Last week some friends of ours from Minnesota came to New Orleans for a visit. Ed, Roberta and their fifteen-year old son Thomas use their fall break every year to take in someplace different – this year, New Orleans was their destination.
Ed and Roberta had been here previously, Thomas had not – though the story of his conception at the landmark Hotel Monteleone provided a marvelous moment of teen I-don’t-really-want-to-hear-this-story over coffee and beignets our first gathering. in the French Quarter.
I’m pretty sure that moment wasn’t the high point of the visit for Thomas, but I think I know what was: our Friday night roaming the Marigny district, taking in the music and sights of Frenchmen Street – where serious musicians and music fans can be found.
While Bourbon Street enjoys a well-deserved world-wide reputation for its entertainment venues of all kinds (musical and otherwise) Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighborhood that butts up against the French Quarter, is known for its intimate musical venues, street musicians, and all-around eclecticism of locales and denizens, is the preferred locale for many locals when it comes to hearing great music. (http://www.frenchmenst.com/)
Into this environment stepped young Thomas, a budding musician in his own right, a guitar player and drummer in a band back in Minnesota.
It was about six on a Friday evening, and Roberta, Ed and Tom had arrived on Frenchmen a little before us. We met in front of a club called the Spotted Cat, because there is a local musician we wanted them to hear who was playing. Unfortunately, with two teenagers and a pre-teen in tow (Tom and our sons Will and Sam) we were limited in our options, as many of the venues don’t allow anyone under twenty-one at all, and some don’t allow minors on Friday or Saturday nights. Such was the case at the ‘Cat.
But one of the joys of Frenchmen is that you don’t necessarily need to go in to a place to partake in the music; small, intimate clubs, doors wide open, the music and ambiance spilling out onto the age-old sidewalks block after block; you can catch a lot just roaming the street, even at that early hour. Plus, this is New Orleans, so the ubiquitous plastic ‘go-cup’ allows a certain portability of beverages that most cities don’t offer. It’s all part of the local charm and ambiance.
One club we stopped at held sit-down potential; an employee at the door told us we could come in, but as we started to sit down, the bar manager informed us she couldn’t seat the boys on a Friday– but she did have an easy alternative.
She motioned us to a couple of small tables by the window, and said the boys could use her ‘bench out front’ and we could order them Cokes. She then proceeded to lead the boys out front to an ancient, charmingly nicked up and initial-carved wooden bench in front of her club, where two middle-aged white gentlemen were sitting quietly, and adroitly and tactfully started shooing them away.
“Okay, fellas. You gotta go – I’ve got paying customers!”
“Why we have to go?” replied one of the men, puzzled.
“I told you; I’ve got paying customers, so you guys gotta go somewhere else.”
“We gotta go?”
“Yep. Paying customers tonight.” The men looked at her for a moment, then, with some feigned resignation, relinquished their spots and ambled off down the street.
Our visitors seemed a bit taken aback by the rather matter-of-fact nature of the I-can-accommodate-you-let-me-shoo-the-vagrants-away-first encounter, but in the thirty-seconds all of that was transpiring, Thomas pointed down the street to a club called Maison where he said the woman he spoke with at the door before we arrived said he would certainly be allowed in.
The club is a place that my wife and I had walked by before on previous visits, but had never been in. As advertised, the young woman at the door told us we would all be welcome to come in and sit down, at least for the first full set of the night. (One of the great things about Frenchmen is that most clubs offer non-stop music from late afternoon on through closing at two a.m. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays, the early sets are usually lesser knowns and wannabees, often playing just for tips. Still, it’s all great music; there are no bad acts on Frenchmen – and that includes the street performers.)
The staff pushed together a couple of tables in a prime locale, and all seven of us settled in to listen to the end of the opening set; a group of late twenty-somethings playing contemporary jazz. We ordered a round of drinks and settled in.
Tom took a seat with his back to the wall and a clear view of the small stage and began intently watching every move of the four guys on stage. Visually, here wasn’t much to see, at least from my perspective. This is just great music, with serious musicians just playing; no pyrotechnics, no crowd-rousing between song babble, just the guys playing.
That’s Frenchmen Street in a nutshell.
Watching Tom through the ending twenty-minutes or so of that set was fascinating; he was taking in every little moment. His eyes would get especially animated during the lengthy solos, and I watched his eyebrows rise and fall with every unique bass groove or drum riff. Meanwhile, my boys had a different tack; fifteen-year-old Will, a budding drummer in his own right, was moderately invested but still spent a lot of his time texting while twelve-year-old Sam observed with the detached glare of a newspaper music critic. After three years of living here, they are more used to music just being there; no big deal for them.
Talk about seeing something through a new set of eyes.
Tom was obviously soaking everything in; the music, the musicians, the venue. Between songs I watched him looking around at the centuries old brick walls of the club, the elongated, polished wood bar, the constant stream of customers in and out of the place. He also seemed fascinated by the clinical efficiency of the transition between sets; the first group finished, they passed the tip jar while they packed up their stuff and made way for the next group and set – all seemingly in the blink of an eye.
There is no wasted time or effort here. Once a group is done, they pack up and get off, while the next group is setting up. There are no roadies, no lengthy intermissions – they keep the customers in their seats and buying drinks and the music flowing with quick, smooth transitions.
We enjoyed the end of the early set, had some appetizers, and sat through the first half-hour or so of the main set of the night before departing, as Tom and his family had a Saturday morning flight home. By the time we left, the late afternoon sunshine had been replaced by the darkness of night washed in the romantic glow of subdued neon; again, none of the touristy, garish gaudiness of Bourbon Street. By this time, the streets were filled with people roaming from club-to-club, music of all kinds was wafting from every doorway.
They had parked their rental car about three blocks from Maison, and in that three block walk we eavesdropped on jazz in a number of different forms, plus some soulful, horn-tinged R-and-B, a bit of reggae, a dose of Cajun swamp rock and some seventies rock.
And that was just the acts in the clubs.
That three-block stretch also included a wide array of street performers; two different (style/tone/street corner) folk guitarists, a solo violinist, a klezmer-tinged jazz sextet, a guy playing a coronet, a stray flaminco guitarist and a group of eight musicians huddled together in a corner doorway playing jazz-flavored classical music. This lineup featured a bearded guy wearing a dress, sitting on a chair playing his accordion. Quite well, I might add.
Tom caught a glimpse of the guy and his attire before I did and it provided this typical newcomer-night-in-New Orleans exchange: “Umm, that guy is wearing a dress.” Me, casually and unmoved, “Yeah, I guess he is.”
It was quite an interesting, truly New Orleans walk.
After getting them to their rental car and saying our goodbyes, we passed by the same group on the way to our van. The bearded guy and his seven friends were still playing away, though he had set the accordion down and was now playing a saw. Yeah, your basic Stanley short-cut jazz saw. Quite well, I might add. Tom should have seen what we saw, the guy in the dress, playing his saw. Even without that, he saw and heard plenty on his night on the ‘Nawlins scene.
So with apologies to Dr. Seuss, a salute to Tom the young musician:
“I took off from school,
Dad saying to me,
“Thomas, keep your eyelids up
And see what you can see.”
But when I tell folks where I’ve been
And what I think I’ve seen,
“Your eyesight’s much too keen.
“Stop telling such outlandish tales.
Stop turning minnows into whales.”
But it’s a true story, and has quite a beat,
When I say that we saw and heard it
all on Frenchmen Street.”