NEW ORLEANS — It had been a while since I had popped down I-10 for a visit to “The Crescent City,” so when my sister Barbara and her husband Andy said they wanted to celebrate her birthday in NOLA during their visit from England I was totally on board.
Andy and Barb had not been to “The Big Easy” for 30-odd years, when they were not of drinking age and a significant section of Bourbon Street was closed to them without proper ID (yes, that used to happen).
Note: “The Big Easy,” “The Crescent City” and “NOLA” — yep, I worked in all the nicknames in the first two graphs. I think that is a requirement.
Growing up in a tourist town I know one thing — Bourbon Street is pretty crap. The tourist centers always are. There is nowhere more likely to make one want to destroy humanity than Times Square in New York, or the area in front of Buckingham Palace in London. Or maybe that’s just me. Bourbon Street is no exception, with the stink of rotting food, pee and drink overwhelming the senses. The drinks are too expensive and the streets are teeming with tourists who don’t know where they are going and are unable to walk in a straight line — maybe it’s the giant neon plastic drinks cups throwing off their balance. Rant over.
We did the obligatory 15-minute walk along the street, got a drink at a bar with a decent little Zydeco band, and quickly got out of there. Don’t get me wrong, we did a lot of touristy things — a riverboat cruise, a French Quarter restaurant which shall remained unnamed because the food was just “alright,” and Café du Monde for beignets, but the highlight, as usual, lay outside the Quarter.
We stayed at a nice shotgun house on AirBnB in Tremé, four blocks north of the French Quarter, to spend the three nights. Our hosts had recommended several places within a few blocks of the house. We decided to pick one at random for our second evening, the Candlelight Lounge which promised jazz every Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
We strolled down there at the appointed hour to find a lovely little local “dive bar” — four basic cinder block walls, a bar and a few chairs. And, of course, no one was ready to play, the musicians milling around on the sidewalk smoking and laughing with each other.
Let me say here that this is neither a negative nor unusual. I have frequented many great bars for live music of all genres and they all have a casual regard for time. In fact, I don’t really trust musicians who kick off exactly on schedule. Do they have somewhere else to be?
I had not realized it was a cash-only bar, so I took off in search of an ATM, leaving my companions to get ready for the music. It was just a quick mile round trip and I love a walk.
When I approached the bar on my return, the musicians slapped me on the back and told me, with great delight, that they had waited for me to return and would be ready to go in 10 minutes. Inside, Ramona told me that there had been much chatter about where I was and that I should have said something and they would have been happy to take me where I needed to go. It was indicative of the friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
On the table, next to my rather large Jameson’s, was a fantastic free bowl of butterbeans and pork. It was delicious.
The musicians wandered in from outside and parked themselves in front of the bar in two rows. Two trombones, a trumpet, a tuba, a banjo and a drum kit — although to call a bass, a snare and a tambourine a kit would be generous. There were three people at the bar and our table of four who had paid a paltry $10 cover.
They band counted off and began to play.
Boy did they play. It was terrific sound, completely unamplified, and they were playing great jazz just for us. My English guests were ecstatic. This was New Orleans. The trombones swung wildly in our direction, the tuba played a solo, the rich New Orleans sound seemed to swirl around the bare walls and punch us with a dose of joy.
During the course of the evening musicians came and went. One particular trombonist seemed to carry a little extra weight. He played brilliantly and took over lead vocals through many songs. During the set break, we bought a CD which he was happy to sign. It was only later, when chatting with my far more musically aware buddy, Pete, that I learned that we had basically had a private show from Glen David Andrews, a New Orleans celebrity, cousin of the legendary Trombone Shorty.
We headed back to the house around midnight with good wishes from the locals. There had only been three more people join us. It didn’t matter. I find it hard to believe the band would have paid any harder for a gig at Jazz Fest.
For two English tourists, it was a glimpse of the real New Orleans. There’s a reason it is known for its music. Sometimes, the best experiences are to be found off the beaten tourist path.
Candlelight Lounge is located at 925 N. Robertson St. Check out their Facebook page for details.