Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Neon Bourbon

Sorry for the delay of these final posts - the last few days of the trip were absolutely hectic, and left little time to get online.

As we approached New Orleans, we had two short but very significant stops on the city's outskirts.

In the Metairie area of New Orleans is two graveyards, Providence Memorial Park and the Garden Of Memories. In the former lies the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. Her imposing white tomb sits on its own in a quiet grassy corner of the park, enclosed by a black gate, which is decorated by music notes. The etched words call her "The World's Greatest Gospel Singer". The Dirty Mac approached the grave serenely and took a moment to pay our respects. We haven't had much opportunity to talk about gospel music on this tour, even though it is a purely American genre. Apart from a live show we caught in downtown Detroit, it was sadly largely missing from this adventure. Perhaps we'll just have to come back and research it further! However, it was nice to touch the grave of the movement's leading light.

In the Garden Of Memories is buried perhaps one of The Dirty Mac's most treasured heroes - at least for some of us. The remains of Gram Parsons, the country rock pioneer who died aged 27, were eventually moved here after his body was burnt by a friend at the Joshua Tree, California, according to the wishes of his step-father, who had moved to New Orleans. We'd seen Gram's infamous Nudie suit back in Nashville, where it is on display in the Country Music Hall Of Fame, and that was emotional - so you can imagine how it felt to be standing at his final resting place. His plaque features an embossed portrait of him, with a lyric from his song 'In My Hour Of Darkness':
"Another young man safely strummed / His silver string guitar / And he played to people everywhere / Some say he was a star / But he was just a country boy / His simple songs confess / And the music he had in him / So very few possess". It is completed by the personal message: "Your soul lives on through your music. Your spirit lives on in our hearts". T-Bone passed around a bottle of red wine and we each took a swig in Gram's honour.

As we arrived in downtown New Orleans, we found our hotel - the lavish Hotel Monteleone - just off the world famous Bourbon Street. Even the lobby was the fanciest place we'd been in on this trip! It was with great pleasure that we, as travelling media, were bestowed with the most impressive suites, definitely capping the fortnight off in style. The suites had a lounge room, a toilet, a bedroom, and an ensuite with jacuzzi bath and walk-in shower. Although we were almost tempted to stay in and enjoy this lap of luxury, the pull of Crescent City was too much, and so we ventured out.

We hit Bourbon Street. The street was far from its usual bustling crowds as it was only around lunchtime, so we took the opportunity to walk through the magnificent architecture and beautiful streets, grabbing some gumbo and po'boys for lunch as we went. We ducked into the Voodoo Museum to get educated on the historic religious practice of Louisiana. Muddy Puddle left an offering on the sacred table and made a wish - wonder if it will ever come true? A couple of hours of wandering left us hot and bothered from the baking sun, so it was time to retire to the hotel's rooftop pool for sunbathing and swimming and some downtime before the night's festivities.

Having got some advice from local music fans before we'd left for the trip, we chose a fancy restaurant in the cooler part of town. Cochon offered southern home cooking with fantastic meats and left us absolutely stuffed. Had we not learned from this holiday not to order a side of mac and cheese? It gets us every time! So, we had to go and dance all this food off. We'd been advised to head further out of town to a place called Maple Leaf Bar to see the Rebirth Brass Band. The place was busy, full of young, cool locals, with a great vibe. The band bounced onstage and immediately won us over - armed with only brass instruments and a couple of percussionists, Rebirth blend traditional second line New Orleans music with a harder, strutting hip-hop/funk edge. Though thoroughly modern, Rebirth carry an authentic sound of New Orleans that dates back many years, as we were to find out the following day...

We ended our first night pacing up and down Bourbon Street, but behind the glowing neon there was little past the strip clubs, overpriced bars and souvenir shops that filled its length. Since we didn't want to stay in the N'Awlins equivalent of Blackpool, it was time for bed...

The second day began with the last of our road trip interviews. Matt Sakakeeny is Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane University, and specializes in the city's brass band scene (it was he who recommended Rebirth). We spoke at length about the history of New Orleans, and how its origins as a French Catholic colony shaped its culture and musical heritage, eventually making it a unique state of America and a hotpot of diverse rhythms and influences. The full interview will soon be available to read, as will all other interviews from this road trip, on this site as well as ClashMusic.com. It explains further how the French treatment of slaves encouraged African traditions and music, and how the introduction of the Jim Crow laws caused blues music to mix with Creole sounds, which resulted in the creation of jazz. It's hugely educational... Keep your eyes peeled...

We got back in the car afterwards for a tour of the city to find some landmark sites. New Orleans was, after all, the birthplace of jazz - it is where Louis Armstrong was born - surely they must have some relevant relics for us to see? Sadly not. Very little of Armstrong's former haunts survived - not his site of birth, not the homes he lived in, and though a couple of the clubs he first performed in are still there, their horrid state of disrepair is a sad reflection of the city's lack of pride towards their first son. We did manage to drive down to the Lower Ninth Ward - the poor district worst affected by Hurricane Katrina - to see Fats Domino's house. Though we didn't see much devastation (perhaps because we didn't see the whole district, or perhaps most of it has been cleaned up), but it was very noticeable how many houses were newly built, and how many temporary housing there had been erected.

Regrouping later back at our base, a quick drink in the hotel's carousel bar led to another night on the town. First, some drinks down by the shoreline, then - unfortunately - back to Bourbon for a pub crawl and a reasonably early night. The next morning, at stupid o'clock, we had to be at the airport. Fortunately for all of us, we made it on time, and were soon flying out of the Big Easy and headed for the Big Apple...

New Orleans was a mixed bag of pleasures. We wish we had more time to explore the areas of the city where the university populace must frequent, as the rich tradition of partying in New Orleans was palpable. The place just looks and feels amazing. We definitely wouldn't advise sticking around Bourbon Street so much. Dip in, for sure, but duck out fairly sharpish.

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