Even if you only know a little about New Orleans, you probably know about Bourbon Street. And if that street is your only knowledge of the city, please keep reading.
Nowadays, Bourbon Street is almost a caricature of people’s perceptions of the city. A noisy, flashy street loaded with T-shirt and souvenir shops, bars that sell drinks called “Hand Grenades” and strip clubs. The street seems designed to allow visitors to sin without fear of discovery or retribution by their neighbors back home.
My own experience with the street dates back to the early 60’s when my parents’ idea of a fun family night was to pack us all up in our Rambler station wagon and drive slowly down the street (now restricted to pedestrians at night). My dad would stop the car when the doormen to the “dance clubs” would open the doors providing us a scandalous peak at the activities inside. Yes, we all have undergone therapy since.
Back then, locals still went down to Bourbon Street for live music at clubs such as those owned by famous home boys, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain.
The street still offers live music, mostly versatile cover bands capable of playing Rock favorites and cabaret music. The street is an important employment base for local musicians and other performers, according to Brad Rhines’s article, Pride on Bourbon Street. Also, the restaurant Galatoire’s and Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse are two well-regarded establishments on Bourbon that attract a local clientele. But generally speaking, the locals leave Bourbon Street for the tourists.
Fortunately, New Orleans has another locus of live music that both locals and tourists frequent. Downriver from the French Quarter is the end of Frenchmen Street located in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Any cabby can get you there. If you’re in the French Quarter, it’s a reasonable walk– head away from downtown on either Decatur or Chartres (pronounced Charter) Streets. After you cross Esplanade, you’ll run into Frenchmen. There are roughly a dozen places offering live music in this three-block area.
If you have watched the wonderful HBO series “Treme,” then you’ve seen a number of Frenchmen Street clubs featured as settings for the show, including the Spotted Cat, The Blue Nile, and the venerable Snug Harbor. There are music clubs literally next door to each other. In one scene in Treme, band leaders in adjacent clubs go back and forth stealing the other’s audience, illustrating just how easy it is for you to bounce from one music venue to another.
One of my most recent experiences on Frenchmen was almost magical. Kim and I landed on the street one afternoon after a long day of slogging through torrential rains. We walked into The Three Muses tired, wet and hungry. We were just looking for a place to sit and maybe eat. We ordered a couple of small food plates and there on the tiny stage next to us was a cellist using a digital delay, a loop pedal and other electronic wizardry to create a roomful of haunting music.
In the dozen years that Helen Gillet has lived in New Orleans, she has established herself as an original artist, capable of integrating New Orleans sounds and heritage into her music. And here she was doing an intimate performance for us as we refreshed ourselves with excellent food and drink.
On your next trip to New Orleans, visit Frenchmen Street. Meanwhile, you can hear Helen Gillet, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain on my next show, Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, starting at 10 a.m., Monday, on KAOS, www.kaosradio.org, 89.3 FM.