It is said by some child psychiatrists who profess to understand the thoughts of newborns (a questionable prospect at best), that we absorb more between the ages of one to three than we do over the rest of our lives. Living the first three years of my life in the Garden District of New Orleans doesn't automatically suggest I thoroughly absorbed it, but it does allow me to stake a claim in feeling it.
(clockwise from upper left) Rockin' Dopsie Jr.standing outside The Maple Leaf; Hotel Maison de Ville; The Camilia Grill; barge on the Mississippi outside of St. James, LA
While my memory of the house on the corner of Jefferson Ave. and Prytania is rather hazy, I do recall laying in my crib at night and listening to the deep drone of tug boats as they maneuvered the bends of the Mississippi River, just a few short blocks away. The smell of Creole food, drifting through my second floor bedroom window from the kitchens surrounding us would be indelibly etched into my olfactory senses. Otherwise, my few years after birth in New Orleans would be fairly uneventful. The impact, however, has been profound.
The first time I saw The Meters, I was attending a party thrown by one of the well-to-do families in Dallas. A good friend, Shannon Wynne, insisted that I make every effort to see these guys. The experience was overwhelming. No other guitar player I had ever seen but Jimmy Hendrix could made a Wah-Wah pedal "talk", until I saw Leo Nocintelli. Art Neville had this raw piano style I'd never heard before, a style the British invasion bands of the '60's could only attempt to replicate, but fall far short of. I'd seen plenty of funk bands before, but this was different. There was something else. Something that got me in my gut and was still there the next morning when I woke up. I caught them only a couple of times after that, as I was too young to go to night clubs, but the essence of what they were carries on today in the form of The Neville Brothers, and therein lies the essence of New Orleans music today. They capture the soul of Fats Domino, the jazz of Al Hirt, the rhythm of a second-line march and the raw grit of Professor Longhair, and roll it all into a sound that comes out uniquely their own. Their music has evolved over the years, both as a group and individually, but when you see them together, their sound is always The Neville Brothers and they will do their very best to entertain you. In my own estimation, they are, and have been for years, the best live band in America. Nothing in New Orleans beats walking out into the early morning light after a full night of these guys at Tipitina's Uptown.... except maybe a meal at one of my favorite places...
Dot Domilise didn't really have a chance... she was just meant to be in the restaurant business. You know 'em when you see 'em; after decades they still love their work. God simply made them to serve and that's where they find their joy. Such is the case with Dot. The day we arrived at the 70+ year old Domimlise's Po-Boys, we didn't know the ropes of ordering yet and got aced out by a couple of locals. She noticed and whisked us to the front where we belonged. I ordered the best shrimp po-boy I've ever had and that's saying a lot because I've had a lot! Well Dot comes over to our table and strikes up a conversation and we get to spend some quality time with her while she tells us about her relationship with the legenday Manning family (you know...Peyton, Eli, Archie, et al). We get so engrossed in conversation that we forget to pay. I realize about an hour later and call her from the French Quarter to see if they're still open so we can bring her the money. She says, "You don't owe a thing. It was a pleasure just visiting with you..."
I insist but she stands firm that I will "hurt her feelings". I finally let it rest... but not without the commitment that I would spread the word about her great food. Just go... today if you can make it. It's WAY worth the trip to step back in time. Barqs root beer in bottles... draft beer... one really cool bar with a killer beer can collection... po-boys with shrimp. oysters, catfish, roast beef, meatballs, ham, turkey, sausage, cheeseburger and the ever intriguing pepper weiner - all made to order while you watch, served one at a time. Most important, there's Dot's glorious personality that pours out not just Southern hospitality, but pure unadulterated love.
Then there's the new kids on the block...like Crabby Jacks. This out of the way new-dive seafood market/eatery has awesome fried chicken, po-boys and cajun/creole cuisine. Again, just go. A great menu and everything we had was incredible. Cool take-out cups.
As for other standout places we like to eat....
Uglesich's always gives any place a run for its money. This seafood-only locals hang continues to get more attention due to publications like Zagat's. Anthony Uglesich and his wife Gail took over father Sam's place when he passed away. I have a feeling that nothing has suffered in quality from the transition of this 76 year old spot. Dishes like Sam's Favorite, Crawfish Maque Choux, Fried Green Tomatoes (the best you'll ever have) and Muddy Water keep me going back again and again. Unfortunately they now close in the summer. Other spots of note... Commander's Palace - dress up... there's no mistakes out of this kitchen because chefs such as Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse got their big start here. Camellia Grill (you really can ride the trolley right to it, although they don't actually serve gumbo, the waffles are worth the trip), Mandina's, Bon Ton Cafe, Mosca's (a good road trip, across the river in Jefferson), Brennan's, Central Grocery, and, of course, Cafe du Monde for coffee and beignets.
When an outsider thinks of New Orleans, or "Nawlins", as locals pronounce it, the first place that usually comes to mind is Bourbon St.. With all due respect to this mile long t-shirt outlet with watered down Hurricanes, we won't spend too much time there. Obviously good times can still be found there, and, yes, there are still some fantastic musicians playing there, but it's easier to look elsewhere for a richer experience of what this city really has to offer. Take Mid City Lanes Rock 'n Bowl, for example. This place proclaims to be the "Home of Zydeco in New Orleans". I buy into it. Folks gather here to do three things: bowl, dance to Cajun and Zydeco bands and drink beer. My last visit there was to see File, one of my favorite Louisiana bands. Unlike most groups today, this Layfeyette based powerhouse has been together for many years, and still tears it up every night in the club circuit. When these cajun journeymen take to the stage, they literally live the music they play and sing about , lapsing back and forth between French and English from one song to the next. They are the real deal, carrying on a musical legacy passed on to their fortunate ears, and they have the gift to keep it going.
Anthony "Dopsie" Rubin also has a legacy to carry on. Adrian and I spent a few hours in his home in Lafayette a couple of years ago getting "cajun lessons". Adrian and I gawked at his mastery of the accordion, and yet Adrian left him baffled as well with his amazing licks, rooted in tex-mex. His father, the legendary Rockin' Dopsie, passed away in 1993, leaving the torch with his sons Anthony, David and Tiger, now called Dopsie Jr, after David. They have decided to carry it faithfully, if their show I saw last time I was in The Maple Leaf is any indication. These soulful cajun stompers, also from Layfeyette (see any patterns here..?), started sweating about mid-way through the second song. It must have been contagious because everyone else around me (self included) did too.
The New Orleans Jazz Festival began as a local event in the 1970s. You could literally walk up to the stage and watch Professoor Longhair, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, Al Hirt and a host of other local heros do their thing. The gospel tent actually saved those who embraced the message. Today it has turned into a gargantuan event that showcases local as well as national jazz, pop, blues, cajun and rock acts. While the intimacy has been lost, they were still able to maintain the feel of New Orleans with the food and people. I always thought that this event would bring New Orleans to the world. While strides have been made, it has not. So, every time I see one of these great Louisiana bands, I walk away perplexed at the state of American music. How could something so inspirational be largely ignored for so long. This stuff should always be sitting somewhere on the American music charts. But somehow, as if relegated to an outpost far below their just due, these troubadours remain largely detached from the American music scene. I could pick much worse outposts than New Orleans and it's surrounding parishes. I therefore view many of these Louisiana artists and their albums much the same way that I view antiques. They're hard to come by, but when you stumble across one, it's apt to become a permanent part of your home for years to come. In no particular order, here are some of the artists that continually seem to make my home jukebox on weekends.
The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Sonny Landreth, The Subdudes, Ivan Neville, File, Wayne Toups and Zydecajun, John Mooney, File', Rockin' Dopsie, Zachary Richard, Kermit Ruffins, Beau Soliel, Keb' Mo' (no he's not from there, but he had the good sense to move there and let all that good stuff rub off on him).
It's not often I cry at a museum...The D-Day Museum is the exception. I could have spent hours there but we had kids that don't read. You get the picture - no pun intended. If you have any connection to WWII, (my dad piloted a B-24 Liberator over Germany), you must go. If you don't, you should still go.
But there's no better way to feel a part of New Orleans than to stay at one of a number of small, old hotels that dot the French Quarter and the surrounding area. One of my favorites is Hotel Maison de Ville. Although it's located just a few feet from Bourbon St., on Toulouse, it is worlds apart. As loud and crazy as Bourbon St. is, when you pass through the front door, you somehow leave it all behind and step into a quiet, centuries old hotel. Each the room has a charm and character all its own, and most of them look onto a beautiful courtyard. Here you will find an attention to detail not found in most hotels anymore; a throwback to an older, but better, way of life. Bill (3PM-11PM shift) will gladly take the time to tell you anything you want to know about the hotel or New Orleans for that matter. Actually, much of New Orleans is a throwback to a better way of life. In spite of the criminal, political and racial problems that effect most major metropoliton areas today, New Orleans still stands as one of the great icons of what America is all about. And while New Orleans seems to struggle with where it's going, its strength and beauty is firmly implanted in where it's been. It is still one of my favorite places to get "lost...."
"Tonight we'll take in Rockin' Doopsie, so best slip on your hand-me-downs.
I hear the Maple Leaf is shakin' now that File's back in town.
Let's get a six of Dixie, go find some crawfish pies.
Let the floodgates come down 'cause the river's on the rise."
(River On The Rise)