“We Had Some Fun On The Holiday”: Mardi Gras on the Backstreets of New Orleans

“Mardi Gras” to most Americans conjures up images of crowds on Bourbon Street and girls pulling up their dresses in the hopes that someone will throw them beads. But the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes place far away from the French Quarter, where actually no parades take place on Lundi Gras or Mardi Gras. Most of the bigger parades occur uptown along St. Charles Avenue, but even that is not to be compared with the holiday that occurs in the city’s Black neighborhoods along the backstreets. There the day begins with groups of youths in macabre costume known as the Skeleton Men, and groups of women called the Baby Dolls, who are followed by the Black Indian tribes, whose elaborate suits are true works of art. Accompanied by drummers, these tribes march through the neighborhoods, challenging other tribes to a competition ritual involving dance and bravado.

Although the tribes are usually accompanied only by drums and tambourines, this year the Black Mohawks had hired the To Be Continued Brass Band to accompany them on the holiday, and they met at Verret’s Lounge on Washington Avenue to begin the day. As is usually true on Mardi Gras day, the weather was warm and pleasant, with a blue sky and plenty of sun, and quite a few of the different tribes and their drummers were out in the Third Ward where much Black Indian activity takes place.

Later the TBC Band made their way to a private house party uptown, where they had been hired to play in the backyard, which featured an outdoor bar and deck. When that was over, my friend Darren Towns and his family and I headed to the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Terrytown, one of the few restaurants to actually be open on Mardi Gras Day. The fried seafood turned out to be really good, and I ended the holiday as I usually do each year, pleasantly tired from a day of parading and fun.

A Wedding, Kermit’s and the Treme Hideaway

On my previous birthday weekends in New Orleans, the TBC Brass Band was usually playing the Dumaine Street Gang second-line, but that didn’t happen this year, and instead Sunday was a day of gigs. It started with an outdoor wedding in front of a Ninth Ward church where the couple was paraded across the street to the house they were going to live in. That was followed by some sort of party at a reception hall in Metairie, and then two TBC gigs, the earlier of which was at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge in Treme.

Kermit’s is always a fun place to catch TBC, because they play on the outdoor patio, which has a real Caribbean vibe to it, complete with banana trees. This year a fire pit had been added, which provided extra warmth, as the winter evenings can get somewhat chilly even in New Orleans. Kermit had a funk band playing inside this year when we arrived, but they ended their set soon afterwards and everyone moved out to the patio. Although the To Be Continued Brass Band plays in a lot of places in the city, at Kermit’s there is always a great interaction between the band and their fans, and plenty of footwork in front of the stage.

The later set was down the street at Derrick Tapp’s Treme Hideaway, which I had usually viewed as a rap and R & B club. It has a sort of patio or courtyard as well, but at the Hideaway, bands play indoors. By the time TBC started playing their late set there, I was thoroughly exhausted and fairly hungry. And in post-COVID New Orleans, it doesn’t do to be hungry late at night, as there is nothing open. Everything closes early. I was finally able to pick up some breakfast at Coffee And in Marrero, one of the few places that remains open 24 hours a day.

A Day In New Orleans with the TBC Brass Band

After breakfast, my friend Darren from the TBC Brass Band and I headed into the Central Business District of New Orleans. I had always wanted to go to the rooftop bar on the Troubadour Hotel called the Monkey Board, but unfortunately, we learned that they didn’t open until 4. I had thought that the views of the city from there would be worth photographing, but since the band had a full day of shows, we would not be able to go back later in the day.

In fact, on a typical Saturday, TBC can have upwards of ten gigs or more. These are typically short, no more than 15 to 20 minutes; people hire them for funerals, wedding receptions, birthday parties and sometimes holiday parties, and they may have to traverse the whole New Orleans area from one end to the other. As it was my birthday weekend, I enjoyed nothing more than traveling around the city with my favorite band.

However, the day started off sadly, as the band had been engaged to play at a Catholic school out in the Holly Grove area in memory of a little girl who had drowned in a mop bucket at a daycare when left unattended. The case had been publicized locally, and a fairly large crowd was present to remember her. How the relatives can dance and buckjump at such a tragic time is something I have never fully understood about New Orleans, but I suppose that people can recall the good times and celebrate the lives of those who passed.

Other gigs were scattered around the city; one was in a ballroom at the Jung Hotel where we were kept waiting for a significant period of time. But perhaps the best one was for a birthday party at a neighborhood spot called the Sportsman Bar and Lounge on Odeon Avenue on the Algiers side. There TBC assembled on the corner of Odeon and General Meyer Avenue and then paraded down Odeon to the bar, where a large crowd of people had gathered to honor someone’s birthday. As is typical at such events, the band paraded through a side door into the bar, played for about 15 minutes and then went back outside. But the whole neighborhood seemed to be out as if there had been a second-line. The weather was warm and people were in a festive mood.

From there Darren and I headed to Lakeview to my favorite restaurant The Steak Knife for my birthday dinner. As always the food and atmosphere were great, and it did not take us long to get our food and eat, which was important, because TBC had yet another gig.

That final gig of the night was not far from Canal and Broad, and was yet another party, in a fairly small room that was packed to the walls. When it was over, I would have liked to grab some beignets and coffee or a dessert somewhere, but the pandemic was still having an effect on New Orleans. The Cafe du Monde had closed at 8 PM, and Morning Call at midnight, and Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza, which once stayed open until 4 AM was now closing at 10 PM. It was all disappointing and demoralizing, but still, the Saturday of my birthday weekend had been fun.

Hill Country Blues at a Graduation Party in Holly Springs

Marshall County, Mississippi is one of those out-of-the-way places in the South where old traditions and ways have retained a foothold. The county is the epicenter of the Hill Country Blues style, and the related Cotton Patch Soul Blues style of the Kimbrough family, and blues is often the soundtrack for picnics and family gatherings.

On May 22, a family graduation party turned into a virtual music festival in Holly Springs, as the family had booked Hill Country greats Duwayne Burnside and Garry Burnside to perform in their front yard. They also had a DJ and plenty of good barbecue, and a crowd of a couple of hundred people gathered, with cars up and down old Highway 4. Although it was quite hot, it didn’t deter the party-goers, and after the sun went down, things cooled off some. It was actually a big night for Hill Country blues in Holly Springs, as Kenny Brown was also performing at a historic home on Salem Avenue for the first of the summer Blues on the Porch performances. Blues is still the soundtrack of summer in Marshall County.

Juke Joint Fest: Sean Bad Apple’s Private Backyard Party With Jimmy Duck Holmes

Although the scheduled outdoor shows ended at 5 PM, Sean “Bad” Apple, who recently converted the old Club 2000 on Issaquena Avenue into the Bad Apple Blues Club, had a private invitation-only Jimmy “Duck” Holmes performance in the backyard of his club, which my friend Sherena was able to talk our way into since she knew Jimmy. The performance before a small crowd sitting on the ground was intimate, in Homes’ usual way, and was intended to highlight his new CD release. Sherena managed to buy copies of the disc and a T-shirt as well.

Duwayne Burnside Live at Mattie B’s in Marshall County

One of the worst things of 2020 was the cancellation of nearly all live music events, gigs, festivals and parties. It was understandable, in the light of COVID, but it was still disappointing. Having not played a gig since August, I was thrilled when the great blues guitarist Duwayne Burnside called me to play his birthday party out in the rurals between Independence, Mississippi and Holly Springs. With the weather unseasonably warm, I imagined there would be a fairly good turnout.

Duwayne chose to have his party at a rural club and baseball field called Mattie B’s along the Wall Hill Road east of Independence in Marshall County. The place has the look and feel of a real Mississippi juke, complete with pool tables, but it has a surprisingly ample stage. When I arrived, there were a lot of cars in the back near the baseball field, and a food truck had set up there selling plates. The inside was not drastically crowded, but there was a good number of people inside, among them the blues musician Robert Kimbrough, and the DJ was playing good blues and southern soul inside.

Duwayne took the stage at about 8 PM, and we played until around 10:00 PM, with Pinkie Pulliam on bass and Artemas Leseur on drums. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when Duwayne played the late David Kimbrough’s song “I Got The Dog In Me,” which was the first time I had heard him play that song. Blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah also made an appearance, and Kenny briefly joined Duwayne on the stage. The crowd especially took to the more upbeat Hill Country tunes, filling the dance floor in front of the stage. It made a nice throwback to how things were before the pandemic.

All On A Mardi-Gras Day: A Backyard Party Uptown with TBC Brass Band

The house where TBC was to play at 4 PM looked like a fairly ordinary Uptown home from the street, but it was abuzz with activity and people coming and going, including a number of Black Indians who had been down at Second and Dryades. The party was being held in the back yard of the house, and when Darren Towns and Bunny Adams arrived, we were all led into the backyard, and it became apparent that the house had been beautifully equipped to host parties. On the back, a roofed deck complete with a bar was full of partiers, and another free-standing bar was located in a corner of the backyard. At least fifty people were present as the TBC Brass Band struck up a brief set of their most popular tunes, and everyone had a remarkably good time. I was later told that the house in fact belonged to the Big Chief of one of the Black Indian gangs. Although it wasn’t even 5 PM when we left the party, and Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge was less than a mile away, due to Mardi Gras, it took us from 4:45 PM tp 6:15 PM to drive the mile from First Street to Treme.

Celebrating The Legacy of R. L. Boyce at Como, Mississippi

What Sherena Boyce, daughter of Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, started as a birthday party for her dad in August of 2017 has now grown into arguably the largest annual live music event in Panola County, Mississippi. Originally launched in August, this year’s R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration was moved to Labor Day Weekend to avoid conflicting with the annual Hill Country Boucherie at Home Place Pastures, and drew a crowd of about 1000 people to Como Park in downtown Como, Mississippi.

Although Sherena is careful to point out that the event is a birthday party and not a festival, this year’s event featured live music from 4 PM to 11:30 PM, including such artists as Andrea Staten, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Lightnin Malcolm, Lady Trucker, Guitar Lightning Lee, Eric Deaton, The 78 Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Kent Burnside, Greg Ayers and Pork Chop Willie.

Of course the star of the show was R. L. Boyce himself, and he performed several times during the evening to an enthusiastic audience. The weather was perfect, and attendees enjoyed free food, free music and great fun.

A Void in Vaiden

Vaiden, Mississippi is a town on Highway 51 in Carroll County, and since 1873, the county seat of the second judicial district of that county. Carroll is one of a handful of Mississippi counties that have two county seats, generally due to historic difficulties of travel. Several years ago, I had explored the other county seat, Carrollton, with my friend Travis McFetridge, but when Sherena Boyce and I passed through Vaiden a week or so ago on our way to the Neshoba County Fair, I noticed an old juke joint on Highway 35, and decided that the town was worth a visit to see what was worth photographing.

The juke joint was the best find. Called the 21 Up Club, it was located right on the highway in town, with a sign decorated with music notes, and I took quite a few photographs of it. East of Highway 51, on Court Street, I found the ruins of a Greer’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, along what was otherwise a residential street, although many of the residences seemed abandoned.

But the downtown area was largely a loss, with the business district largely gone altogether, and no trace of the stores on Front Street, or the crowds of Black men I recall from a bus journey to Gulfport in the 1980’s. Vaiden suffered a tornado in 1990, and apparently it pretty well destroyed the downtown area. Of course the town had been suffering a degree of decline ever since Interstate 55 was completed to the west in 1973, but the tornado finished what had been started. Even the historic courthouse I could remember is gone, made into a Vaiden Community Park instead, with a Confederate monument in one corner the only trace that a courthouse had been there at all. The new courthouse is an ugly, garish 1990’s monstrosity with pointed roof, located on Front Street where the business district had been years ago. It is an incongruous modernism in the old town.

Also depressing is the fact that both of Vaiden’s schools appear to have been abandoned. The former Black high school, North Vaiden High School (later Percy Hathorn High School and then a Headstart center) seems to have been made into an antique mall or thrift store called The Prissy Hen. All the same, it was not open, and the entire building was gated off and closed. The former white high school, Vaiden High, appeared to have been turned into a community center. A few trucks and trailers were pulled up to it, and I could hear music coming from it, although whether a DJ or a live band I could never determine.

The only thing really left of value in Vaiden are some historic churches and homes, some of which seem to date from the 1870’s, judging from their architecture. A couple of these were located on hills, and might have survived the tornado as a result.

Briefly, I rode out to the southeast along Highway 35, taking some pictures at Carmack, the next town along the road. Like Vaiden, Carmack too has seen better days. Its school has been turned into a community center, and other than that, there is a Carmack Fish House that seems to do a brisk business.

Back in Vaiden, there was one club along Highway 35 that was beginning to get a crowd. A group of men were barbecuing under a tent, and cars were pulling up. I was not sure whether it was a special party or a usual Saturday afternoon at the club, but it looked as if it was going to be fun. But even with the windows down, I didn’t hear any music playing, and didn’t see a stage of any kind or any instruments. So I resisted the temptation to pull in there and see what was going on, and decided to head on west toward Greenwood.

The Rev. John Wilkins at Beale Street Caravan’s Big Night

Lightnin Malcolm was playing in Merigold at Crawdad’s, and the original plan was for me to head to Senatobia and pick Sherena Boyce up, and we were headed there, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to go to the Beale Street Caravan Blowout at the Crosstown Concourse, where her pastor the Rev. John Wilkins was supposed to perform. So, when I left the Art on the Levee event in Arkansas, I drove across the river to Crosstown, wondering if I would be able to get into the event before she got there.

As it turned out, I walked around the Concourse for awhile, and then, hearing music, walked up a flight of stairs and directly into the middle of the event. A soul band, complete with horns, whose name I never caught, was performing on stage. They played mostly cover tunes, but a lot of it was Memphis music and it was good.

The food had been provided by a number of Memphis restaurants, from Central BBQ to Jack Pirtle’s and it too was quite good. R. L. Boyce’s manager Steve Likens and his wife Dawn were manning a T-shirt table, and the place was just about standing room only.

The main attraction at the event was a silent auction, full of all kinds of things I would love to have, including a Fat Possum LP gift pack, and various blues-related instruments and books. Of course, I had no extra money to be bidding on anything, but it was all for a worthy cause.

Sherena arrived eventually, but, to our disappointment, John Wilkins didn’t get started until the auction had ended at 9 PM, and played only an extremely brief set, really only a couple of tunes. It was great, but after he came down, the party was clearly breaking up, and we were not ready to go home.