“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Any day that I am leaving New Orleans tends to be depressing, and Ash Wednesday always seems doubly so. Perhaps it is supposed to be depressing, or at least sobering. It starts the penitential season of Lent, when we are supposed to focus on our own sinfulness, and the monumental nature of what Christ did for us. But knowing that the fun times of Mardi Gras are over for another year is just a little saddening.
Most years, a good breakfast helps cheer me up before I get on the road. This year, my friend Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band and his four daughters joined me at Polly’s Bywater Cafe, one of my favorite breakfast places in New Orleans. The place is usually not all that busy, particularly on the average weekday, but this particular day was an exception. The place was packed, the kitchen and waitstaff way behind. We ultimately got our food, and it was as good as ever, but it took awhile.
I chose to leave the city on the Causeway, going across the lake to the north shore. I was in the mood for some coffee, so instead of going to a Starbucks or another chain, I ventured off the main road into the small town of Madisonville where there was a place called Abita Coffee Roasters.
As I have noted on a previous visit, Madisonville is one of the most beautiful towns in Louisiana. North of Lake Pontchartrain, its historic downtown along Water Street fronts on the Tchefuncte River, which is navigable down to the lake, by which boats can make their way to the Gulf of Mexico. There are a number of waterfront houses, and several marinas, as well as a handful of restaurants. But Abita Coffee Roasters is by far the most beautiful building in downtown Madisonville, with the look of an old creole home, surrounded by towering mossy oaks. Its front porch faces the river, and in back is a lovely patio/courtyard.
Of course people go to a coffee house for the coffee, and that is excellent too. Not only does Abita have espresso-based coffee drinks, but they also do their own coffee roasting, and have plenty of bags of different varieties of whole bean coffees for purchase. I was actually tempted to buy some, but I already had a lot of bean coffee at home waiting to be brewed. So I contented myself with a breve latte and a chocolate brownie, and then continued on my way toward Memphis. Although nothing could completely cure my sadness, the beauty of Madisonville was comforting.
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.
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.
My love affair with New Orleans brass bands actually began with a disappointment during the Cutting Edge Music Business Conference back in 2010. Hearing of a place called Donna’s Brass Band Headquarters on Rampart Street, I walked all the way from my hotel room at the Westin Canal Place to it, only to find that it had closed for good, its owners relocated to Florida. I really wasn’t sure what New Orleans brass band music sounded like, but I wanted to find out.
Fortunately, while I was in town for the conference, I saw that the Stooges Brass Band were playing a gig at a place called the Hi-Ho Lounge on St. Claude Avenue, and drove out there to catch it. In those days, the Hi-Ho had a decidedly inner-city vibe about it. People parked on the neutral ground in the middle of St. Claude, and there was a truck out front with a huge oil barrel smoker on the back cooking chicken wings and such. Inside the dark and steamy lounge, a standing-room-only, predominantly-Black crowd was enjoying brass band music, with a large crowd of buckjumpers in front of the stage. I had heard the traditional brass bands at Preservation Hall, but this music was at once rawer, newer and quite different. The rhythms of it were more African or perhaps Caribbean, the attitude more of young Black New Orleans than jazz tradition. I found both the music and the vibe thrilling, and then, unexpectedly, the band decided to take a break. As they walked out the front door to the sidewalk, I heard the beat of drums, and suddenly a brass band materialized from the dark neighborhood behind the lounge. They marched up to the Hi-Ho and called out the Stooges to a battle right in the intersection of the streets, and as the two bands battled back and forth, I was especially impressed with the band that had marched up to challenge the Stooges. As they played a tune that I later would learn was called “Why You Worried About Me”, I asked a young white girl if she knew who they were. She handed me her business card, which said she was Lisa Palumbo, and told me that they were called TBC Brass Band. That night, TBC became my favorite brass band in the world.
Within a year, the Hi-Ho had come under different owners, and brass bands were out. DJ’s, bounce rappers and electronic music were in, and the owners were clearly going for a different crowd. So I never would have imagined in a million years that I would be seeing a brass band in the Hi-Ho Lounge again, and certainly not To Be Continued. But Mardi Gras does strange things, and as I came into New Orleans from my day-long trekk across Mississippi, Brenard “Bunny” Adams texted me that they were playing at the Hi-Ho, so I made my way to the spot as quickly as I could. Finding a place to park was not as easy as it had been eight years before, but I could hear the unmistakable sounds of my favorite brass band coming from the club from several blocks away as I walked up. Unfortunately, as I walked up to the entrance to see about going inside, I heard them announce that the last tune had been their final one, and to wish everyone good night. Although I was disappointed, the TBC band members were glad to see me, and we spent nearly an hour out in front of the club getting caught up and talking, while other bands set up and played for the party crowd that was gearing up for the holidays. Because Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras are actual holidays in Louisiana, lots of people are off work, so the Sunday night parties go on into the wee hours of Monday. But I was exhausted, so I ended my night early at the house of a friend on the West Bank.