Halloween Month Festivities

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October is my favorite month, because in New Orleans Halloween lasts the whole month. Houses are decked out with skeletons and ghouls from October 1st, and each weekend hosts some sort of costume themed ball or festival.

This year I attended the Mermaids and Mayhem Ball at Feret Street Publiq House the weekend before Halloween. You may be forgiven for mistakenly believing that attendees must be dressed as a mermaid or some interpretation of mayhem. New Orlineans generally interpret dress codes quite loosely – the only tightly held rule is that when its a costume party, you must be in a costume. One of my party, evidently not a New Orlinean, showed up in just jeans and a t-shirt. Fortunately, I was able to twist his t-shirt into a crop top, put some bright pink lipstick on his lips and a few lipstick marks on his stomach which made for a vaguely passable costume.

And of course, what is any celebration in New Orleans without a parade?! Krewe of Boo rolled on October 30th through the French Quarter.

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Halloween fell on a Friday night this year. There was a multitude of events to choose from for the night. To name but a few: a True Detective themed house party, there was a Zombie Ball featuring Gabriel & Dresden, Galactic playing at Tipitina’s, and the Endless Night Vampire Ball at House of Blues, and the Vampire Lestat Fan Club’s annual Vampire Ball which was attended by Anne Rice this year (which I promise myself I will go to every year…next year, next year!).

Having a group of friends who had never experienced Halloween in New Orleans before, however, meant there was only one choice for us: Frenchmen Street. It becomes one big spectacular street party.

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I wish I could give you more details about how the party went down this year, but alas I was too inebriated and remember very little. All I can say is that I woke up in my own bed, still in full Ginger Spice Zombie costume, with a bag safely containing not only my wallet and phone but also those of a number of friends, and a bruise on one knee and a graze on the other, and a few rather interesting texts and photos on my phone. There might have been a few hiccoughs along the way, but I think I had a good night – I only have good memories of it!

The weekend of Halloween is also host to a three day music festival: Voodoo Fest. I attended on Sunday, and had the pleasure of seeing John Butler Trio (a taste of ‘home’!), Trombone Shorty (finally playing back home!) and the awesomeness that is the Foo Fighters. At one point during their set, Dave Grohl invited Trombone Shorty on to the stage to play with them, and just as I was thinking ‘this is a moment I will never forget’, Dave Grohl said those exact words. This was definitely a Halloween I will remember forever.

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Angola Rodeo

Every Sunday in the month of October, and one weekend in April, Louisiana State Penitentiary opens its gates to the public to attend the Angola Rodeo and Hobby Crafts Fair. The inmates and professionals are involved in the Rodeo itself which consists of the usual events like barrel racing and bull riding, but also events like “convict poker” and “guts and glory”.

Convict poker involves four inmates sitting at a table in the center of the arena, pretending to play poker while a wild bull is released and charges straight at them. The winner is the last man still seated at the table. In guts and glory a poker chip is tied to the meanest bull – the winner is the one who gets the chip. The Angola Rodeo website describes the latter event as “perhaps the most exciting” of the rodeo.

All these poker references and anyone might deduce Burl Cain is a gambling man.

Convict Poker

In general, I am opposed to Rodeos. Too often they involve animal cruelty. In particular, I am opposed to a rodeo in which inmates are in essence forced to risk their lives, knowing that they will almost definitely need medical care and receive only mediocre attention. Although involvement in the rodeo is technically on a voluntary basis, for most of these men who are serving life sentences and receive less than minimal wage for slaving in the plantation fields every day, there seems to be little choice available.

I recently read a book about Burl Cain – God of the Rodeo – which follows the lives of a number of inmates, some of which were involved in the rodeo, over a year’s period. It did little to endear to me a man against whom I am already naturally biased. I would highly recommend reading it; it came across as an honest and objective observation of a warped world.

That being said, I make an effort to attend the event when I can in order to peruse the crafts fair. Inmates are given the opportunity to sell items they have made to the public, and their families get a chance to spend some quality time with them without the closely watchful eyes of guards and restrictive time limits. The crafts range from paintings and jewelry to handbags, rocking chairs and grills. The quality of pieces also ranges from poor to impressive – the former likely only an excuse to mingle with the public.

White Linen Night

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Every year the New Orleans Warehouse Arts District plays host to a White Linen Night. Julia Street is, for the evening, pedestrianized and the many art galleries housed along the road stay open until 9pm. Food and drink stalls are set up along the street, but all are purchased using a ticket system – you purchase tickets from the cash stall and then use those tickets like money to buy food or drink. The event is sponsored by Whitney Bank, which is advertised on the to-go cups that light up and flash various colors.

In a call back to the days before air conditioning when people attempted to reduce the effects of the stifling heat by wearing white linen clothing, the dress code of this night of artistic culture is white. Like every event in New Orleans, the locals will jump on any excuse to dress up. Some people looked very sophisticated in carefully styled pure white outfits, and some decided to swap gender roles and make it a costume event. Nonetheless, it was quite a spectacle to see the long street swarming with people all dressed in white.

Some people attend the event just like it’s another themed street party, and make the most of the free-poured vodka cocktails, while others are serious about the art. Having never really explored this part of the city, I jumped on the opportunity to wander through the many fancy galleries that I otherwise might have been too intimidated to venture into. Most of the artwork I came across ranged from $5,000-$15,000, but there were many items which I longed to be able to display in my home.

And what would a New Orleans event be without some live music thrown in? A stage was set up mid-way along the street, showcasing local bands throughout the evening. This being a family event, fathers with daughters and mothers with sons could be seen dancing along amongst the loved up couples and humored partiers.

All in all, it was another spectacular evening in this cultural city.

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Not Quite Perfect

We all have our faults, and similarly so do cities. I wish I could say the worst of New Orleans’ faults was the many potholes and unkept streets that play havoc on your car’s suspension, or the cracked and bumpy sidewalks that have stubbed many toes and resulted in a few sprained ankles. Unfortunately life in New Orleans can be far more dangerous.

Last Saturday night (or more accurately, on Sunday morning at 2:45am) two gunmen fired guns multiple times into the usual ceaseless stream of people along Bourbon Street. 10 people were shot, 6 of them were from out of State. The investigation is on going and at the moment little is known about why this was done or who did it. But the truth of the matter is that this is not an uncommon occurence here. The main reason, I believe, that this story has hit the media is because tourists were shot in a tourist-filled part of the city.

In response to this recent shooting the Mayor has asked the Governor to authorise an additional 100 State troopers to police the city. He has also appealed to federal authorities asking for FBI and ATF agents and US Marshalls to assist in ‘combatting street crime’. At the time of the attack there were 27 active officers in the local district, nine of which were on Bourbon Street. Personally, I don’t believe a lack of policing can be blamed, or that a greater number of officers on the streets is an answer to the problem. I think the issue that needs to be addressed is gun control.

But this blog was not intended to be a forum for political debate so I shall close here.

New Orleans is not perfect. She is wounded, broken, in a constant state of recovery. I cannot say that I love her for her faults (although the cracked sidewalks sometimes offer a certain element of charm), and to claim to love her in spite of them would be to naively ignore glaring problems. But I love her still.

Honey Island Swamp

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I recently went on the Honey Island Swamp Tour – a boat tour around the Honey Island Swamp. I was looking forward to seeing the ‘gators, but never expected to be so struck by the beauty of the place. It was so serene and raw, like no other landscape I had ever experienced. It felt honest and mysterious – like you could get lost in there and in so doing, discover the meaning of life. Unfortunately, this was a guided tour so I have yet to make such a discovery.

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The alligators were, as expected, quite magnificent. They approached the boat on the always-fulfilled-promise of marshmallows (right-who knew! Wonder how that taste developed and was discovered!), and would jump feet out of the water to retrieve raw hotdogs from the end of a wavering stick.

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We also saw a multitude of turtles, some snakes and a great blue heron.

It was a little disturbing to see the prolific presence of the Confederate flag amongst the residences along the swamp, but then it doesn’t get much more rural than the swamp, and it does appear to be an area entirely untouched by the passage of time. Families sat gathered together on porches balanced precariously over the swamp, basking in the warmth of the sun, watching their children swing from tattered ropes into the alligator infested waters. They smiled and waved as our boat passed them, as the children swung the ropes a little further, enjoying the combined look of shock and fear that flashed over our faces.

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The tour guide was knowledgeable and informative. He had grown up on the swamp and was able to navigate its many paths and identify individual alligators. He was entertaining and careful. I would highly recommend the tour company should you decide to venture out of the city and see another side of this fine State.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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The New Orleans Fair Grounds plays host once a year to a 7 days festival spread over two weekends (because you need a break after long days in the sun, feet tired from dancing and bellies swollen with food and beer after the first three days just to recover for the following four) at the end of April, beginning of May. It is commonly referred to simply as “Jazz Fest” which, although easier on swollen-with-dehydration tongues than its full title, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it is considerably non-descript and misleading. For one thing, this year’s headliners included Christina Aguilera, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton, none of which I would classify as jazz musicians. And secondly, there is so much more to the festival than music. The food in and of itself is a reason to attend. But there are also numerous craft stalls that represent many talented local artists, and ‘villages’ at which you can learn about a variety of cultures including that of Native Americans.

Food obsessed that I am, some of my favourite festival bites include:

CRAWFISH BREAD – This is always my first stop of the day, my festival brunch. It is a bread roll, not unlike a Panini, of which the center has been stuffed with a melted cheesy crawfish filling.

CRAWFISH MONICA – a cheesy tomato crawfish fusilli pasta dish, that is unique to the Festival.

ALIGATOR PIE – it’s a bit like a sausage roll but with alligator meat rather than pig meat. I thought it was quite simply inarguably delicious but I have been advised it can be an ‘acquired taste’.

COCHON DE LAIT PO BOY – this is a sandwich with pulled pork slow cooked in milk and there is no other way to describe it than heavenly.

MANGO FREEZE – this is essentially like mango sorbet, but trust me, on a hot day when beer just doesn’t get cold enough to satisfyingly quench the thirst of your throat dry and aching from singing/screaming so much, this is nothing short of ambrosia.

Jazz Fest Necessities:
Each day runs from 11am to about 8pm, with no re-entry available unless you purchase a week long pass. The weather can be quite unpredictable, even within a single day, so it’s important to come prepared for rain and shine – suntan lotion, hat, and rain poncho. I would definitely recommend covered and supportive shoes; the easiest route to walk between stages is on the sandy horse racing track that circles around the grounds, which rules out heels if they weren’t already disqualified based purely on the length of the day. As for sandals, they may seem a better option on a hot day but the place can get crowded and the paths aren’t always even so toes may get trodden on or stubbed. I would also suggest bringing a camp chair – it’s a long day to be on your feet, and if there is any rain the ground gets muddy very quickly. It is quite common for groups to set up a ‘camp’ with their chairs by one stage and then come and go throughout the day; surprising as it may seem, especially in a city so rife with crime as New Orleans, chairs are not stolen or moved. Sometimes a chair may be ‘borrowed’ for a rest, but quickly relinquished on return of the owner with a friendly exchange of smiles.

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Some of my personal highlights of the musical line up this year (bearing in mind that I only managed to attend both Saturdays and Sundays) included: The Mavericks, Keb Mo, Ron Hotstream & The F-Holes, North Mississippi Allstars, Voices of Peter Claver, The Revivalists, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Glen David Andrews, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and Trombone Shorty.

There are 10 stages on which musicians perform, so there is always something going on, and often you find yourself running the length of the race track to check out two groups scheduled for the same sets. Generally I recommend wandering aimlessly around and stopping when a good sound catches your attention, because this way you can discover a great band you may have never heard of before, rather than be distracted with known favorite bands who probably play locally regularly. That being said, there were three gigs on my personal timetable for which I watched the entire set without considering the possibility of doing anything else. One of them was, as you by now know, my much loved Glen David Andrews. Although I am fortunate enough to get to see him pretty much any week I want to, he always puts on such a brilliant show that I cannot tear myself away, and at Jazz Fest his show is a great way to get energized and excited for a fun-filled day ahead. Of the other two, one is local, but neither play in town regularly which was my excuse for giving them such undivided attention and adoration. They were: Keb Mo and Trombone Shorty – very different artists, but both incredibly captivating. Keb Mo has recently released a new album, Blues Americana, and he played some of the new tracks amongst some of his better known songs. In the age of Pandora Radio and Spotify, I rarely purchase a CD anymore, but I had no hesitation in instantly putting in an order for Blues Americana on Amazon. He really has a voice that makes my knees weak, and an irresistible smile inducing humour.

Say ‘New Orleans’ and most people think ‘Mardi Gras’, but ‘Jazz Fest’ really encompasses the beauty of this city: the camaraderie of people who share a love of good music and good food, the delicious smells and flavours of true southern home cooked comfort food, and of course music that is unrivalled.

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P.S. – Got to share in a pretty special moment this year. Sam of Big Sam’s Funky Nation brought his girlfriend out on stage for the crowd to sing happy birthday to her, and after declaring what a wonderful woman she, he proposed. She cried and of course said yes. Congratulations to both!

Worship My Organ

Worship My Organ

Every year, once a year for the past four years, a collection of musicians gather in town for Jazz Fest and consolidate at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street for one night to entertain music loving festival goers with an extended jam session. They do not practice, they do not release albums, but for one night a year they are “Worship My Organ”.

It is an interesting combination of a saxophone (Eric Walton aka Skerik), two Hammond B3 organs (Marco Benevento and Robert Walter), drums (Adam Deitch) and DJ Logic that creates a unique jazzy, funky house type sound. It is nothing like the brass band based jazz I have grown so familiar with in New Orleans, it is closer to the original jazz jams in that you are never quite sure where the next beat is going to take you. Its the sort of sharp sound that breaks through the chains of conformity and dumps you in a tumultuous and unpredictable river, forcing you to relax and let your body roll with the ebb and flow.

Fortunately I have recently befriended the sound technician at the Blue Nile and I was able to bypass the queue stretching down the street and avoid the $40 cover charge to get in. After a long day on my feet, dancing in the sun at Jazz Fest, I was able to seek refuge in the sound booth from the bouncing crowed.

I had never seen such a line to a sold out gig on Frenchmen St, nor had I ever heard of a band that doesn’t practice and performs together only once a year, and the sound that they produced was also entirely new to me. But that, my friends, is just another reason why I love this incredible city: it is full of surprises.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Last night I went to Tipatina’s with a friend to see the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I was entirely ignorant of the awesomeness I was about to encounter. But then that’s just another one of the many things I love about this city – you dont necessarily need to be looking for it to find something incredible. Unfortunately there is no photo to accompany this text because I was having too much fun dancing to think of whipping out my phone.

As my feet shuffled and my hips shook, I could feel my body comparing the sound to that of the familiar Rebirth Brass Band (Maple Leaf on a Tuesday night) and Soul Rebels (Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler on a Thursday night), and I couldn’t help but wonder why these guys didn’t have a weekly gig somewhere. But I was much mistaken to do so! They dont have a regular gig in New Orleans because they are so busy touring the world all the time, I had just been fortunate to catch them whilst on a brief stop home for Jazz Fest.

The Dirty Dozen aren’t similar to Rebirth or Soul Rebels, Rebirth and Soul Rebels are similar to the Dirty Dozen! They were the first. They were the ones who revamped the traditional second lining brass bands playing the same old tunes, and developed the funkier side of the soulful sound of this city that I love. They started out and have carried on as experimentalists, creating sounds in the same way, as one band member has described, that you make a good gumbo – throwing in a variety of ingredients and flavours to make one mouth watering soup. And in much the same way that the scent of a good gumbo will have you drooling, the sounds of these guys will have sweat beads gathering on your brow from the exuberant dancing.

They originally formed out of a church in Treme in the 1970s. It’s not just the combination of seven individual artists (ranging in ages up to 70!) that keeps their sound so fresh, but the fact they will draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. They aren’t just jazz or funk; they have blended Carribean spice and Latino suave, they have honoured the classics and meshed the modern.

If you can’t make it here to visit this unique and vibrant city, try and catch the Dirty Dozen Brass Band when they pass through a bar near you, and then you can saturate yourself with their sound and for a little while be transported to the sweaty, rhythmical streets of New Orleans.

French Quarter Festival

French Quarter Festival

Last weekend marked the 31st annual French Quarter Festival, with a record-breaking 733,000 attendees. It’s a free four-day festival (Thursday-Sunday) based, you guessed it, in the French Quarter, celebrating the joys of local food and music.

The Quarter is filled with the scent of spices from the many crawfish boils and BBQs at regular intervals, the streets are sticky with beer spilled during excited dance steps, and the energy of the atmosphere is almost as loud as the brass bands booming on each corner.

There are about 21 regulated and scheduled stages dotted around the Quarter, but there are also the usual street players drawing large crowds. We were fortunate enough to stumble across an impromptu performance as a member of the audience decided to sing along to a familiar tune. The amount and level of talent in this city really blows you away. A part of you cant help but wonder why these people aren’t on a stage or busy touring the country, but the rest of you gets carried away dancing and singing along.

Unfortunately I was only able to attend the Saturday festivities, but I did not fall short on highlights. The Dixie Cups performed on one of the main stages, and I got to dance along to some memorable tunes with my boss which was unforgettable. You may remember them for “Going to the Chapel and we’re going to get married, going to the Chapel of Love…” They also did a brilliant rendition of “My Guy”:
“There’s not a man today who could take me away from my guy”
“What about Denzel Washington?”
“There might be man today who could take me away from my guy”

I also really enjoyed getting to hear Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes on recommendation of a friend. I shall be looking out for them in future local gigs. And of course my beloved Glen David Andrews who, as always, had a large crowd in the palm of his hand.

Glen David Andrews Band

Glen David Andrews Band

When I lived here in 2010 my friends and I regularly went to DBA on Frenchmen Street on a Monday night to see Glen David Andrews. He is without a doubt a born preformer. However, he did have a substance abuse problem, which eventually got him into some hot water.

Fortunately, when he hit bottom, he came climbing right back up, fitter and stronger. He is now clean and abstains from drugs and alcohol. He is a Christian and regularly tweets his gratitude to God for each new day and opportunity.

When I saw him in 2010 I didn’t think he could be any better, I already thought he was brilliant. But seeing him now – wow! World, watch out. He is incredible. He is talented, energetic, charismatic and definitely going places. And I find myself once more frequenting DBA on a Monday night to get my fix of his gravelly voice. He is my top recommendation to anyone visiting the city; you are always gauranteed a good time, and even the most resistant feet will start tapping and hips start shaking.

It seems the world is beginning to catch up with him, as Glen has recently signed a deal with Louisiana Red Hot Records. Earlier this month a two-night long party was held at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse to celebrate the release of his new album: Redemption.

As he made his customary entrance through the crowd he clasped my arm passing me. I almost fainted with excitement, convincing myself that he must have recognised me. The audience was initially quite mellow, as it tends to be in the very civilised setting that Irvin Mayfield’s offers in juxtaposition to its Bourbon Street location. Until, that is, he invited his fans to get out of their seats and dance in the small space by the stage. My friends and I rushed to obey, and gleefully danced the night away.

Last weekend was Jazz Fest (relevant post to follow) and I was adamant in putting together my personal schedule of the many artists who were playing that I would not ‘waste’ my time seeing Glen perform when I had the opportunity to do so every week. That being said, come Saturday afternoon (the third day of the festival) I crumbled and rushed to his stage to catch the last few songs of his set and end my day in the greatest of spirits. I am a fan for life, and I am so excited about what the future holds for this incredibly talented artist.