The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
The approaching end of any holiday can be depressing, but there is no better way to close out a Mardi Gras Day than with what is arguably New Orleans’ best brass band, the TBC Brass Band, playing the patio at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge like they would normally do on a Sunday. If anything, the crowd was larger and more ebullient than it had been on the Sunday night before Lundi Gras, and everybody was in high spirits. By the end of the show, I had been on my feet for nearly twelve hours straight, and I was thoroughly exhausted. But it was a contented tiredness. New Orleans is the greatest city in the world.
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.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.
After a long drive across Mississippi through drizzly, wet weather, I was late getting into New Orleans, and thought I might actually miss the start of the To Be Continued Brass Band‘s weekly Sunday night gig at Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge. But Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC told me they might not get started until 9 PM, so I decided to try to grab a dinner before heading to the venue. I got off on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie because I knew they had every kind of restaurant along that route, but I forgot that there could be parades in Jefferson Parish too. When I got to Clearview Parkway, the police had the road completely closed due to a parade, and there were only two restaurants in the area, Don’s Seafood and Saltgrass Steakhouse. I like Saltgrass, but was more in the mood for seafood, so I chose Don’s and it was quite good, and rather crowded, to my surprise. From its parking lot I could hear the music, yelling and laughter from the parade to the east on Veterans.
I feared that the Sunday parades could cause traffic gridlock in getting to Kermit’s, which is on North Claiborne Avenue, but the journey was remarkably uneventful. I parked under the I-10 overpass, walked into the lounge, and found to my surprise that TBC was just setting up and had not started playing yet. Their weekly Sunday night gigs often attract crowds, but with so many people off work on the following day, Lundi Gras, the crowd was the largest I had seen at Kermit’s. The band played a number of its newest songs, including “I Heard Ya Been Talking” which was aimed at the Big 6 Brass Band after members of that band had been allegedly talking down on TBC. As is always the case at Kermit’s, at a certain point during the night, a female dancer appeared on the roof of the lounge, and Kermit Ruffins himself came outside to shoot off fireworks over the patio. The weather was warm, and with its banana trees and tin-roofed outdoor bar, the patio had the ambiance of Jamaica or somewhere else in the Caribbean.
However, the biggest surprise of the night was after the TBC Brass Band had played their final tune and were putting their instruments away. The crowd, as usual, begged for one more tune. To oblige them, Brenard “Bunny” Adams started a tuba bass line which Darren Towns picked up on the bass drum, and soon the whole band joined in. The unfamiliar tune proved to be the Meters’ “Fiya on the Bayou,” a tune I had never heard TBC play before, and a fitting way to close out a Sunday night before Mardi Gras.
Later Bunny, Darren and myself met up at the Cafe du Monde in the Quarter for some coffee and beignets, since my old favorite spot in City Park is no longer a 24-hour establishment. There was a fairly big crowd in the Quarter too, but it was late and I was tired. As is so often the case in New Orleans, the next day offered endless possibilities.
Drum practice can be noisy, and in the early days of young people learning to play, whether snare drum or the set, parents demanded that they practice in the backyard, in the wood shed so as to not disturb the house. Over time, practicing became known as “hitting the woodshed” and eventually just “shedding.” Informal gatherings at which several drummers battled back and forth became known as “shed sessions” or “drum sheds.”
In the milieu of Black gospel music, where many musicians are largely self-taught, aside from possible mentoring by older musicians in the tradition, shed sessions gave young drummers an opportunity to practice in conjunction with other drummers and other musicians, and continue to be an important part of the way Black music styles are transmitted from older musicians to younger musicians outside of a formal classroom setting.
Sheds are also exciting, and a great deal of fun. Unfortunately, they are not generally advertised ahead of time, and often are spread only by word of mouth. Even if they are mentioned on social media, it is not always clear where they are being held. So when South Memphis’ K3 Studio Cafe announced something called the Start Playing Drum Shed on a Wednesday night, it was both exciting and somewhat unusual. With February 12 being a Wednesday night, and a cold, wet one at that, I was not sure just exactly how many people would attend.
To my shock, the tiny venue was filled within an hour of doors opening. There were four drumsets, and about three keyboards, and although I had come with the intent of watching and documenting with my phone, I ended up playing the Rhodes piano, and fortunately one of the drummers who was taking a break filmed while I played. That particular groove turned into a Prince-ish funk romp that I enjoyed immensely By that point we had three keyboard players, four drummers, two saxophonists and a bassist. I had supposed that this was the shed, but we soon learned that the actual shed would be after the workshop presented by Memphis drummer Chris Pat.
Chris has been impressing me for some time with his recorded solos on the Memphis Drum Shop channel. Although they are intended to sell drum sets or cymbals, they are well-composed musical solos in their own right and not just product demos. Pat is a versatile drummer who is at home in gospel or behind Christina Aguilera, and who has as good a sense of swing as any jazz drummer I ever heard. More impressively on this workshop occasion was his great advice to young drummers and his humility. He also played drums against three recorded tracks and was absolutely amazing.
At that point, it was 10 PM, and it was announced that the shed was going to begin in earnest. I had to work the next morning at 5 AM, so I was not able to stay. I suspect that it went on until the wee hours. Did I mention that there was also no admission charge?
The actual day of my birthday was much colder than the day before, but my friend Darren Towns of TBC Brass Band and I headed out to Polly’s Bywater Cafe, which is just about my favorite breakfast spot in New Orleans, for omelettes, biscuits and coffee. Then I stopped by Aunt Sally’s Pralines in the French Quarter to pick up a box of pralines to take home to Memphis. Actually, Decatur Street is a bewildering array of different praline shops, and figuring out which one to choose is not easy, but a waiter at the Cafe du Monde the night before had told me to pick a shop where the pralines were being made in house. It proved to be great advice. Although Aunt Sally’s pralines were outrageously expensive, they were just about the best I had ever had.
Darren had a busy day of things to do, so I dropped him off and headed by a Rouse’s supermarket to get the French Market coffee varieties that I cannot find in Memphis, and then headed across the Causeway to the Northshore on my way back to Memphis.
At Jackson, I headed to the District at Eastover to have lunch at Fine and Dandy, the upscale burger and sandwich restaurant which I had seen on my Grambling trip. Fine and Dandy is something of an enigma, with the high-end ambiance of a steakhouse, but an emphasis on burgers and other sandwiches. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and other jazz vocalists comprise the soundtrack, giving the place a sort of “Oceans Eleven” vibe, but prices are reasonable, and the food is very good. I learned from my server that Fine and Dandy and its sister restaurant nearby, Sophomore Spanish Club, are locally-owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants. However, they are concepts that I could imagine working well in other cities.
After grabbing a latte at il Lupo coffee across the parking lot, I got back on the road north toward Como, Mississippi, where the bluesman R. L. Boyce was to be the Grand Marshal of the annual Christmas parade. With each mile northward the weather seemed to get colder, and by the time I arrived in Como, it was almost time for the parade, and extremely chilly.
Presumably the freezing weather and Monday night timeframe combined to keep the crowds to a minimum, but there were handfuls of parents and kids along Main Street, where some Black equestrians with their horses were riding up and down the street ahead of the parade’s start.
As I expected, Como’s parade was fairly small, some fire trucks, some cars with the mayor and other city officials, a few mayors from other towns, a Corvette car club, the bands from Rosa Fort High School in Tunica and the North Panola High School in Sardis, and the horsemen. R. L. was riding in a truck that had been emblazoned with the words, “Grand Marshal R. L. Boyce” and waved to me when he recognized me.
The parade u-turned north of the business district and headed back down the other side of Main Street, but the whole event only took about twenty minutes.
When it was all over, thoroughly frozen, I headed into Windy City Grill for my birthday dinner. Windy City is not a fancy restaurant, but it was bright, warm and cheerful inside, and fairly crowded for a Monday night. After a small pepperoni and bacon pizza, then I got back on the road to head home to Memphis. Although it was cold, it was a thoroughly enjoyable birthday. And I was so happy for the great honor showed to R. L. Boyce by his hometown.
With my birthday falling on Monday December 2, I decided to celebrate a day early by going to New Orleans for the Dumaine Street Gang second-line, since I knew that the To Be Continued Brass Band would be playing in it.
The TBC Brass Band, as it is usually called, is one of the bands that first attracted me to New Orleans’ street brass band culture, and is the band that most typifies the modern brass band sound and style. Although the band has a youthful, defiant hip-hop swagger, its music is firmly rooted in both the brass band tradition and the standard soul tunes of the Black community.
Waking up at 8 AM in Jackson, Mississippi, I had to stop for breakfast, which I did at Cultivation Food Hall, where I had chicken and waffles at a place called Fete au Fete, which I didn’t realize was a branch of a New Orleans restaurant chain. However the food was great, and with a cup of coffee from Il Lupo Coffee I got back on the road headed for New Orleans. Unfortunately, the parade was set to begin in the Treme neighborhood at noon, and I only made it across the causeway at 11:45, and by the time I made it to Treme and found a place to park (under the I-10 overpass on Claiborne), the parade was already underway. However the weather was a pleasant 70 degrees, and the sun was out, and as a result, crowds were everywhere. The club members and bands were just coming out of the Treme Community Center when I arrived, and although I would have liked to have grabbed a coffee at the Treme Coffeehouse before following the bands into the parade, I decided it was better not to be left behind.
As it turned out, TBC had not yet come out of the community center, and they were marching behind the Divine Ladies, a social aid and pleasure club that apparently parades with the Dumaine Street Gang every year. This year’s parade actually featured no less than five bands, and as we headed out Orleans Avenue, with the sun beaming, I felt the wave of exhilaration that I always feel when starting out on a second-line. At first there were fewer onlookers along the sidewalks, but eventually the crowds picked up, including those on horseback that always seem to appear at any downtown second-line. One difference with this particular second-line was that there were almost no route stops at all, and the bands and marchers had little time to rest. One exception was a brief stop along Broad Street, where a group of Mardi Gras Indians began setting up a chant “They got to sew, sew, sew” with tambourines, which Brenard “Bunny” Adams, the tuba player for TBC, ended up picking up, and soon the whole band was playing their brass band version of it. Not long afterward, the Divine Ladies instructed their members to move forward, and we were soon on the march again.
Walking down Esplanade, I noticed the ruins of Le Palm Ballroom, at which once I had seen TBC play at a funeral. Now the roof had caved in, and the building seemed destined for demolition. Heading up Claiborne Avenue, past Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, we came to St. Bernard Avenue and headed up it past Celebration Hall and the Autocrat Club, where a lot of motorcycle clubs had posted up with their bikes. The parade went as far as the Dollar General and T-Mobile stores, and then u-turned to head back down toward Treme, with TBC breaking into a joyful and upbeat song that I had heard them play before but which I didn’t know the name of.
However, I was filming video footage with my iPhone 7, and it soon ran out of battery life, so when the second-line started down the final push along Claiborne, I fell out of the line and went to my car, in order to begin charging the phone. I had thought that I could grab a coffee at Treme Coffeehouse, and meet up with Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, but I was frustrated on both counts. About 5000 or so people were at the second-line, and the resulting gridlock and chaos made getting anywhere impossible. The police had the whole area around the community center and coffeehouse blocked off, and not only could I not get into the area, but Darren could not get out. The end result was that he could not go with me for my birthday dinner in New Orleans.
Instead, I headed across the river to Gretna to the Liberty Kitchen Steak and Chop House, which was one of the few steakhouses open in New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon. Darren and I had eaten at one of their sister restaurants in Metairie a few years ago; that location had closed, but we had been impressed with the food. I was impressed again on this particular evening; my filet mignon was delicious, as were the sides. The food was not cheap, but I have had inferior meals at higher prices, and the easy access and free parking were an added benefit.
After dinner, I wanted dessert, so I headed over to Freret Street to a place called Piccola Gelateria, where I had a peanut butter and fudge gelato in a cup, and by then, it was time to head back over to Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, where the TBC Brass Band was playing their weekly Sunday night gig.
The Mother-in-Law Lounge was founded by the late Ernie “K-Doe” Kador, who named the place for his biggest recorded hit ever, “Mother in Law.” After he passed away, his widow had kept it open until she also passed away. Kermit Ruffins, the world-famous trumpet player who is also well-regarded as a chef, had closed his jazz lounge in the Treme neighborhood, but when the Mother-In-Law Lounge closed, he acquired it, restored it and soon had it back open. There was already a significant crowd in and around the lounge when I got there, despite the fact that the live music had not yet started. Somewhat incongruously, the center of attraction was at first a DJ playing New Orleans rap and bounce. But it was the older, classic stuff and contributed to the feel-good vibe of the place, which was painted in vibrant colors and with numerous slogans and quotes from the late K-Doe.
Although I feared that the weather would turn colder, at least when I arrived, it was still fairly warm and pleasant out on the patio where the stage was located. The TBC members had largely stayed in the area, as they could not get out of the massive traffic jam that had accompanied the end of the second-line, and they soon began trickling into the club and setting things up on the patio. There was a large television screen outside with the Sunday night NFL game on, but most of the attention was focused on the stage once the To Be Continued Brass Band started playing. Ruffins’ love of marijuana is no secret, and when the TBC band played a new song about “getting so high,” Kermit suddenly appeared on the roof and shot off fireworks, to the thrill of the patio crowd. The band also broke out with a new song, “I Heard Ya Been Talking,” which is aimed at the Big 6 Brass Band, a newer band that has allegedly been talking smack against TBC. Such rivalries, which resemble rap group rivalries, are a usual thing in the New Orleans brass band culture.
As the night progressed, things got chillier on the patio, and TBC broke out with some smoother sounds, a pleasant reading of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm.” Then they closed out, all too soon, with a funky version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” that seemed to owe something to the Jackson 5’s “The Love You Save.” It was a great way to end the evening.
But by now, it was fairly chilly indeed, and fog was developing. I met Darren Towns in Marrero, and we headed back over to the French Quarter in New Orleans to the Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets. In previous years, my move would have been to the Morning Call at the Casino in City Park, but the City of New Orleans had evicted Morning Call in favor of the Cafe du Monde, but the latter had decided to not be open 24 hours a day in City Park, and the location had already closed for the night. Fortunately, we were able to find a free parking place along Decatur Street, and we sat at the table enjoying our beignets and coffee. Bunny had called Darren from Frenchmen Street, but he didn’t come through where we were, and so when we left, we drove down Frenchmen Street to see if anything was going on, but there really wasn’t much of anything, and the fog and chill were in the air. Ultimately, we headed back across the bridge to Marrero. But it had been a great day to celebrate my birthday with my favorite brass band in New Orleans.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I headed down to the South Main Arts District in Memphis in search of brunch. The old Central Station has been turned into a hotel, and I wanted to see if there was a restaurant in it. Ultimately, I found that the restaurants in the Central Station Hotel were not open yet, and would not open until later in November, but I wasn’t disappointed, as I got a chance to see the beautiful Eight and Sand Bar, whose theme is Memphis music. Record albums span the shelves from ceiling to floor, along with a number of books about Memphis music and blues, and a permanent DJ booth. The music theme continues throughout the hotel, including beautiful speakers worked into the walls of the lobby.
I had thought that Vice & Virtue Coffee had a coffee bar in the Central Station Hotel, but I was wrong—it turned out to be in a completely different hotel up the street called the Arrive, which I really wasn’t aware of at all. This hotel also has a music theme, with an old gramophone in the lobby, and a cool bakery called Hustle and Dough! A salted caramel cookie from the bakery went perfectly with a cup of Vice and Virtue coffee, and I enjoyed the lively, vibrant atmosphere of the hotel lobby and bar.
Unfortunately, a cookie and coffee is not brunch, and the old brunch spot at Earnestine and Hazel’s called The Five Spot is apparently closed for good, so I ended up at The Arcade for breakfast, a reasonable stand-by in the area. While it will take more than cool hotels, bars, coffee and bakeries to rejuvenate Memphis, I like the trends I am seeing.
Central Station Hotel and Eight & Sand Bar
545 S Main St
Memphis, TN 38103
ARRIVE Hotel, Hustle and Dough and Vice & Virtue Coffee
On my last venture into downtown Vicksburg, I recall that an old building on Clay Street was collapsing into the street. A large pile of bricks had fallen, and the city had simply put workhorses around the pile to warn motorists to drive around it. I got the impression that like many cities, Vicksburg’s commerce had fled the downtown area to the outskirts, and I expected that the downtown would continue to deteriorate. But my Sunday afternoon visit en route from Monroe to Memphis showed me that a remarkable transformation has taken place. I am not sure if it is due to the casinos, or other forms of tourism, but Vicksburg is now home to downtown restaurants like Cottonwood Public House, and the Biscuit Company, a microbrewery called Key City, the Highway 61 Coffee House, museums, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad depot, and many other restored buildings. The place that had so resembled a ghost town on that visit years ago is now booming, and certainly worth a visit. However, almost everything other than restaurants is closed on Sundays. Tourism or not, this is still Mississippi.