Opening the doors (Letter from New Orleans)
In New Orleans, “How’d you make out?” has replaced “Where y’at?” Those who have been back in town and answering that question since early October are over it, so much so that percussionist Washboard Chaz Leary is contemplating getting a T-shirt with his answer.
“How’d you make out?” is accompanied by a hug in many cases; that was particularly the case in the first months after the storm. The embrace is as much a celebration of the fact that you’re alive as of the fact that you’re back, and both mean a lot in a city anxious about its future.
In New Orleans, that anxiety translates into going out. In the French Quarter and Uptown, you can eat and drink, or buy things to eat and drink. Only recently have niceties such as bookstores reopened. Until November, residents with house damage had to go to Metairie to find an open hardware store.
Some bars, on the other hand, never closed. There is still debate as to who performed the first post-Katrina gig, but the most infamous early gig featured Walter “Wolfman” Washington at the Maple Leaf Bar, even though the bar didn’t have electricity yet. The club — like the city now — was packed with die-hards, crazy enough to sneak in from Baton Rouge to see a show powered by a generator and lit by Christmas lights.
Washington played with an impromptu band because so few musicians were in town at the time, and October was dominated by similar loose accumulations of musicians. One night, Galactic’s Stanton Moore and Rich Vogel were on a tour break, so they played with guitarist/songwriter Anders Osborne at Le Bon Temps Roule in Uptown, while jazz club Snug Harbor presented the Ed Petersen Trio, an ad hoc combo for one night only.
“We’re just trying to get the doors open,” says Jason Patterson, general manager of Snug Harbor. Patterson started booking only weekends at first because the talent pool was too limited to sustain nightly programming. The House Of Blues isn’t scheduled to open until the end of December; Tipitina’s started booking weekend shows at the end of November.
That nightlife climate has made it possible for Le Bon Temps Roule to become a live music hot spot in a way it wasn’t before. One night in October, Anders Osborne was there with Sol Fiya, an Allman Brothers-esque jam/blues band. Former Neville Brothers drummer Willie Green dropped by and sat in for a funky jam, and the room was filled hip to haunch. The crowd overflowed out the doors and swelled off the sidewalk into the street. It was impressive, but it was made possible by the empty houses that surround the bar.
A similar scene played out a few weeks later when the Ogden Museum of Southern Art restarted its “Ogden After Hours” Thursday night music series with James Andrews, who played a spirited set of New Orleans second line music (“Bourbon Street Parade”, “Lil’ Liza Jane”, “When the Saints Go Marching In”). With more than 600 people there, it felt like things were back to normal. Outside, though, many of the buildings on Camp Street remained vacant and still had plywood covering the windows.
The reality of New Orleans now is that it’s a long, narrow city that exists within ten or so blocks of the Mississippi River. Galactic’s Vogel suggested Magazine Street is the new Main Street and St. Charles Avenue is the new edge of town. Along that stretch, from the foot of Carrollton Avenue at the western end to the French Quarter at the east, it’s easy for life to feel relatively normal. In the Bywater, the riverfront stretch northeast of the French Quarter, normalcy is returning, though electricity remains undependable.
Fifteen to twenty blocks from the Mississippi, the reality of the city’s condition is clearer. Look away from the river across St. Claude Avenue from the Bywater at night and the neighborhood is not just empty but pitch black. There are no signs of life between St. Claude and Lake Pontchartrain. Uptown, Washington Avenue still has water lines eight or so feet above the street on houses, showing how high the floodwaters were. Duct-taped refrigerators full of foul, rotting food sit in front of houses where people live again, and there are few along Washington or in the neighborhood around it.
Mid-City, which hosts the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, is just starting to recover. Festival organizers say they’re planning not only to go forward with this year’s Jazz Fest, but to make it a big one. The Lower Ninth Ward remains sufficiently devastated that some homeowners can still only check on their houses from buses touring the neighborhood, and Lakeview — the neighborhood flooded by the 17th Street Canal breach — retains a pile of sodden sheetrock, carpet and trash on the West End Boulevard neutral ground as a symbol of its destruction. The pile dwarfs the empty houses on either side and the city’s highest natural feature, Monkey Hill at the Audubon Zoo.
In light of that destruction, New Orleanians’ ability to celebrate the smallest victories is charming and valuable. The epitome of that was “Thanksgiving: The Musical,” Thanksgiving eve at Tipitina’s. Like the jam shows earlier in the month, it featured a mix of musicians, including Theresa Andersson and members of World Leader Pretend, the Bally Who?! and Cowboy Mouth, but instead of jamming, they performed a fractured version of the Thanksgiving story with new lyrics adapted to classic songs. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” became the soundtrack to the pilgrims’ voyage on the Mayflower, and the Rent number “Seasons Of Love” brought the Indians and pilgrims together. It was inspired silliness, and captured the sense of play that’s an essential part of the city’s character.