Saturday, October 9, 2010

New Orleans wrap up

I'm sure you're all on the edge of your seats to see how the rest of the trip went.  Well it was a whirlwind of pleasure.  I need to write a bit of it down so I can even keep track of it myself.

Day 2:

Well after the first rocking night at the Stomp, we were kind of in a brain fog and just getting our bearings as to where we were located in town, how to get around, etc.  New Orleans is great in that it's a pretty small town.  You can get anywhere in a cab or, even better, on the streetcars! Our friends Rob and Susan invited us to join them for a 2nd line parade close to their neighborhood.   There was also a Saints game, which pretty much puts the town on hold.  The Saints won the Super Bowl last year, and it really galvanized a town that has been through so much hardship.  Everyone watches the Saints! So we grabbed a quick sandwich (you can eat amazing sandwiches for every meal and never get bored!) and ran over to thier house.  We watched the game and jumped on bikes to catch the end of the parade. 

Let me explain a bit about parades in New Orleans: they are the glue that holds the city together.  They are organized by African American community aid groups, and involve multiple brass bands, and lots and lots of dancing.  These groups go back over a hundred years and used to provide burial fund for the slaves.  Now they do community work, and each group chooses their weekend to host a parade: with freshly made fancy costumes, bands, and multiple neighborhood stops at churches, restaurants, and bars.  It is an all-day event.  It's a participatory act, it's actually seen as kind of unseemly to sit and take photos.  You gotta get into it! The "2nd line" means the second parade.  The first parade was traditionally the funeral group.  Here's a bit of a 2nd line featuring the amazing Trombone Shorty here.  Yeah, some of the houses are still messed up, it's pretty sad.  Katrina really wreaked some havoc.  Then I stupidly dumped the bike while trying to balance a beer in my hand and brake, it didn't work out too well.  It provided some amusement for the folks in the neighborhood, where they reminded me that drinking and driving includes bikes, too.  Here's a scene in Uptown where they live, it wasn't damaged in the storm.  Super cute!!

We ended the day at  Bachanal an outdoor wine patio where you can grab whatever cheese you'd like, and they unwrap it for you and voila! There's your cheese plate.  It epitomizes the artsy funky vibe of NOLA.  There is an outdoor grill featuring a guest chef of the week.  The food was spectacular of course.  And it's in the 9th ward! The Afro-Cuban band had been playing every Sunday for over 20 years.  They were great. Then we headed off to The Three Muses for some fabulous cocktails and dessert hosted by their friend Cocktail Chris, with possibly the best Django jazz trio we'd ever seen playing at the front, The Hot Club of New Orleans. 

Day 3:
We finally got to hit Mother's, one of the seminal soul food cafeterias in town.  The specialize in "debris" roast beef, which is like shredded pot roast, and baked ham.  They serve both on a biscuit, which paired with some turnip greens and a few eggs really starts your day right.  The museums were closed today, so it was a bit of a low-key walk about the town day, which is fine.  There is crazy-good live music every night however on Frenchman Street, so we hit that later on. 

We ended up at the Apple Barrel, which is about the size of an apple barrel.  You gotta love a place where you duck under the trombone to get inside the club.  We bumped into a New Orleans legend Uncle Lionel, and John chatted with him all night, he was a hoot!  I got to dance with him, that was great.  He's gotta be in his 80s.  You may have seen him on posters for the brass bands, he asst. leads the Treme Brass Band, always with his bass drum over his shoulders.  It was jam night, so John got to sit in on drums, he was psyched.  There was an amazing piano player that could have contended with Dr. John for amazing songs, and an adorable Japanese girl blowing the harp like you've never seen.  Stunning!

Day 4:

Boat day! Today we were priveleged to be invited out on Susan and Rob's little skiff to go out on the bayou! It was beautiful, a sunny 75F-80F.  We grabbed some po'boys and muffalettas, and stopped for some daiquiris at one of the many drive-thru daiquiri places.  Los Angeles was experiencing a record heat wave of 113F at the time, which we had a hearty laugh about as we were enjoying our delicious shrimp po'boys under a shady tree.  We took a stroll through the preserves and it was absolutely lovely.  John spotted the only alligator we saw, they were being shy that day.

We ended up in Lafayette Square to enjoy the unbelievable Rebirth Brass Band play a free show.  A lot of people had just come from work, the ladies were in their heels and work skirts, but there were also families, kids, and dogs.  We ate yummy tasting plates and drank some more tasty Abita beer.  The band rocked the house! John was in awe of the drummer.  The bar really is super high for music and food here! I turned around and every single person in the crowd had a smile on their face.  The feeling of "we're all in this together" is palpable and real here.  Life is hard, let's get on with it and enjoy it while we can.

Day 5:
Habitat for Humanity day.  John and I like to take a day on our trips here to volunteer to help build a home for Habitat.  We feel like it's important to help contribute to rebuilding this historic world-class city that has influenced so much of the music and culture as we know it.  We hit the site early and started meeting all of the really great volunteers.  They came from all over the world to lend a hand.  A huge group was from Australia, we had the two bikini girls from Ireland, and lots of folks from all over the US.  It makes me all misty every time, people showing up, having a few laughs, and making the world right.  I ended up on a scaffolding nailing up siding with the two very hilarious gals from Ireland, who had spent the night at the casino drinking vodka.  They were really into safety belts, however, so I tried to keep it together.  They took off their tops right away to work on their tans, singing Lady Gaga.  Since most of the group were men or the ladies who prefer ladies, the crowd was psyched.  Many Facebook pictures were taken: up on the ladder, toolbelt on, toolbelt off, lots of caulk photos.  Jokes galore about that.  "Your caulk sucks, hand me your big caulk, fill in your gap with the caulk," etc etc.  They sang show tunes and we rocked out our side wayyyy faster than the guys (sorry John!). 

We caulked, hammered, and painted til 4.  The Irish girls were long gone for naps and we rocked it out with the other randomly wonderful volunteers.  It really is a great experience, I highly recommend it.  You can do as much or as little as you like.  It's pretty laissez faire, if you like running a saw, go for it.  Just sign the waiver first! I was particularly impressed by a rockin mom who project managed the whole building of the front staircase.  She rocked the house!

I had serious anxiety even choosing a restaurant for our "fancy dinner".  I mean, should we hit one of the historic old-line restaurants like Galatoire's, Commander's Palace, or K-Paul's Lousiana Kitchen, or maybe even Emeril's? I had cooked for Emeril at my old restaurant and it would be really meaningful to go there.  But Paul Prudhomme was one of the first New Orleans chefs that had really popularized the local cuisine.  He was the first chef I knew of when I was little that served that kind of cuisine.  I chose randomly and we got a table at Cochon, a place I was dying to go to.  It was fabulous! It was casual enough to serve pitchers of beer, which we totally were up for after a hard day, but fancy enough to feel really taken care of.  Boudin balls, roasted spicy oysters, and it was totally tough to even choose an entree: they had stewed rabbit with cornmeal dumplings, fisherman style roast fish, lots of pork specialties.  I chose the fish special: local pan-roasted drum fish with capers, brown butter lemon sauce, and some wonderful tidbits around it.  John got the beef brisket with horseradish potato salad, sooo good.  We had a fried peach pie for dessert, and just had to try one of the moonshines from the Moonshine Menu.  I s#$t you not, there is a moonshine menu!

Day 6:

Boo, our last day.  We started the day at Brennan's, one of the oldest restaurants in the French Quarter.  Their traditional brunch tasting menu involves an absinthe cocktail, one of their extremely rich egg dishes, prime rib, and their famous bananas foster.  Wow! We just had eggs.  I had fried trout atop creamed spinach, topped with poached eggs and hollandaise.  John had a tasso omelet that could have fed the whole neighborhood.  You know we polished it off like the troopers we are.  The fantastic washroom attendant helped us with directions to the wonderful Backstreet Cultural Museum.  Everyone wants you to get the most out of their city. 

The Backstreet Cultural Museum is in the Treme neighborhood, right around the corner from Congo Square.  Congo Square was the only place during slavery times where the slaves were able to perform their music, which happened every Sunday and happens every Sunday ever since.  We owe the existence of African influenced beats and jazz itself to this place.  Here's a little rundown by one of the actors on the new HBO series "Treme" here.

The museum is a tiny place, filled with fantastic memorabilia of the African American community.  The wonderful host takes you through personally, giving a great rundown of the history of the Mardi Gras Indians, Fi-yi-yi (like the Mardi Gras indians, only with animal style African inspired themed costumes), and the local community groups that organize the parades.  Then who should walk in but Fi-yi-yi himself.  It's times like this when you have to ask yourself--what is the universe telling me? He told us of the development of that style of parade gear and how it brings the community together, how they all met up after Katrina and hold each other up.  Fantastic! Each of these costumes take all year to make! They're all made by hand, each weighing over 100lbs.  Here's Wendell walking you through the museum here

We then hit the church across the street that the lady at Brennan's said we shouldn't miss.  There is a large monument to the unknown slave, with a chilling sculpture of arm chains welded together.  A house around the corner had a touching sign on the door saying "Love is the only thing that can turn an enemy into a friend, MLK Jr".  Poetry everywhere you look.  We can't wait to go back.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

New Orleans trip Day 1: Ponderosa Stomp

At long last, John and I were able to take a little break and head out to New Orleans, our favorite city.  It's our happy place--it makes me feel that this is life as it should be.  New Orleans is such a magical city, I encourage everyone to visit and experience all it has to offer.  It really has something for everyone! It doesn't feel like you're even in the US--if you've visited Europe or Latin America, you're right on track.  It feels like you're walking through the colonial part of Havana with the wrought-iron balconnades and tall louvred windows.  The city really has bounced back from Katrina 5 years ago: the business owners that were flooded have invested so much effort into refurbishing the historic restaurants and hotels.  Thankfully the major tourist area wasn't ever flooded, which helps.  This city is focused on showing you a good time, which fortunately goes hand in hand with showcasing the wonderful historic buildings, world-class unique food, and unbelievable music.  There is a spirit of "we're all in this together" there that is real.  People are really friendly and are happy that you're there.

We had intended on visiting for the Ponderosa Stomp, which I highly highly recommend if you're into classic rock and roll, soul, blues, garage, swamp pop, and country.  Check out the info on the Stomp here.  In my eyes, this puts Viva Las Vegas to shame.  The lineup featured Huelynn Duvall, The Trashmen, Thee Midnighters, Barbara Lynn, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Duane Eddy, etc etc.  This concert is a showcase for these fantastic under-represented heroes of rock and roll, and it also raises funds for older musician's healthcare and housing.  This is a feel-good town that supports their local arts.  The music was beyond amazing: 30 acts in all.  We missed the first night because I of course double-booked myself and scheduled 3 wedding cakes to deliver Sat morning; so we delivered them in the AM and hopped a plane to catch the last day.  We arrived, changed, and were greeted by our fabulous local friends Susan and Rob, who took us to the fabulous Green Goddess restaurant.  We feasted on the sublime cochon (pulled roast pork), wild mushroom and huitlacoche crepes, filo-wrapped spicy shrimp, and a wonderful Vietnamese stuffed rice crepe.

The House of Blues in NOLA actually has a mellow, friendly vibe which catches me off guard every time.  The HOB in Chicago and LA makes you feel like a criminal, looking through your bags, patting you down and making you remove your belt before entering.  Not here.  They didn't even ID me.  Or maybe I look that old now? We were greeted with friendliness and a nice welcome to the city by the doormen.  I almost fainted.  Oh, and the beers here are $4, whereas we're used to paying double that in LA.

Barbara Lynn rocked the house with one of the best soul voices we've ever heard (and she plays a mean guitar too)  Listen to Barbara's YoullLoseaGoodThing and the JAM  Oh Baby We Got a Good Thing Going.  Then Sugar Pie DeSanto stole the show.  She had opened for James Brown back in the day, and it showed.  She came out at a tiny 4'11" and had the whole House of Blues in the palm of her hand.  Check these out, I dare you not to get chills!! Sugar Pie's Rock Me Baby, Soulful dressDo the Whoop-ee and her amazing performance at the 2008 R&B Awards awards.  She had the band on their tippy toes, cuing each and every musician as they held their breath.  We'd never seen anything like it.  She jumped into the audience and was swinging upside down around the handrail like she was on the playground.  Then she grabbed a fellow out of the audience, pulled him onstage and jumped into his arms, wrapped her legs around him and did backbends--and not missing a note of the song.  And she's 75 years old people!!!

Lil' Buck Senegal, the premier guitarist of the South, backed up almost every act, playing for over 7 hours straight with no sign of letting up (then handed over the reins to our old friend Deke Dickerson, who is always such a great guitar man).  Buck's in his 70s also, and legend has it that his song Monkey in a Sack inspired the Meters to create their influential sound.  The Beastie Boys' biggest influence was the Meters, just as an example of their reach.  Here's another Lil' Buck jam Cat Scream.   The Relatives supposedly tore it up as the highlight of Friday night, a gospel/funk band from TX "Let's Rap" 1974.  Sorry we missed it! Last Stomp's highlight was Little Wille Littlefield, a ridiculously talented boogie woogie piano player, probably the best alive.  Watch as he plays with a spoon that fell on the piano  Little Wille Littlefield.  He now lives in the Netherlands, where apparently they appreciate talent! Duane Eddy was fabulous, Guitar Lightnin' tore it up with his blues guitar on the outside stage, Joe Clay peeked his head out for a few rockers, I could go on and on, you really have to go! I'd pay for everyone's ticket if I could.

This is the place to be, in one of the greatest music cities in the world.  Yes, there were more white gym shoes than pompadours, but this is the real deal! The only thing that matters in this town is having a good time.  You can still wear your vintage, it's ok!! They love fancy things in the South!