“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.

Lundi Gras With The TBC Brass Band at Kermit’s Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge

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.

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.

Kicking Off The Weekend with the TBC Brass Band

After dinner, I managed to catch up with my homeboys in the To Be Continued Brass Band. New Orleans nowadays has many brass bands, with new ones appearing all the time, but I became a fan of TBC years ago when they battled the Stooges Brass Band at the latter band’s gig at the Hi-Ho Lounge back in the days when that was a great place for brass band music. On this particular Friday night, they had been hired to play for a party being held in a banquet hall on the top of an office tower in New Orleans East. The people throwing the event had spared no expense; in addition to the band and the DJ, they had exquisite food laid out on the banquet table. Since TBC is my favorite brass band, the performance was a great way to kick off the weekend, although it was, like most such gigs for them, quite brief, lasting only about 20 minutes or so. Afterwards, the TBC bass drummer Darren Towns went with me to the new Morning Call Coffee Stand near City Park to get beignets and cafe au lait.

Together We Stand: Celebrating the Soul of Como, Mississippi

The Hill Country blues season generally begins with the Juke Joint Festival in April, and ends with Como Day in Como, Mississippi, which is usually held late in October. Como in Panola County is an important town, which for many years was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sid Hemphill, and which remains the hometown of R. L. Boyce. Jessie Mae Hemphill lived nearby at Senatobia, and Glenn Faulkner lives and Otha Turner lived between Senatobia and Como at Gravel Springs.

It is a tradition in many predominantly-Black towns to have a “day,” when those who moved to other parts of the country can come home and celebrate their roots in small-town Mississippi, and Como Day is part of that tradition. But Como Day is perhaps one of the biggest of these kinds of celebrations, attracting hundreds of visitors each year to plenty of free music , good food and fun.

After two years of lockdowns and disruptions, the 2021 Como Day was extremely well-attended, with people coming out for what was one of the few public events since the onset of COVID-19. Performers included Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. As always the area near the stage was full of dancers, and the crowd was well-behaved. Como Day makes a great way to end the annual blues season.

The Inaugural Alice Mae Blues Festival in Ripley, Mississippi

Garry Burnside, one of the sons of legendary Hill Country bluesman R. L. Burnside moved to Ripley, Mississippi in Tippah County not long ago, and was instrumental in getting the city of Ripley to build and dedicate a wonderful Blues Alley, which commemorates the Hill Country and Mississippi blues traditions with beautiful paintings of historic artists, a guitar-shaped table and benches. In addition, in October of 2011, he planned the first Alice Mae Blues Festival, named for his mother Alice Mae Burnside, held on a grassy field beside the First Monday Trade Day grounds on Highway 15.

The weather was incredibly hot for an October day, and crowds were small at the beginning of the day, but more and more people arrived as the weather cooled in the evening. Those who attended enjoyed great blues from Garry Burnside, Kent Burnside and Duwayne Burnside, R. L.’s adopted son Kenny Brown from Potts Camp, and other local area performers.

In addition to music performances, there were food vendors serving delicious foods, and even a bar cart serving alcohol. When the sun went down, both the vendors and the stage were lit up in festive lighting, and the great Hill Country blues went on until the event’s end.

The Oxford Blues Fest Comes Of Age

Not all that long ago, the Oxford Blues Festival was a sparsely-attended hot summer festival on The Grove at the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. It always featured great blues music, but was adversely affected by the hot August weather, sudden showers or the blackout dates which the larger North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic imposed on its artists.

In 2021, Darryl Parker, the promoter who runs the festival solved both problems with a change of date to September 24th and 25th, and a change of location to Harrison’s, a relatively-new Oxford bar on the location of the old Frank and Marlee’s. Harrison’s has built a beautiful outdoor yard, with shelter, plenty of outdoor booths and lounge chairs, an outdoor bar and room for a large outdoor stage. If the Hill Country Picnic exudes rural outdoor remoteness, the Oxford Blues Fest represents a sophisticated and urbane alternative.

The line-up of performers was stellar too, including such regional artists as Lightning Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Effie Burt, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and Australia “Honey Bee” Neal, as well as bigger names including female blues artist Ghalia Volt, Nashville-based Patrick Sweany and Chicago bluesman Lurrie Bell. October also guaranteed perfect weather for the two-day event

Unfortunately, Oxford is changing from Yoknapatawpha Country to something more resembling Nashville or even Las Vegas, with tall hotels and condominiums popping up everywhere. The nature of some of these condos is that their residents could enjoy the festival from their balconies for free instead of paying, but apparently, instead of enjoying it, they chose to complain to the police about the noise. The festival was soon beset with Oxford Police officers with noise meters checking to see if the sound exceeded the decibels allowed by city ordinance, which seems a stupid and self-defeating move for a city that to some extent depends on travel and tourism. Furthermore, one wonders why anyone would move to the area of the Oxford Square if they object to noise, music, traffic or crowds of people. All the same, most visitors and musicians had a wonderful time, unmarred by bad weather, equipment problems or any other negatives. The Oxford Blues Festival is scheduled for October 6-8 in 2022, presumably in the same location.

Blues in the Alley in Holly Springs

Each summer, the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi in Marshall County usually has a series of blues concerts on or near the town square. The town and county are in the dead center of the region of Mississippi known as the Hill Country, and are famous for the Burnside and Kimbrough families of blues musicians. But in both 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with the city’s ability to have large events. Several weeks were cancelled, and so at the end of August, a final Bike Night was scheduled, neither on the square nor in the historic area known as The Alley, but rather in the large city park north of the square. The previous city administration had built a brand new pavilion complete with electricity in the park, but the newly-elected mayor and town officials felt that the pavilion was unstable and unsafe, so they had it roped off, and the musicians had to perform on a flatbed trailer in front of the new mural in honor of the Kimbrough family.

Originally, the night was supposed to be dedicated to Duwayne Burnside, but the organizers made a decision to let acts whose weeks had been cancelled earlier make up their missed performances, which led to a degree of argument over which acts would go first. Into that confusion came the new mayor, threatening to shut down the entire park because nobody was wearing a mask. After warning people from the microphone that she would have the police clear the park unless everyone put on a mask, the mayor left, and it was decided that Lady Trucker would go first, then Dre Walker and the Mississippi Boys, with Duwayne Burnside closing out the evening. Since I had time, I walked over to the Rodeo Cafe to get a bacon cheeseburger and to take a break from the heat.

The park was filled to overflowing with folks when I returned. Although there were not a lot of motorcycles, there were a lot of slingshots, the car/bike hybrids with three wheels, and a number of them were done up in neon. Lady Trucker gave a long performance to open the event; in walking around the park, I ran into both Robert Kimbrough and Little Joe Ayers amongst the crowd. But then Dre Walker came on with his band. Dre is more of an R & B singer than a blues performer, and he does almost exclusively cover songs, but he is a consummate showman, and has a way with crowds, especially women. After his performance, I had to go on stage to perform with Duwayne Burnside. Unfortunately, by then it was quite dark, and the city had not made any arrangements for lighting. Instead a few of the slingshots rode up through the crowd to the stage and shined their lights at us, which was better than nothing.

Only at the end of the night, after Duwayne had paid me and I was in my car with the air conditioning running did I realize that I didn’t have my white Kangol on my head which I had been wearing. I had apparently left it in the Rodeo Cafe which was by then closed. I never saw it again.

“I Got The Dog In Me”: Celebrating the Legacy of the Late David Kimbrough III

The late Junior Kimbrough on occasions called his music Cotton Patch Soul Blues, and after his passing, his legacy was carried on by three of his sons, Robert, Kinney and the late David Kimbrough III, who passed away on the Fourth of July in 2019. These men built on the foundation of their father, adding more soul influences into the music, and becoming blues stars in their own right. On July 31st, 2021, one of David’s daughters and his longtime friend Sherena Boyce threw an event at the Pavilion Building in Holly Springs, Mississippi to celebrate his legacy and achievements as a blues musician.

Only two solo albums were released by David Kimbrough during his lifetime; his first, I Got The Dog In Me was released in 1994 by the same Fat Possum record label that his dad had recorded for; the record was credited to David Malone rather than David Kimbrough. A second album was completed for Peter Redvers-Lee’s short-lived Midnight Creeper label out of Oxford, but has yet to see release. Instead, Scott Hatch released an album on David called Shell Shocked, which came out on his Lucky 13 imprint. David also appeared with his brothers on a Junior Kimbrough tribute album released in limited quantity by Justin Showah on his Hill Country Records imprint.

On this hot Saturday night, David’s legacy was recalled with a performance by the Eric Deaton Trio, featuring Kinney Kimbrough, David’s brother. A DJ, Mississippi Stud, performed between band sets, and Deaton’s trio was followed by David’s best friend Duwayne Burnside, who had played on the I Got The Dog In Me album. Although Duwayne performed a lot of his usual songs, he also closed out with a rousing version of “I Got The Dog In Me,” the second of the night. It was a fitting way to end the tribute.