“There was a mystic wraith of fog over the brown water that night, together with dark driftwoods; and across the way New Orleans glowed orange-bright, with a few dark ships at her hem, ghostly fogbound Cereno ships with Spanish balconies and ornamental poops, till you got up close and saw they were just old freighters from Sweden or Panama. The ferry fires glowed in the night; the same Negroes plied the shovel and sang. Old Big Slim Hazard had once worked on the Algiers ferry as a deckhand, that made me think of Mississippi Gene too; and as the river poured down from mid-America by starlight I knew, I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One.”
— From On the Road by Jack Kerouac
In his book, The Accidental City, Tulane University scholar Lawrence N. Powell describes the ambition of French explorer/colonist Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville. While manning a small expedition in September of 1700, he won a game of chicken with a British warship to secure the lower Mississippi Valley for the French, at least for another 60 years. At a mere 19 years old, Bienville’s savvy and courage were the very first seeds planted in what would be, from then until now, the very soul of New Orleans; a city of surreptitious guile, endless temptation, constant improvisation and dogged resiliency. When you surrender to La Nouvelle Orleans, which you must, this complex city plays out like one long, twisting, far reaching jam, starting at The Hotel Monteleone—majestic, glittering, standing guard over the entrance to the Vieux Carré (French Quarter). I’m not yet two steps onto the sidewalk of the Rue de Royale when a shirtless man, ripped and bug-eyed with a raging, toothless smile, veers my way. On cue, the skies open. Buckets of rain. The man darts and weaves between cabs, his neck pulsing, shrieking prophetically, “I’m all about the kicks! I’m all about the kicks!” Shit, man, me too!
First stop is the Faubourg Marigny, best represented by Frenchman Street, an arrow to the heart of the city’s cultural core—a throbbing strip of bars, clubs, shops and eateries, a sobbing, singing, sweating, soaking wet jukebox of a place. I walk up and down the dial of the street and listen, not only to the tasty blues and swingin’ freeform jazz, but to the hipsters, the frat boys, the freaks, the punks, the tourists, the ladies and the locals; all of them drinking, thronging and weaving together in the blissful dirty south. Finally I step out of the fray and slide into Snug Harbor for a small cup of spicy gumbo, fresh shrimp cocktail and the Ellis Marsalis Quartet. The drummer is thrashing, pushing the needle to the red with firecracker snare work and cymbals shimmering with wild joy, chaos flying free from whatever order remains. The finest spot in a city full of fine spots is the wooden bench outside the Apple Barrel. I relax and smoke the first dark, pungent Ashton VSG of the visit, seeking cold mercy from the heat in the bottom of an icy Miller High Life. Inside, Steve Cochet strums and picks his way through some traditional folk numbers and some of The Basement Tapes. The Ashton burns down, the last curls holding form as the neon signage refracts through the swollen droplets and the grayish-purple helix haze. I need more cigars.
The best cigar bar in New Orleans is far outside the Vieux Carré, but well worth a trip at high speeds through the Garden District at night; the antebellum mansions set back from the rocky sidewalks, behind baroque iron gates and layer upon tropic layer of palm and kudzu. A good ways on Tchoupitoulas Street along the Mississippi is Dos Jefes, unpretentious, undemonstrative and unparalleled. I score another Ashton while chatting up the friendly staff and the inimitable owner Richie; “Born and raised Bayou,” garrulous, with a big gator smile and Mark Twain’s aura. I settle deep into a leather chair with a glass of pinot noir as Eric Traub and his trio start to swing at 10pm sharp. A traditional Cajun-flavored warm up falls away as fast as it starts and soon the trio starts to really cook, twist, turn and blow. Behind Traub, a young drummer and an even younger cat on standup bass, all of them taking turns punching holes in the night. Before the second Ashton can even catch a full glow, Traub and his trio are off into the deepest, hottest bebop spaces that Bird and Coltrane and Lester Young and Cannonball Adderley carved ahead of them, all with that homegrown Louisiana two-step holding it down from behind.
After the set, I sit with strangers, pass the calumet and swap stories of music, movies, baseball and the gloried madness of life spent in search of this moment—this singular, fleeting, all powerful present. Kicks. The night ends in raucous laughter about nothing, vigorous handshakes/hugs and one last, lugubrious round with the calumet. Back in the Quarter, I sit at the raw bar of Desire at the Royal Sonesta with another High Life. These oysters are gargantuan and pristine, cold and sweet with the perfect hint of Gulf brine mixing with lemon and Tabasco. Like fever-pitched pipers, a second line jazz funeral thumps and struts gloriously down Bourbon Street with shitfaced revelers in tow. Laissez les bon temps rouler. This is the New Orleans you dream about.
Le Vieux Carré before 8am is the aftermath of a crime scene. I imagine yellow tape surrounds the Quarter while the city scrapes the dead off the sidewalks and washes the drunken filth down the drains. Before long, people start creeping back into the heat. A morning ride on the St. Charles trolley back through the Garden District takes me to the cozy and eclectic Atchafalaya—try the shrimp and alligator sausage omelet and the DIY bloody mary bar. Then a leisurely stroll down Magazine Street, just coming to life with its Williamsburg vibe: Bistros, book shops, music stores and coffee hangs. Get lost in the neighborhoods, stumbling into Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 on Washington Avenue, where the jagged white stone crypts vibrate with the spirits of Indians past, proper southern gentlemen, avaricious tobacco traders, brutal plantation owners and their stoic slaves. Later, back on Tchoupitoulas, the warehouse district has a semi-Tribeca feel as I duck into the renowned Cochon, with its soft paradox of rustic and contemporary, sleek yet antique. I saddle up to the spacious, comfortable bar with grilled oysters, picked shrimp, braised southern short ribs and bitchin’ cold Sierra Nevada, all while watching a late afternoon thunderstorm run down the windows. Know by now that, in New Orleans, wet weather is walking weather. I cruise back to the Quarter at an aimless pace, along the Rue de Chartres, feeling New Orleans in its European nascence. Strolling under antique street lamps, on narrow cobblestone walks, gazing at the wrought iron balconies of boutique hotels and art galleries, I pause to revel in the beauty of the gardens at the Beauregard-Keyes House, then sit on the open corner in the Pirate’s Alley Café and Absinthe House, just off the Place D’Armes, mingling with the ghosts of Bienville, Faulkner and Andrew Jackson himself.
As the rain hits the bricks and the awnings, you can hear every note ever played by Louis Armstrong, Trombone Shorty and everyone in between. Following the vibe back to Frenchman Street, I make a beeline to The Spotted Cat, digging on Ken Swartz and the Palace of Sin as they bear down on some boot stompin’ slide blues. Then darting along the street like a mosquito in the soupy mist, I soak up all I can of d.b.a. (dark and hip), Club Negril (the real deal) and The Three Muses (crowded, but worth it).
But for all its hot spots, the unpolished gems and hidden glories of the New Orleans music scene reside on her street corners where locals, transients, miscreants and charlatans play their songs of hope and sadness. After croissants and coffee from the bustling Café Beignet, take a stroll past the antique shops and art galleries on the Rue de Royale on a Sunday morning, where a broken down brother hides under an awning, making his beat up Martin acoustic wail. A few blocks down, at the corner of Royale and Rue de Bienville, a blind man with a long white beard blows the blues on his harp. At Rue de Conti, an a cappella group in black suits belts out Wilson Pickett, bringing on the rain again.
Then on Rue St. Louis, two girls on violin and guitar play a chilling version of “Desperado” and further still, all alone at the corner of Royale and Rue Toulouse with his eyes closed and his face turned upward to the teeming sky, emaciated, pasty, redheaded and shirtless in low hung jeans, I stand before the ghost of Duane Allman as he fingerpicks an unforgettable Spanish guitar line. This is the true sound of the Crescent City: Joyously broken, permanently lost, ecstatically sad and effortlessly brilliant. Onward, I track across the Quarter to the French Market, dancing a 6/8 shuffle between the relentless raindrops at the Louisiana Zydeco and Green Tomato Festival, barefoot in the grass, a swirling, sublime mess. More oysters and an ice cold Abita. Then…a siren song. Through the low fog, the barges bellow, calling me to the riverbank. All the sounds, the smoke, the sweat, the booze, the tastes, the ghosts—all of it bubbling together in the coalescence of Bienville’s original vision: A beguiling city preserved by beatific neglect. All of it pouring down the mouth of the Big River to this point. This moment. This dream. This New Orleans. Just like Jack said.
People, Places, Things
(In Order of Appearance)
Five-star accommodations in the heart of the French Quarter. Also home of the famous Carousel Bar.
Vieux Carré (The French Quarter)
New Orleans’ oldest, most renowned neighborhood, the focal point of all things the city is famous for: Food, music, art, culture and overall decadence. Founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718.
This neighborhood on the outer edge of the French Quarter is now known for all things edgy and subversive. Frenchman Street is the main drag. Think East Village.
Like pretty much every place in NOLA—great food, great music, great atmosphere.
Ellis Marsalis Jr.
Pianist and patriarch of modernist New Orleans jazz. One of the first to move away from Dixieland and r&b. Father to Wynton and Branford. Can be seen/heard most Friday nights at Snug Harbor.
An impossibly tiny room with amazing sound. Cold, cold beer and kind people.
A dark full-bodied cigar with intoxicating tones and a complex yet mild finish. The writer’s choice, but a good cigar is the one that tastes good to you.
A local NOLA musician. Smooth delivery and tasty cover choices.
The Garden District
A New Orleans neighborhood south of the French Quarter, widely considered one of the best-preserved collections of historic Southern mansions in the US.
Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar
A wonderful collection of cigars and wines. Comfy chairs, ballgames on the big screen and smokin’ hot live music. What else is there?
The Eric Traub Trio
Tenor saxophonist. Traub is a New Orleans lifer by way of Woodstock. Underrated and can really blow. Plays regularly at Dos Jefes.
Desire Seafood & Oyster Bar at the Royal Sonesta Hotel
Spacious, inviting, with raw shellfish the right way—fresh, cold, served on paper. Nice view of Bourbon Street from the dining room. A good bet for oysters if the lines at Acme and Felix’s are too long, which they always are.
Eclectic ambience, funky menu, outstanding DIY bloody mary bar. Proprietor Rachel Tocco opened early for a few hungry souls and made everyone feel welcome.
Located in the heart of the Garden District. Lined with lots of independently owned and operated restaurants and shops. Strong Brooklyn vibe.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
One of the oldest cemeteries in New Orleans. By turns majestic and creepy, but a lot of history here, so worth the visit.
One of the finest restaurants in New Orleans and in the US. Loose, casual with a true eclectic Southern menu executed to perfection.
Rue de Chartres
In the heart of the Vieux Carré, the street itself is a museum piece, with impressionist views and low-key beauty unparalleled in the city.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Noted here for its beautiful gardens.
Pirate’s Alley Café and Absinthe House
Open-air corner bar/café tucked into one of the city’s best kept secrets, Pirate’s Alley eludes most maps and GPS. Just off Jackson Square. Ask around, you’ll find it.
Place D’Armes, also known as Jackson Square. A central fixture in the Vieux Carré. Lush gardens, quiet benches, endless people watching.
Ken Swartz and the Palace of Sin
Just good, tasty, down low slide blues. Regularly gigs on Frenchman Street.
The Spotted Cat, d.b.a., Club Negril
All great music clubs/bars on Frenchman Street. Take your pick. Or hit ‘em all.
Quaint, friendly, busy. Perfect little breakfast spot. Great iced coffee.
The French Market District
Wedged between the Vieux Carré and the Mississippi River. Food, shopping and, in the second weekend of June, the Louisiana Zydeco and Green Tomato Festivals run concurrently.
Locally brewed craft beer in a variety of hues and flavor profiles. Great with raw shellfish.