New Orleans clears the air in its bars and nightclubs

New Orleans may be the place where you can “Do Whatcha Wanna” but thankfully that no longer includes sticking a lit end of a cigarette in my face while dancing to Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar.

Vincent Broussard of Rebirth Brass Band powers his saxophone at the Maple Leaf Bar.
Vincent Broussard of Rebirth Brass Band powers his saxophone at the Maple Leaf Bar.

New Orleans recently joined the more than 700 other U.S. cities in adopting a smoke free ordinance for its bars and nightclubs. Louisiana restaurants have been smoke-free since 2007.

For the record, I wasn’t too bothered by the cigarette in my face. We were all enjoying the music; safety goggles might have been nice to have.

That was a few years back. And even before then, a movement was building to protect service workers and musicians from sidestream smoke. Can you imagine what it must feel like to suck in a lungful of smoke to sing or blow your horn.  More and more establishments were going smoke free or, at the very least, creating a smoke-free performance space for musicians and their audience.

King James and the G-Men perform regularly at BJ's in the Bywater--a classic neighborhood bar that allowed smoking up until the citywide ban.
King James and the G-Men perform regularly at BJ’s in the Bywater–a classic neighborhood bar that allowed smoking up until the citywide ban.

In my last visit, just two weeks before the ban went into effect (April 22), the smoke had cleared from just about every venue. One notable exception was a Bywater neighborhood bar, BJs–a quintessential New Orleans neighborhood dive bar that would never have gone smoke free if the law hadn’t required it. Still, it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t have to throw my clothes away after a night of listening to King James and the Special Men.

It may be too soon to tell the lasting impact of the ban. Early reports are that business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the ban. Drinkers will drink and smokers will smoke. So the biggest concern now is the noise factor.

Places with courtyards, patios and balconies can still allow smoker unless, like Bacchanal, the owners prohibit smoking. The Roamin's Jasmine playing in the courtyard.
Places with courtyards, patios and balconies can still allow smoking. Above, the Roamin’ Jasmine perform in the courtyard of Bacchanal which by its own choice prohibits smoking.

Bars and nightclubs can be fined by the city if they create a “nuisance.” Since New Orleans is a collection of neighborhoods with bars and businesses in close proximity, when patrons go outside for a puff (the ban includes vaping), noise levels rise. With some bars operating 24/7 or until the very wee hours of the night, a group of “pissed” smokers outside a bar run the risk of pissing off the neighbors.

Well, I’ve got music that will take you back to the smoke-filled dive bars of New Orleans yore on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  And you won’t need to wash your clothes and hair afterwards.

Easy to catch a lot of NOLA music in a short period of time

Catching as much music as possible in New Orleans ain’t hard. But some stamina comes in handy at times.

We arrived on Friday night and hustled down to see late night show of the Soul Rebels at d.b.a.  I’ve yet to catch them at their home bar, Les Bon Temp Roule but its always fun to hear and feel this talented brass band.

Saturday, we took the “Freret Jet” (#15 bus) to the annual Freret Street Festival, getting there in time to catch the swinging last half of the Mississippi Rail Company set. This New Orleans  R&B group is on my list to pick up when I get to the Louisiana Music Factory.

Mark Mullins (left) and Craig Klein are two of the "bones" of Bonerama. Billy Iuso, fronting his own band earlier, added some licks to a Bonerama number.
Mark Mullins (left) and Craig Klein are two of the “bones” of Bonerama. Billy Iuso, fronting his own band earlier, added some licks to a Bonerama number.

One of the advantages of visiting New Orleans is to learn about musicians that don’t get airplay outside of the area. Billy Iuso and the Restless Natives is one of those blues groups that sneaks up on you, starting off without much fanfare but blowing you away by the final beat.

The headliner for the festival was Bonerama — three trombones backed up by guitar, bass and drums. This group, which has played the Winthrop Blues Festival, was in excellent form.

We finished the day back at Frenchmen Street with The Maison’s evening closer Austin soul group The NightOwls.  They put on an energetic show that was almost overshadowed by some of the Spring Break-like antics of the crowd.

On Sunday evening, we braved Northwest-style rains and winds to sit in Bacchanal’s open courtyard to see The Roamin’ Jasmine.  Now, I’ve aired the Jasmine many times on the show but as usual its a delight to see the band in action, particularly with Taylor Smith, bassist and bandleader, singing.

Yesterday, we rented bikes and pedaled uptown to Carrollton, up Jeff Davis Parkway to City Park and back down Esplanade, stopping at Three Muses where Bart Ramsey, who fronts a Gypsy Jazz band called Zazou City, played a solo piano and sang for the early evening audience. I will definitely be playing some of his music when I get back on the  show in two Monday’s from now.

King James & the Special Men at BJ's Lounge
King James & the Special Men at BJ’s Lounge

I can’t close without mentioning my evening at BJ’s Lounge where King James and The Special Men held court for their regular Monday session.  This was bluesy, boogie woogie rock n’ roll fronted by Jimmy Horn,  who lived briefly in Seattle before stumbling into New Orleans in the 90’s. A disciple of Ernie  and Antoinette K-Doe, Horn seems to possess some of that same confident but endearing swagger. There is no stage at BJ’s.  No barrier between audience and musician and the give and take was, to be understated, uniquely entertaining. As his piano player banged out Fats Domino-like triplets on Blue Monday, I marveled at how I was probably no more than two miles from the Ninth Ward neighborhood bar that Antoine “Fats’ Domino was first discovered by Imperial Records while banging out the beat that became part of rock n’ roll history. A special treat was Jason Mingledorff sitting in with his saxophone.

Kim and I are chilling today but we’ll be catching a lot more beats in the days to come. Keep up with my posts by subscribing (upper right hand side of page.)