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Road Trip to New Orleans


Report/Photos By Derek Halsey
First Appeared in GRITZ, Print issue #2, Fall 2002

New Orleans is a city being rebuilt these days, as Hurricane Katrina hit it hard in August and September of 2005. While politicians and citizens are trying their best to be optimistic about the future of the city, there will no doubt be changes that will come out of all of this. New Orleans musicians and artists, citizens and movers and shakers, have been dispersed to many parts of the country. How many of those people will come back is anyone’s guess. Back in 2002 Gritz Magazine featured an article on the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival called Road Trip To New Orleans. We have decided to clean the article up a bit and reprint it here to remind all of us of what the Big Easy was like before the storm, and what we hope it will get back to. Looking back, I am sure that there are people that I encountered in some way on this trip that may have lost their life, or their home, or their livelihood in the storm. This is dedicated to them.

– Derek Halsey, November, 2005

I can relax now. My car is humming. The sun is falling out of the sky through the right side window. I look at the sunset while I can, because these Kentucky mountains that I’m driving into will soon block my view. I’m heading south. I have dodged a couple of bullets, as the late start of my trip threatened to put me right in the middle of rush hour traffic in both Cincinnati and Louisville. I left at four in the afternoon on a weekday, 14 miles north of Cincinnati heading towards the city, yet the routes I take prove to be open and flowing. Now, south of Louisville, my thoughts move from releasing the stress of the day to figuring out what to do with my mind on this all-night drive that I’m staring at. Still, I’m happy. It’s April and I am heading to New Orleans. 

The Tennessee state line is just ahead. This 1993 Ford station wagon has made it through the mountains in good shape. The temperature gauge has been steady. This old Ford has been through a lot, including an ill-advised trip down a switch back jeep trail near the Canyonlands area of Utah a couple of years earlier. The look on the faces of the four-wheel drive jeep riders was priceless as they turned the corner to see this duck-out-of-water Taurus meandering over the slick rock. Down in the canyon, I had to turn the car around when I started to hit bottom, and it over-heated all the way back up the trail as I headed out of the canyon. The car hasn’t run the same since, but tonight it has handled the mountains beautifully.

The Tennessee state line also reminds me to flip the radio dial yet again to see what I can come up with. I tune in to the old standby, WSM 650 AM out of Nashville. WSM is the radio home of the Grand Old Opry, and has been for over 70 years. I can pick up the station in Ohio on a dark night at times if the atmosphere over North America is in the mood. Every once in a while I hear a friend of mine, Pam Gadd, singing with Porter Wagoner on the Opry whiling driving around on a winter’s night with a car full of buddies. That gives me a chance to yell out, “Hey, I know her!” Hearing the radio station also reminds me of the all the stories I’ve heard over the years from family and others about hooking a radio up to a car battery so they could listen to the Opry back in the first half of the last century. The history is there.

WSM usually plays some good bluegrass music on Thursday nights, at least I’m hoping. I hit pay dirt as Eddie Stubbs, the DJ who holds down the nighttime slot, is hosting a live radio show at the Station Inn club in Nashville. The show is featuring the best of bluegrass music songwriters, with Eddie talking to each one about the songs they have written over the years. After each songwriter is interviewed, they take the stage to play the songs that they just elaborated on. Jake Landers tells the crazy story of how he co-wrote “Walk Softly With This Heart Of Mine” with Bill Monroe, a tale that buoys the old adage of ‘timing is everything.’ It is just the thing I need to hear to motivate me. I have a long way to go, and will be driving all night long. The hard hours are yet to come.

Soon the city lights of Nashville are up glowing up ahead. Bluegrass musician Roland White is on the radio playing his mandolin and telling some old stories. As Roland talks from the stage he tells of meeting some folks in the audience tonight that have stopped by on their way to the Merlefest music festival happening this weekend in North Carolina. The travelers have driven in from Seattle, heading to North Wilkesboro, stopping in Nashville along the way. I am driving from Cincinnati, driving through Nashville, and heading to New Orleans. I think hard about pulling off the highway and meeting everybody at the radio broadcast. The Station Inn is only a couple of exits away, and it would be a great time hanging out with one and all. But I have nine more hours of traveling ahead of me to get to the Big Easy. I drive on through.

I still love to listen to AM radio at night, especially as I travel the country in the late night hours. I am old enough to remember being a kid and picking up a radio station from a far away place on a transistor radio and it still being a big deal. Soon I cross the Alabama state line and I feel like I am making some progress. That gives way, however, to searching for those second and third winds as I am getting tired and white line fever has started to take it’s toll. The white lines on the road can hypnotize you sometimes, so I roll down all the windows, turn up the radio, and keep driving on. I make it to Mississippi and notice some rest stops on the side of the road about every fifty miles or so. They have no facilities, nor any food machines of any kind. It seems that they are just a place to pull over and get some rest. It is four in the morning and I am in striking distance of New Orleans. By the time I would get there, however, it would be rush hour. After driving all night the sunrise and the traffic would put me dead to sleep, I tell myself. So, I go ahead and pull over.

There are a few other cars pulled over in this barren lot, but mostly it is semi-trucks lined up with everybody in them asleep. I can't get comfortable sleeping in this car no matter what position I try. Not being able to stretch your legs out all the way when trying to sleep is the worst. I squirm around while half asleep and wake to find my head laying on a pile of clothes on the passenger side floor while my legs are up and around the back of the drivers side seat. I don’t fight it, and lay my head back down on the soft clothes. The next thing I know I am awake and it is light outside. I lean my head up and turn on the key and see that it is 9am. I sit up and notice that I am the only one left in this desolate parking lot. Even though I managed to sleep a couple of hours, my bones feel like they have drywall screws drilled into them. Time to drive into the city and to my uncle's soft, wonderful guest bed.

By the time I get to my uncle Stephen and his wife Karen's house I am pumped up to be in New Orleans and find myself wide awake. Soon, however, the soft bed beckons. After a solid three-hour nap and a bit of dinner, my uncle and I head downtown to see the Neville Brothers at the House of Blues. The Harrah's Casino is close to the House of Blues so we park and walk and drop some coin for a while and then move on to the concert. I have never seen the Neville Brothers play in their hometown, and I am looking forward to it.

First up on the bill is the Joe Krown Organ Combo. Joe's regular chair is the organ player for Gatemouth Brown. Tonight he is playing with his own combo that jams heavy with the old-school sounds reminiscent of the days when the likes of Groove Holmes and Jimmy Smith reigned supreme on the keyboards. Krown’s funky sounds loosen the crowd up appropriately. Next up are the Neville's.

A few minutes before the Neville's are about to go on they wheel brother Art "Poppa Funk" Neville out onto the stage in his wheelchair and put him behind his keyboards. Art underwent major back surgery a while back and is far from healed up. The rest of the Neville Brothers do not come out for another 10 minutes or so and Art is sitting there alone, almost unnoticed. I take a second to walk up and say hello to him and he is a pleasure to talk to. Art is a great keyboard player, and part of the fabric of the New Orleans music scene since the 1950’s. He is the first of the Neville Brothers to put out a record with the popular 1954 hit “Mardi Gras Mambo,” recorded when he was a member of the Hawkettes. That original 45-rpm recording is still a festival favorite.

Unfortunately, Art is not going to be able to make the rest of the upcoming Neville Brother's tour because of the hard months of back therapy to come. But for the next three nights he is here to play in his hometown during Jazzfest week with his brothers Aaron, Cyril, and Charles, and I am thrilled about it. The good thing about being a part of the Neville family is that there are good musicians everywhere to take up the slack. When Art has to take a long break after five or six songs his nephew Ivan steps in on keyboards, an artist in his own right. The crazy thing is that Art also has a gig scheduled for tomorrow night with the band he helped found, the legendary Funky Meters with George Porter Jr., Brian Stoltz, and Russell Batiste. The starting time for that concert is 2am. I don't know how Art will pull that off, but I’m guessing he will find it in him somewhere.

The Neville Brothers are playing a fantastic set. They have a ten-piece band in all with each of the four brothers taking the time to do what they do best. Aaron is showcasing his incredible vocal skills while singing songs such as "Change is Gonna Come" and a decidedly funky version of "If I Had A Hammer." Charles does his wonderful jazz thang on saxophone throughout the evening. Art provides the funky organ sounds for tunes like "Fiyo On The Bayou". And Cyril plays his excellent percussion throughout and brings out the reggae side of the concert with a couple of Bob Marley tunes that rock the house.

As I look around at the enthusiastic crowd, it is obvious that there are people in town from all over country, and from around the world for that matter. And, it is obvious that romance is in the air. When Aaron sings, "Stand By Me," there are couples paired off everywhere in the house, dancing together. Not just an isolated couple here and there, but it seems as if every couple in the place is hand in hand. It is April in New Orleans, and a sweet groove is in the air.

In the day in-between the Neville Brothers show and the day that my uncle and I choose to go to the Jazz and Heritage Festival, we all decide to go explore Magazine Street. Magazine Street consists of about six miles of funky shops, antique shops, and old bookstores. We walk the streets with Karen carrying along her dog named Maggie. Maggie is a strange but lovable looking mix of Pomeranian and Maltese. Maggie, though adorable, looks like an animal from a Star Wars bar scene and she gets a lot of attention from those passing by. Having Maggie along leads us into a pet shop and into a conversation with the attractive lady in charge. She is wearing a sundress and has a cool, relaxed hippie attitude about her, yet she is there to sell. Hippy capitalists! She proves to be very adept at casually pitching the shop’s various products to the customers that are stopping in.

Somehow I end up in a conversation with our hostess about owning ferrets. Apparently, the hippy capitalist has one as a pet. I have always been fascinated by these creatures, yet have always had a vision of them ripping their little fangs into the side of my neck at the drop of the hat. I bring that concept up to her and she proceeds to tell me that a ferret's jaws, when provoked, will chemically lock when biting another animal much like a bulldog's jaws will do. I had to ask, "Have you ever had one bite you?" "Yes," she answers, "My ferret bit a boyfriend of mine once." "On his finger or…..?" I inquire. "No," she says, "on his testicles." I shake my head slowly up and down and wait a full four seconds before responding. "What happened?" I ask. "He was passed out on my living room rug with his pants off, and the ferret usually runs loose and it crawled up between his legs during the night to get warm. He rolled over in his sleep and……"

On the way to my uncle's house I have a craving for some good, fresh-boiled Louisiana Crawfish. I have no intention of going to one of those touristy high priced restaurants downtown. I want to eat where the locals do, and ask my uncle to pick the place. After a little bit of driving around my uncle pulls up to the carryout door of Sal's Seafood, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, on Barataria Boulevard. I open the door and see that there is a very long line inside. I almost turn and walk back, but then realize that people must be here for a reason. Fresh boiled crawfish at a buck and sixty-five cents a pound, hot and ready to go. I buy four pounds of the mudbugs, which are packed in a plastic bag that is inside am outer paper bag. After we get back to the house I sit out on the patio and proceed to pinch the tail and suck the head of these succulent crawfish cooked in Sal’s excellent house boil. They are delicious, I have my fix.

The next day finds Uncle Steve and myself heading to the Jazz and Heritage Festival located at the Fairgrounds, a horseracing track just outside of downtown. The setup is this; 12 stages, over 40 bands, and booth after booth of great food. Karen is kind enough to drop us off at the front gates. It is about 10am and I am starving. I have not eaten yet and I know that I have to build a base for drinking. I'm not out to get sloppy drunk, just relaxed and happy. But even at that level of imbibing you have to, repeat after me, "Build a base for drinking!" After we enter the arena I ask a guy standing off to the side, munching away on some food, if there is a booth where I could get a quick hot-dog or hamburger. He laughs and says, "Oh no brother, you aren't goin' to find any of 'dose things up in here. 'Dem booths over there do have a bunch of jambalaya and red beans and rice though."

The choice of food is a part of what makes this festival so special. I walk down the line of food stands, reading the choices of Louisiana grub that I have to choose from, and the signs say it all; Fried Shrimp Po' Boys, Fried Oyster Po' Boys, Crawfish Beignets, Alligator Sausage, Red Beans and Rice with Andouille Sausage, Soft-Shell Crawfish, Pecan Catfish in Meuniere Sauce, and much more. I grab up some red beans and rice and some sauced up chicken and hang out by what is called the Fais Do-Do stage. This is the stage where the local zydeco bands are being showcased. Up first are Poncho Chavis and the Magic Sounds. It is still morning, before noon, yet folks are already dancing on the grass and having a good time listening to the live Louisiana music. The day is off to a good and fun start.

I soon find out that you have to pace yourself when attending this wonderful festival. Because of the vast array of musical choices, you have to look over the schedule carefully so you don’t miss a band that you really want to see. From the Fais Do-Do stage we make our way over to the Blues tent to watch a little of the Lil' Buck Blues band. They are rocking pretty sweet. It is easy to get distracted walking from stage to stage. There are times when you end up walking past a stage with a band playing on it that you have never heard of before that are jamming away and you can't help but to stop and take it all in. But. my goal on this day is to see the great New Orleans based musicians playing in their hometown. First up is local legend Frankie Ford.

The best way to describe Frankie Ford is to use that old phrase, 'He’s a piece of work'. He is best known for the 1950's rockabilly hit "Sea Cruise." He has a good and large band behind him, and he plays that song and many more. However, you soon notice that he is prone to stopping the band mid-song to get up from behind the piano and talk to the crowd. With his eccentric and flashy sequined suit on he tells the crowd, "My mother is 87 years old and still takes birth control pills." Alrighty then. He then he goes on to tell the audience that, "My ex-wife was cremated. Might been what killed her." But before long he gets back to the rockabilly and New Orleans rhythm and blues and everyone is taking it all in stride.

As I walk around I stumble onto a band from Honduras that is hitting it hard with a cooking Latin sound. La Banda Blanca is playing on the Congo Square stage and as I survey the crowd I see people dancing everywhere. Instant party. It is about 2 in the afternoon and people are really starting to get into it. Local legend Allen Toussaint is due to play on the Acura Stage soon, so after dancing for a while I try to break away and head over. Toussaint is a New Orleans musician who has produced or written many songs that you have heard over the years, from "Right Time, Wrong Place" by Dr. John to "Lady Marmalade" by Labelle. His brand of New Orleans R & B is a real treat to hear.

After a few songs I decide to keep moving and work my way through the crowd. In between the Acura stage and the Blues stage is the Gospel tent. I keep passing the Gospel tent by, on my way to somewhere else, yet every time I do I hear it rocking inside. And I mean 'joyous noise unto the Lord' gospel funk rocking. I finally step inside the tent and see that the place is hopping, the groove is infectious, and I know that the Gospel tent will draw me into it again and again as the day progresses. It is drawing as big a crowd as any other tent on the grounds, and rightly so. Amazing stuff.
Chris Thomas King is famous for his portrayal of Tommy Johnson in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? But here in his hometown of New Orleans he gets to play the kind of jams that he has been playing long before the movie came out. He is a young man, and his first two songs are straight up Rap songs. Although some of the people that are there to hear him play his rootsy cuts off of the O Brother soundtrack soon leave, the young folks in the crowd do not. Chris draws them in with Rap music, and then slowly introduces them to the blues music that they might have walked away from if he had played it at first. The farther he goes into his set the deeper into his blues roots he goes. And it runs in the family, as one highlight finds Chris playing "The Thrill Is Gone" with his father, local long time musician and club owner Tabby Thomas. Tabby plays it cool, singing the chorus out of sight at first, and then slowly walking out from behind the speakers in classic blues form.

Next up are two huge New Orleans legends. From the first note it is apparent that Dr. John is back to playing that old funk that he is famous for. With his voodoo skull sitting on the piano in front of him, the Doctor is throwing down a great set that has the huge crowd dancing and having a great time. It is a knowledgeable crowd, as some of the folks in front have brought along some Mardi Gras beads. But, they only throw them into the crowd when Dr. John goes into that classic second-line beat that is synonymous with the city and the season of Mardi Gras. By the time Dr. John hits the first notes of "Right Place, Wrong Time" the crowd is in full party mode. What a blast. 

When Doc finishes his set I decide to bolt across the Fairgrounds to see the also local, yet world-renowned jazz musician Wynton Marsalis at the Congo Square stage. Wynton and his band get right into the kind of high altitude jazz that he is known for. He quickly lets you know why he is one of the best in the business. He and the band then let flow on some swinging, fun jazz that gets the crowd involved. He starts the audience off on a call and response session that has the late afternoon audience clapping a simple yet effective ‘two clap-one clap’ beat that the musicians weave their great sounds around. Not many hard-core jazz folks take the time to get the crowd into it like that. But Wynton is from New Orleans and he hasn't forgotten that, especially when he hits those first notes of some pure Satchmo-inspired swing.
It can be a hard choice when picking which act to see at the end of the day at Jazzfest. That is when the headliners are usually scheduled to play, usually at the same time. I have to pick from, all with their starting times nearly the same, Melissa Ethridge, Cowboy Mouth, the Count Basie Orchestra with Patti Austin, Teddy Pendergrass, and Linda Hopkins. However, the choice is an easy one for me. Elvin Bishop is jamming in the Blues tent and I have been waiting to see him in concert ever since Charlie Daniels found him sitting on a bale of hay back in the 1970's. When I get to the Blues tent I find Uncle Steve already standing there. He tells me that George Thorogood just came out to introduce Elvin. Thorogood is not on the bill. Still, this means only one thing, a jam with the two of them is coming sooner or later. Elvin has been around a few years, but he is still kicking it strong. From the first notes of "Calling All Cows," the party is on, the crowd is fired up. His band has an interesting lineup, Elvin on slide guitar backed up by a bass, drums, another guitarist, and one trombone player. The combination works.

Elvin takes a seat onstage half way through the set and says, "When you get to my age, if it's six in the afternoon and you sit down for a minute, nobody thinks anything of it." He then plays some of the old slow-dance love songs that he says he grew up with saying, "Any excuse to get close to a good looking girl, there ain't nothing wrong with that." He plays "In The Still Of The Night" which segues right into "Fooled Around and Fell In Love." All the couples in the house are dancing together. And they say Virginia is for lovers.

The level of crowd participation grows as Elvin plays deeper into his set. His signature song, "Travelin' Shoes," simply brings the house down. Elvin plays the song in a way that keeps it building and building in intensity. By the end of it everyone is on their feet, and many in the crowd are jumping straight up and down like they are in church and a lightning bolt is surging through them. I have rarely seen anything like it. After the song ends Elvin turns to walk to the back of the stage to get a drink of water and he is shaking his head as if he himself can't believe the crazy response he is getting. Musicians dream of moments like this. The place is going nuts, and then we hear from the stage, "Ladies and gentleman, George Thorogood!"

George and Elvin start to jam, although it is interesting to note that George is showing much respect for Elvin by letting him play all of the slide guitar parts. They play two songs together, and then the time to shut it all down comes as 7 pm nears. As the announcer tries to end the show to a chorus of boos, the big stage boss standing backstage makes the call, interrupts him, and tells him to keep this amazing jam going for at least one more song. And, out they come. I am drenched with sweat, it has been a glorious good time. What a party, and with an unscheduled jam to boot. It is a perfect way to end the day.

With 12 stages and over 40 performers a day, and the ticket price of around 30 bucks, Jazzfest is more than worth it. I have gone to Major League baseball games where the price of a beer is over six dollars. At this festival cans of beer, including Fosters, are only 3 bucks. The food is wonderful and reasonably priced as well. Multiply the music lineup by eight days, which is how long the festival lasts, and you have a choice of live music to see that is mind-boggling. The festival is over by 7pm everyday so there is time to recoup before the nightlife, concerts and impromptu jams begin and last throughout the evening all over this city. After a long hard winter, April in New Orleans feels about right.

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