription. The Vancouver lady said thank you and seemed surprised that there weren't security and body guards or a sign up sheet or something. They were beyond thrilled, him holding the CD up to show her. On the way out the door, this 70-ish couple looked like they were 15 coming out of their first record store together.
Meanwhile, Mayfield is playing and bantering with Kermit about how Kermit won't go to his (Mayfield's) club because he doesn't have Bud Light. Kermit is laughing and hollering, "That's exactly why!" Mayfield's singer, whose first name Michael is all I caught, was as smooth and perfect as a sip of brandy. (If anyone can enlighten me as to his full name, I'll be grateful.) The crowd shifted a little, but as a few went out, even more came in. Mayfield told the crowd he hoped his funeral would be as big as Kermit's. They bantered about that a bit more, Kermit laughing all the while, then Mayfield started in to I'll Fly Away. It was clear most of the crowd didn't know the words, but eventually most of them got it. I was singing croakily and badly while hearing Kermit, behind the counter, singing over my left shoulder. It was one of those moments we live for here. It was as though all I could hear was his voice out of the entire crowd's and I hoped that that would be what would be playing on my internal juke box as I faded out of this world. Mayfield then started through a list of important NOLA musicians who had flown away and the crowd, finally completely clear on the chorus, raised a hand or a cheer for each name while continuing to sing. While Kermit was on my left singing, on the right hand wall photos of Professor Longhair and Milton Batiste were looking down. I'm telling ya, it's those little stellar hair-on-the-back-of-the-arm raising seconds that put you in your place on the continuum and everything else falls away.
That would have been enough. Right there. But the Basin Street Records tribute continued.
Mayfield was followed by Dr. Michael White, who is revered by the younger brass bands. I once saw him join the Soul Rebels at a small set at Sound Cafe and they treated him with such respect and gratitude that I'll never forget that. Yesterday he played for the packed crowd, probably some not having a clue who he is, but watching their faces as he played was wonderful. I also noticed a great number of locals who had shown up just to see him, packing the Factory even tighter. (Thus the only photo I could get was one of those camera in the air and hope jobs.)
Everyone's set had been a little long, so Glen Andrews said they'd hurry up and get ready. Earlier he'd been trying to get through the crowd. He said he had to GO! I laughingly said I did too but that I didn't see a chance of getting to those bathrooms that seemed miles away. He said, "Just get behind me. We'll get there." With his horn on his rather imposing back, he just powered through. I was so grateful. Now he and the Rebirth guys were getting ready to blow the CD's into other bins. And they surely did. Everyone in their little two foot square of the planet was dancing.
After Rebirth Brass Band ended, we headed across the street to get a beer. It was by now, about 3PM. We climbed across the trailer hitches on Gregg Allman's tour bus (he was playing HOB last night) and found a table and two stools. Oh yeah. Life is good. Unfortunately this place is blasting 60's rock classics. Good ones mind you, and on probably any other day I mightn't have been discombobulated at hearing Led Zeppelin over my beer, in fact I might have liked it. It was such a strange change from the hyper-local scene we'd just left. Nevertheless, we had a couple beers, gave a couple people directions and had a woman point at the fleur de lis on my shirt and ask me what that symbol was called. We stayed there, missing Garage a Trois but wanted to go back for Dumpstaphunk. Silly me, I thought maybe it would be less crowded. Nope. But it didn't matter.
Right before we waded back into the Music Factory, the Urban Legend across from me (explanation of that comes later) says, "Hey, that's Mos Def." I turned and it was. I walked to the corner, acted like a completely star-struck kid and said, "Thank you so much for the BP version of Ain't My Fault. We play it almost every morning at our house. I'm wondering if you could sign my bag." He did. Not knowing what to call him, Mr. Def just didn't sound right, I then said, "By the way, the writing of Mathematics is absolutely remarkable." He looked at me like I had three heads. I am sure he in no way expected a woman of my age to even have heard Mathematics. But now my yellow bag flaunts Lloyd Price, Mos Def and Kermit Ruffins next to the Storyville girl.
Dumpstaphunk rocked it. Totally rocked it. Next to us was a couple from Massachusetts. Here for Jazz Fest, their first time. They were charming, he was red/blurry eyed and she was bursting with energy. She kept saying El-eye-sian Fields. After the third time, between songs, I leaned over and gave her the proper pronunciation. She then asked if Dumpstaphunk had some Neville's in it, and they really were total music freaks with a wide range of musical knowledge and interest. I told her yes, there were, but that they all hid their ages so well I could never keep track of who was who's son or grandson. We talked a bit more while the band got ready to play the next song, and another out of town couple, hearing our conversation, inched closer and joined in. They were all so sweet, so interested. I pointed them to Dumpstaphunk's CD as I had seen it on my way through the crowd. Just then I looked up and Donald Harrison, Jr. is walking right into me. I said, "Excuse me, Mr. Harrison!" He kindly stopped and I told him I couldn't find the Guardians of the Flame DVD and did he know where I could get one. He laughed and said, "No. I don't even own a copy!" I thanked him and he went on his way. The out of town guests were stupefied. People were dancing all the way up the staircase and out into the streets. I have no idea how many toes were stomped or how many bruises folks got from flying, dancing elbows, but no one cared.
We went back across the street to our table and stools for another beer and our backs. This was when we met the one out of seven Jazz Festers who needed a smack upside his head. He asked what was going on across the street. I told him and pointed to the schedule on the bar's door telling him that there would be great stuff going on there all week. He puffed out his chest and said, "I'm not local, but I'm here for two weeks every year so I know some stuff." Okay. 'Nuff said. We figured one out of seven wasn't a bad ratio of douchebags to nice people.
At that point we decided since it was almost 5PM that we'd wander down to see if Dwayne Dopsie was playing, but forgot that it was Wednesday and he didn't play til Thursday so off we went to the Blacksmith Shop where I discovered that I have been living with an Urban Legend. Somehow the conversation with the waiter came around to "I heard about a really bad accident with one of you buggy driver guys. Before I started working here, but heard it was really bad." We started laughing, then of course, the story was recounted broken bone by broken bone with the waiter amazed that he was looking at the actual guy. It was kind of fun in that continuum sort of way that the story was now part of the "who knows what's really true" history of that place. I guess I'll have to have an Urban Legend tshirt made up now.
After more beer than we'd anticipated drinking, we decided we were hungry and headed for Frenchmen Street. We got to Adolfo's at the perfect time, only 20 minutes to wait and ate an over the top meal, as is always the case with that place. After a short conference we decide to leave the bikes locked up and see what's going on over there. After all, by now it's well into evening, so we do the circuit to see who's playing where and when. Great names, all, but we decide to continue down to the Maison. At the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen was some kind of experimental band, but no Young Fellaz, and across the street was a pickup truck with an impromptu art show in the bed of the truck. Two artists, locals, had set up shop and the work was amazing. Kelly Curry, an artist and mural specialist, had a painting of Frenchmen on Halloween that she said she'd painted in real time. She had perched on a balcony and painted the scene as it was happening. I wanted it but couldn't afford it. Her other work was equally stunning. Showing with her was a young man named Joe Parker. There was one piece that stopped me in my tracks, although with a truck full of gorgeous art these two would have stopped me anyway. A combination of sculpture and painting, I had to have it and could actually afford it, so he wrapped it up and tomorrow I hang it. I have both of their emails and other contacts if you're interested, and you should be. I was stupid and didn't take a photo of this remarkable collection of pieces.
On our way down the street we encounter the Sweet Street Symphony. A street group made up of lots of young local musicians that we'd seen in various configurations all over New Orleans. Fun and wonderful, and thoroughly enjoying themselves, we stayed through a set. Once again the looks on the out of towners' faces were priceless. They all look astonished to find fine musicians standing in the streets playing for tips. I couldn't help but wonder if the town they lived in would welcome these musicians to their streets.
Lugging our new purchase we get just outside the door of the Maison, are contemplating heading home, when we hear two guitars sounding so incredible that we were sure they'd be on fire when we went in the place. They were playing, of all things, a cover of Cream's I'm Glad. When we got in there we found a superlative band headed up by a man named Roosevelt Collier. Unwieldy package or not, we were staying. The band was comprised of super-talents and watching Collier's hands was a treat. Turns out this guy was a finalist in the Guitar Center King of the Blues competition in '09. A friend had just this week sent me a reminder of who had won two years before. Clearly, there's some stiff competition there if Collier was a finalist and didn't win.
Ya know what, better yet, watch this, found when we got home.
Enjoy that? So did we. The battery on my camera was dying and so was the one in my back, so we decided to head for home. We stopped into the local watering hole on the way to the house. When we walked home from there I saw this on a telephone pole:
Twelve hours of incredible music, not one cover charge and all done on bicycles in a relatively small area. Twelve hours, no gates. Twelve hours and the stages were all over town. We were so lucky. From being peered down upon by the ghost of Fess to a poster for Jello Biafra on a pole advertising his current incarnation, the music was varied and wonderful and so, so plentiful. As I sank into bed I felt bad for that guy who only gets to be here two weeks a year and thinks he "knows stuff." He really has no idea.