Being able to actually enjoy a relatively-ordinary Mardi Gras after the disruption caused by the pandemic was a blessing this year, and the live performance of the TBC Brass Band at Kernit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge in the Treme neighborhood was a great way to kick off this year’s celebration. As always, the patio was crowded with party-goers enjoying themselves between the banana trees and the outdoor bar and stage. The weather was warm and pleasant and the space in front of the stage was full of buck-jumpers. There’s really no better place to get into the mood of Mardi Gras.
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.
There are no second-lines during the summer, at least not the large, official ones sponsored by social aid and pleasure clubs, but that doesn’t mean that brass band activity dies down during the summer. If anything, the bands are busier than ever, due to weddings, birthdays and family reunions, as well as club dates and outdoor music festivals, so I usually try to make it to New Orleans at least once during the summer to hang out with my friends in To Be Continued Brass Band, and this year was no exception, as I made my way down on July 20th, stopping in Covington, Louisiana for a dinner at The Chimes, an excellent seafood restaurant along the scenic Tchefuncte River. But it was after midnight when I arrived in New Orleans, and my TBC Brass Band friends were gathered outside of a place called Jokers Wyld and Mickey’s Playhouse (the former Ooh Pooh Pa Dooh) where they were supposed to be playing for some sort of party. After I parked and pulled around the corner, I found them engaged in a friendly but vigorous band argument of some sort, which is often the case in New Orleans, as band is a competitive sport in that musical city. Unfortunately, the man who had engaged the band “went off to get the money” and never returned, so they didn’t play, and I instead grabbed a cafe-au-lait and some beignets and made my way to the West Bank and to bed.
The next morning, my homeboy Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, his two young daughters and I headed into the Bywater neighborhood to have breakfast at a bright and cheerful new spot on St. Claude Avenue called Polly’s Bywater Cafe, which had not been there when I was last in the city at Mardi Gras. In one sense, Polly’s takes a page from other typical New Orleans breakfast spots, with local artwork on the walls, and a bright color scheme, and cheerful, sun-catching windows and decor. But we greatly appreciated the private parking lot (a rarity in New Orleans), the pleasant, efficient service, and the extremely high-quality food. Thoroughly satisfied, we were soon on our way to a recording studio in Mid-City, where TBC was to record a commercial with the legendary Kermit Ruffins.
After the studio session, it was largely gigs all day, with the first one being a wedding reception at an event venue in Jefferson Parish. From there I ran Darren by Guitar Center so he could buy a new cymbal for his bass drum, and then we headed to Legacy Kitchen, a new local chain of restaurants that I had been eager to try. We found the food excellent (I had the chicken and waffles), and we liked the upbeat vibe of the place, although prices were fairly steep. From there we had to head to the arena on the Xavier University campus, where a family reunion was taking place. Like the earlier wedding reception, the organizers had hired both the TBC Brass Band and some of the Zulus to be there in costume, and the attendees seemed to enjoy it.
The next stop was another wedding reception, this one at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Algiers, right at the border with Gretna, and at that particular location, the crowd had gotten rather rowdy, and some men were trying to calm down a man who was obviously intoxicated. But the performance went well, and the crowd seemed to enjoy TBC greatly, and again, there were members of the Zulus in costume there as well, which apparently is the current trend in New Orleans events.
Our final destination was a birthday party in the Seventeenth Ward at a place called the Broadway Bar, where a large crowd was gathered out in the street, at tables and chairs in front of the club, and inside. The place was so crowded that it was hard for TBC to get into the club, but the Broadway is the type of hood club where the band and the crowd feed off of each other, and their performance was the hypest of the whole day. After TBC came back out of the truly tiny club, the band and members of the crowd began a sort of second-line around the neighborhood, and were not ready to break up when we made it back around to the club entrance. So TBC played for another twenty minutes or so while the man whose birthday it was, and his father danced in the street, along with some other people from the crowd. Finally, about 1 in the morning or so, we finally left the area. After one of these serendipitous New Orleans moments, the mood is usually exhaustion but exhilaration too, and this night was no different.
Vaughan’s is an out-of-the-way neighborhood bar in the Bywater neighborhood just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower 9th Ward, and the last time I was there, the great Kermit Ruffins himself was playing on a Thursday night to a standing room only crowd. Ruffins gave up that gig not long after, and Vaughan’s has tried a succession of different bands and groups since then on Thursdays, which is the only night that the bar features live music, but Ruffins’ shoes are hard to fill. However, Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, though hardly as well-known as Ruffins, is a brilliantly-gifted trumpet player with the mastery of his instrument and the self-assuredness to attempt to fill the slot, and does a good job at it, ably backed by his band, known as the Heart Attack. Hill’s repertoire is younger and less traditional than Kermit’s, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. After my arrival, his first set included a funked-out version of the brass band standard “Always There”, and a far more traditional reading of the classic “Backatown Blues”. Such versatility should stand Hill in good stead, and I suspect we’ll be hearing far more from him going forward. As for Vaughan’s, unsuspecting tourists should not be fooled by the signs out front. The bar does not offer po-boys, although they do have red beans and rice on Thursdays.
Somehow, on previous visits to Treme, I had never come across this little neighborhood bar called the Little People’s Place, but when I saw it, I immediately recognized the name as a place that had once been famous for live music in the Treme neighborhood. I could only imagine how thrilling it was to see Kermit Ruffins there, or one of the brass bands. Unfortunately, the Treme began suffering the depredations of gentrification even before Hurricane Katrina, and two of the earliest wealthy newcomers filed a lawsuit against the club in 1998 to stop the live music. I hope that one day perhaps the live music can be brought back to little neighborhood spots like this.
My fellow panelist Travis wanted to have a look at what was left of the Iberville projects, which unlike the rest of New Orleans’ legendary projects, were still standing, so I gave him a ride out there. To my surprise, not only are they still standing, but apparently some of the units are still inhabited. Yet more seem empty than occupied, and it appears that demolition is in the works. Sadly, the Iberville site will likely become the location of more high-income housing. Just north of the projects are two of New Orleans’ oldest cemeteries, and from there we explored the Treme neighborhood, ending up at Kermit Ruffin’s Treme Speakeasy on Basin Street. Kermit wasn’t there, but a band was setting up to play, and Travis and I sat at the bar and enjoyed cold drinks. I would have been content to spend the evening there with the live band, but my friend Darren who plays bass drum with the TBC Brass Band had told me that his band would be leading a small second-line for a wedding around Jackson Square to a restaurant at 8 PM, so Travis and I headed back out to the French Quarter.
Kermit Ruffins performs for friends, family and fans at Vaughan’s in the Bywater, New Orleans, 7/5/12
Kermit Ruffins performs for friends, family and fans at Vaughan’s in the Bywater, New Orleans, 7/5/12