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8/29/09: Soul Is Waterproof

Today was my busiest speaking day at the conference, so I didn’t have time to leave the Quarter breakfast. Instead, my friend Rico Brooks and I walked from the hotel to a place called the Fleur-De-Lis on Chartres Street, where we ate breakfast, and by the time we made it back to the hotel, it was time for my morning distribution panel.
After that, I had a few hours until 3 PM to prowl the Vieux Carre, so I walked down to the French Market, and then back to a book shop on Decatur near Jackson Square, where I bought a few books. Around the corner, in an alley behind the Cabildo I found a gelateria, and I had a quick, cool dessert and a few brief moments out of the stifling heat. But by now, it was time for my afternoon panel, and so I walked back quickly to the hotel. The afternoon forum was about the future of Southern hip-hop, and I was the moderator. As is so often the case these days, the forum devolved into a discussion about “positive vs. negative rap”, and the role that major labels may or may not play in determining the trends.
After that was a demo listening session that was more fun than I had expected. Of course there were the truly bad artists, but there were also promising ones like a county band out of Shreveport called Dixie Tradition, truly outstanding artists like Josh Weintein from New York, whose demo sounded like a cross between hip-hop, Dr. John , Lou Reed and Tom Waits, and already well-known established artists like Baton Rouge’s Henry Turner Jr. There were also the odd, genre-busting acts like a “progressive, melodic, metal” group called Psychometry.
At the end of the listening session I was both exhausted and hungry, so I fell in with a guy from the Tipitina’s Co-Op office who agreed to give me a ride to the Faubourg Marigny where the showcases were to be. His car was parked at Harrah’s, and as we rode back past our hotel, there was a traffic jam with police cars and ambulances everywhere. A passerby yelled to us that someone had been stabbed in front of the hotel on Canal Street.
Down in Marigny, crowds were beginning to gather for the string of clubs along Frenchmen Street, but there were few of our conference people in the area yet, and the Marigny Brasserie where they were allegedly gathering for dinner proved to be a more expensive establishment. So the guy from Tipitina’s recommended a place back on Decatur called Fiorello’s, and they did have an excellent shrimp dinner, if a little pricey. He was apparently a musician, and began telling me about how New Orleans’ music scene had changed for the worse, and he continued his complaint as we walked back to Frenchmen Street. “I once lived in New York”, he said. “Maybe I’ll move back there. Nobody wants to pay anything around here, and they favor the musicians who have moved here since the storm.”
The rap showcase was to be in the upstairs of a club called the Blue Nile, but the downstairs was interesting enough, gutbucket blues from an elderly bluesman, but upstairs, the hip-hop DJ had the beats and grooves going, the show waiting for an audience. The small, brightly colored room with a bar and pool table was attractive, but its best feature was its outdoor upstairs balcony overlooking Frenchmen Street. and the brilliantly painted gingerbread house across the street which was also a club. It was now dusk, and directly across the street was a three-story apartment building with courtyards of tables and chairs on each level. At the ground level was a group of young whites partying and hanging out, while on the second floor landing, there was a similar group of Blacks, while the warm breezes were blowing in my face amidst the sounds of booming cars on the street and mingled musics from the various clubs and bars, the ring of laughter and voices from the street, an occasional “yeah you right” or “where ya’t”. Soon there was another sound, a young man who had ridden up on a bicycle and was singing a rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and clapping with himself to keep time. He had found an audience in the group of Blacks on the apartment building’s second-story courtyard, and they were yelling encouragement to him as I turned to the Tipitina’s dude and said “How could anyone want to move away from this?” Another conference panelist from Nashville threw some money down to the singer from our balcony, and I sat for a moment, wondering at what I had just seen.The local musician had complained that the New Orleans of today could not ever be what had been lost in Katrina, yet I felt I was witnessing the cultural spirit of New Orleans at work tonight on Frenchmen Street, a dramatic reminder that the “Soul is Waterproof” bumperstickers were more than just a cool slogan.
At 10 PM, I made the walk down to Cafe Negril to catch Josh Weinstein’s set, but there the vibe wasn’t as cool. The building was attractive, painted with reggae images and slogans, but the place was crowded, and some of the people had had a little too much to drink. Weinstein’s music was impressive though, consistently good, infused with a New Orleans tinge that belies his New York roots. I got back to the Blue Nile just in time to catch Kilo and Euricka’s show, and after that, I ducked briefly into a bookstore that was still open despite the lateness of the hour, knowing that I shouldn’t go to meet temptation on its own ground when I shouldn’t be spending the money. Wanting everything, I ended up buying nothing and started the long walk back to the hotel.
At the Cafe du Monde, I paused and stopped, deciding to enjoy a cafe au lait and beignets for my last night in the city, choosing a table that happened to be one over from Eric Cager, the organizer of our conference who was sitting with Rico Brooks and a couple of other panelists. New Orleans really is like a small town everyone says, and it does seem to work out like that. We ended up joining each other, and then walking back together toward the hotel. Near the Peaches Records, as if by some preappointed sign, all the trees erupted with swarming birds pouring out of them and into the sky. “Parakeets,” Eric Cager explained to us as the phenomenon continued from where we were back to Jackson Square and throughout the Quarter. “Some pets got out, and they have multiplied until they have taken over the city.” Back in my hotel room, I slept with the windows open onto the city, noticing flashes in the east that eventually grew nearer, then winds, and finally torrential downpours.

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