Spring 2015 Tour: Good New Orleans and Bad New Orleans
New Orleans is consistently one of my favorite places to visit, and as always I feel a sense of peace descend on my mind as we roll in. We get an early start so we have time to explore a bit. Carlos takes us to a park by the art museum, and we walk around the sculpture garden surrounding it. The park is beautiful, and the weather is ideal for walking. I am pleased to still recognize a few from art history class years ago: Oldenburg, Botero, Magritte. Even better, Carlos tells us we are near a well-known cafe that serves beignets, and we soon find it: Morning Call.
A beignet is a fried dough thing, sort of like a zeppole, only it is cut into a flat rectangle instead of dropped into hot oil in a ball shape. It has little inherent sweetness, so it is dusted with powdered sugar. Surprisingly, even though we’ve been to New Orleans several times, I’ve never had one before. It’s good. It’s not life-changing, it’s fried dough. You get three for two dollars, which is a solid deal and slightly more than one person needs to eat in one sitting. I’m glad I tried it. I am more impressed with my coffee, which is bracingly strong and laced with chicory in the traditional New Orleans manner. This place generally serves its coffee as a cafe au lait, and I get it black. It knocks me on my ass. I am ready to face the day, finally, in the late afternoon. It’s about time to load in, after which we will have several more hours to kill in a different part of town. But first we stop at Siberia to pick up some dinner. We know the area near the venue, and it is not good for takeout. We’re not hungry yet, just thinking ahead. I get the same thing I got last time: a beet burger. I love this beet burger. It might be my favorite bar food I have ever had. It is delicious and filling and I do not feel gross after eating it. Every major flavor and texture classification is represented, and every ingredient is of at least above-average quality. I get a side of pickled vegetables, mostly cauliflower, served with a horseradish dipping sauce. The whole lot costs about ten dollars, and I know it will take care of me for the remainder of the evening. We get everything to go, and I resist the urge to order a rye while I wait. The sun is still up, and it will be a late night.
Our show is at One Eyed Jacks, where we’ve played at least two or three times before. It was the first place we ever played in New Orleans, and where we met several of the friends and fans who still come to our shows now. It’s been a few years, and I look forward to going back. The sound is great, and there is a green room backstage. We are joined by our friend, T-shirt designer, and Julian’s girlfriend Marie. She’ll be tagging along for the next couple days. She’s good company because she doesn’t take up a lot of additional space and is unfailingly down for whatever is going on. She has also brought homemade cheddar-leek scones, which are delicious. Killing time before the show, most of us head off in different directions to wander. I arbitrarily decide on a destination: Frenchmen Street. This is supposed to be the place to hear good live music, and jazz fest is either happening or just happened, I forget which, and I’ve never actually gone to hear music in New Orleans that wasn’t other bands from the indie rock or whatever you call it circuit. I decide to just follow my nose and go into whichever place projects the most pleasant sound onto the street. About a block from the venue, I see this, and am compelled to document it.
Look at these dogs! They are chilling so hard. They have it made. They don’t even have to walk anywhere, and every few feet they are showered with attention by passersby. The dogs and the owners are loving it. This is the cutest thing I have seen in some time. Until, only a few minutes later, I see this:
Just a potbellied pig, about the size of your average house cat, being fed little slices of apple by his owners on a city street. I talk to the owners, an affable couple in their mid-thirties. They are cute together. The pig’s name is Snuffleupagus, and he’s still a baby at about fifteen or sixteen pounds. They get a lot bigger. The guy gives me a slice of apple to feed him, and I can’t suppress a giggle. This little dude is just too fucking adorable. I figure now is a good time to get a recommendation for some music on Frenchmen Street. The guy recommends the Spotted Cat, and cautions me not to stray too far from the main drag. It’s sketchy here, he says. I ask if it’s worse than Bed Stuy and he says yes, kind of; it’s different. He’s from Brooklyn too. The area we’re in right now seems a lot nicer than the Bywater, where we usually play and crash, but since we are paisan I take his warning to heart. I am, after all, carrying a large amount of cash from the last couple gigs, only 20% of which belongs to me. I thank him for his guidance and bid humans and pig farewell.
When I get to the Spotted Cat, I am pleased to find an acoustic blues trio in full swing. A harmonica, a resonator guitar, and a washboard, with the latter two instrumentalists switching off on vocals. The washboard is particularly impressive for the array of sounds the guy gets out of it. It basically produces an approximation of every drum sound except the kick. Mounted to the bottom of the board are two tin cans of different sizes with the bottoms curved inwards. The guy taps them with his fingertips to get a sort of tom sound. There is also a little bell such as you ring to get service at a hotel which fills the role of a crash cymbal. The whole thing is laid out very ergonomically, and he does a lot with it while also singing. Everyone here is middle-aged, and many appear to be out of towners like myself. Here for the jazz fest, I assume. This is exactly what I was hoping to find: some sort of competently-executed American music not descended from the rock tradition. I have a Sazerac and soda and drink it slowly. The band finishes, and I decide to walk some more. Nothing else issuing from the open doors of Frenchmen Street strikes my fancy. I’m not really in the mood for jazz, and that seems to be the thing happening at that moment. I have a perverse flash of inspiration: Bourbon Street.
One Eyed Jacks is about a block away from Bourbon Street, but I’ve never actually been. I’ve never actually been because it’s awful. The crowded feel of Times Square, the tourist-friendly faux-transgressiveness of Saint Marks Place, the fashions and social mores of the Jersey Shore, plus everyone is drinking outside. It is a Jimmy Buffett song made flesh in an urban environment, the abstract concept of recreation as alpha and omega, pursued through the medium of booze. It is rife with bros and hos and all manner of canny entrepreneurs intent on separating them from their money. If you mention it in the presence of a local their estimation of you drops precipitously, and you can see it in their eyes. It is, in short, not my kind of place. But I am morbidly curious. What is it like to participate in Bourbon Street? Who the fuck am I to think I’m so much better than everybody else, anyway? I am going to go to the fucking chintziest, awful-est, neon-est bar I can find and I am going to get a too-strong, too-sweet drink in a plastic souvenir cup. I excitedly text my traveling companions with the plan, and am pleased when the majority of them join me.
Our choice is immediately clear: Tropical Isle. It is the epitome of Bad New Orleans, and that is why it is so successful that there are five locations, all on Bourbon Street.
Tropical Isle is an orgy of beach-themed tchotchkes and garishly-colored lights. A classic rock trio is playing “Evil Ways” when I enter, and they follow it with “Oye Como Va”. Some young people nurse brightly-colored beverages. You can order a drink called a Shark Attack, the ordering of which prompts the bartender to ring a bell and dunk a plastic shark into the drink while everyone applauds. There are 15-minute drink specials, during which a sign lights up and Jägermeister shots cost two dollars. A couple in their late 60s or early 70s is dancing right in front of the stage. They are the only people dancing, and they have some serious moves. They are giving each other a look like they are going to fuck right now, right up against a plastic palm tree. They look like a Viagra commercial. It’s kind of sweet, actually; I certainly hope I am that psyched to rail my significant other when I am their age; but in this context they look positively Lynchian. I am pleased to find my colleagues already here. I order the main drink, the one I’ve seen people stumbling up and down the street with more than any other: the Hand Grenade. The Hand Grenade is billed as “New Orleans Most Powerful Drink!” (sic), and much fuss is made about the secrecy of its recipe. It comes in a tall neon green cup shaped like a grenade with a long tube atop it, and there is also a little plastic grenade floating in it. The message is clear: don’t just drink, drink in such a way as to do violence to yourself. This is war. The drink is trademarked, and a $250 cash reward is offered for diming out any other drinking establishment that uses the name. The stern legalese is written in several places throughout the bar, rather undermining the good-time vibe. Beneath this glitzy veneer of recreation is a team of lawyers out to get you. I imagine a call center, staffed 24 hours a day, where a neon green light flashes every time someone calls in with a hot tip about counterfeit Hand Grenades. The lawyers sleep in a bunker below, in wrinkle-free suits, ready to spring into action to protect the brand at a moment’s notice. Only two people in the world know the recipe for the Hand Grenade, and they are not allowed to travel on the same plane. I call bullshit on the secret recipe. This is Midori, sour mix, and vodka, or I’m Jimmy Buffett. Perhaps there are trace amounts of one or two other things to render the recipe trademark-able, but you could make this in your kitchen with minimal effort. It is so excessively sweet you can taste the hangover before it happens. Woe betide the unwary traveler who puts more than one of these things in his or her body. Even one is probably taking six or seven hours off my life. I try to put myself into the mindset of someone who would earnestly enjoy being here. It is definitely a departure from normal life. It is bright and there is music, and for better or for worse I never have seen anything quite like it. Some of these people will probably make out before the night is through, and everyone can take home a brightly-colored souvenir cup to commemorate their visit. It is a sort of Chuck-E-Cheese for people purportedly over the age of 21. If you come from a place where there isn’t much going on, and you like your hangovers swift and brutal, you’d like it here. We are pleased to find the upstairs balcony nearly empty. Where is everybody? It’s Friday! I guess it’s still early. The balcony is oddly peaceful, and I sip my Hand Grenade® and look out at the proceedings while we shoot the shit. A brass band marches down the street. They sound pretty good. It is starting to get dark out. Those of us with drinks have finished them, and we are sure as hell not about to order another. I feel like I have “done” Bourbon Street, and will not need to do it again.
The show is our first in several days with a real sound system, even separate engineers for the monitors and front of house. It sounds fucking great. We see the people we always see when we come through, and it is good to hang. Afterwards we opt to get a head start on the next day’s drive, and head about an hour west before stopping at a Super 8. I am liking this new thing we do where we get two rooms and everyone gets a bed. As Becca points out, sneaking too many people into a room may be cheaper, but it takes a cumulative psychic toll. I sleep well and for too short a time. The next stop will be Houston, where we have some time to kill. We know we’ll have access to laundry in Tucson in a few days, but for some of us the situation is dire, and we opt to do some right now. We find a big laundromat and post up there. Immediately outside the laundromat is a food truck, and I go out to investigate. I am pleased to find, for the third time on this journey, pupusas. They really are everywhere.
These pupusas are the best yet. They only cost $1.50 apiece, a real steal. The loroco is fresher than I’ve had in the past, and I’m going to rescind my previous statement and say that loroco is in fact better than spinach. The place is a real family affair, with three generations either directly involved in the preparation or hanging out on the bench outside. The lady who takes my order expresses surprise that I know what “loroco” is. I guess most of the customers here are other Salvadorans. I order one with loroco and one with beans and cheese. As is standard, they come with the slaw and the thin tomato sauce. You see that little round red thing on top? That is a slightly pickled, extremely spicy pepper. I find all of them and break them up to spread the spiciness around. I’ve never seen this pepper before, but I’m guessing it is just a very young red chile pepper, or perhaps a particularly small variety thereof. These things hit the spot. My traveling companions see me eating and head outside to get some for themselves. There are also tamales, but I’m quite full, and it only cost three dollars. I’ll have to continue to keep an eye out for pupusas in my travels. They are simply the most satisfying food at the lowest price.
The show is at Walters Downtown, where we’ve played once or twice before. It is somebody’s birthday, and there are lights and glowsticks and smoke machines everywhere. Fortunately Walters also has a green room, to which I retreat immediately. I’m not feeling overly social tonight. I take the opportunity to get some work done. One of the other bass players lets me use his amp, and it is just the most spectacular rig I’ve ever played through. An 8×10 cabinet with a Steamboat head and a Mesa Boogie power amp. Steamboat is a little company based out of Houston that makes all-tube bass amps, and I’ve heard of them but never had the opportunity to use one. It sounds fucking dank; if you drive it enough you can get it to sound like a dirty analog synth. Every note is like a thick steak. If I ever decide to drop a few Gs on an amp head, this is the one, though I would never invest in a cabinet bigger than 2×10 unless I had someone to carry it for me. I am surprised by the amount of people who seem to have come here specifically for us, since it’s a birthday party and we’re not the headliner or anything. A few people even drove from Austin, and one of them reads my blog. We all sign a bunch of posters and shirts, and I decide to go out and mingle a bit. I soon meet this guy, who is talking to Becca outside.
This is Tim, and he is apparently something of a local character. Everyone I talk to afterwards seems to know him. I have neglected to capture his amazing socks, which are bright yellow and purple and pulled almost up to his knees. He is quite drunk, and holding forth on a variety of topics related to health and spirituality. The stuff in the bag is his homemade popcorn, which he brings to shows to share with everybody. It is by far the best popcorn I have ever had, and it is supposedly rather healthy too. He tells Marie and I about the recipe: popped in a kettle with a colander over it, in olive oil. Then you put it in a thick brown paper bag and mix in a little butter, Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar, and Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acid. Then dry ingredients: nutritional yeast (also Bragg’s), garlic powder, curry powder, dill, and pulverized seaweed, and shake it in the bag until it is evenly distributed. This stuff is savory and satisfying, though if I were making it myself I would add a bit of crushed red pepper. The bag seems to contain an infinite amount of popcorn, as he keeps rolling up the sides to expose more while we talk. He does some sort of art therapy with children, and refers to himself as their “spiritual attorney”. He likes kids better than adults because their karma isn’t all fucked up yet. He is a big talker, but also very smart and engaging. If he started a cult, people would join it. We talk for a while, even though we really have to go. I am interested to hear what he has to say, and also to keep eating his popcorn, which I vow to try and recreate on my own time. He’s been doing it since middle school, though; I have some catching up to do. Eventually we part ways, and he gladly poses for the picture above. He is justifiably proud of his creation.
We stay with Andrew of Wild Moccasins in his spacious and wonderfully air-conditioned house. We do some shopping at Trader Joe’s and head out for Tucson. We’ve allowed two days for the fifteen hour drive, and we’ll be playing a show with Julian’s brother’s band and staying with his family at an AirBnB they secured in the area. We are looking forward to walking through the desert and maybe going to a hot spring. About an hour and a half out of Houston, the van starts acting funny. It is not maintaining its speed, and making a troubling sound. We pull over to investigate. Something is very wrong. The wheel is visibly askew on the axle, and the bearing appears to be missing entirely. It is good that we stopped when we did. We are in Weimar, TX, population 2181, and it is both Sunday and Mother’s Day. I call twenty mechanics in the area, and get no answers. Plus, according to some friendly locals who stop to help us, there is a festival in town which absolutely ensures that no one is working. They give us a recommendation for an auto shop, and we get AAA to tow us there. It will be the next day before we can even get someone to look at it. We make a reservation at the nearby Scottish Inn, which is very fortunately walkable from where we are. Carlos and I will wake up at the crack of dawn to go back to the shop and see what the deal is. In the meantime, there is nothing to do but watch a movie and try to get some sleep.