Another look at New Orleans

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People crowd the sidewalks and spill out into the streets, some standing in disorderly lines outside the range of bars and clubs, waiting to get ID’d and stamped or wristbanded, others flocking to see a many-piece brass band that has set up right at a crossroads and is playing the sort of lively, Creole-infused jazz you only hear in New Orleans. The performance has caused a traffic gridlock, the vehicles barely able to move around the crush of bodies having a joyous, spontaneous party in the street.

Everyone is having a grand old time. Even the cops seem to be in good spirits; we pass a pair who are patiently dealing with a sloppy drunk frat-looking guy. “Move along,” says one with a long suffering look and a gentle push. Frat Guy’s not catching the hint and in fact, turns around and holds out his hand, slurring to the cops, “Dudes, let’s shake it out. Can we shake it out?”

“Keep walking,” says Sgt. Long Suffering, more sternly this time and with a forbidding look at Frat Guy’s friends, who start tugging, then dragging him and cajoling him urgently, “Let’s go, man, come on.” We slide around the scene, exchanging amused looks, and make our way a few blocks down and over to grab dinner and drinks at a little bar called Mojo’s on Decatur Street. Once we’ve fueled up, we head back to Frenchmen to see Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey at d.b.a.

d.b.a. is a snobby beer bar that prides itself on its selection of imported ales, brews and domestic microbrews. It’s the sort of place where you ask for a Budweiser and get a patronizing “We don’t carry that” retort from the bartender. Not that any of us drink Bud, or are even drinking beer at all tonight. Stoli and cran for me and Alex, Maker’s on the rocks for Phil.

The bar is all dark wood paneling and it’s split in half, one side with a long bar and plenty of stools, the other side featuring a smaller bar and a moderate bit of floor space for standing and dancing in front of low stage set at the room’s far end.

The Fred (as we fans like to call them) is hosting a CD release party and playing their ambitious new album, Lil Tae Rides Again, in its entirety. The Tulsa, Okla.-based band’s progressive post-modern jazz has been transformed into dynamic Pink Floyd-flavored electro-rock; Brian Haas provides the wall of sounds and psychedelia on keys, Reed Mathis is particularly brilliant as he jumps from bass to electric guitar to lap steel to produce the most fluid and sublime notes you’ve ever heard, and drummer Josh Raymer, who joined The Fred back in the summer of ’07 after Jason Smart’s departure, plays like he’s been with the band throughout their nearly 15-year career. Guest guitarist Pete Tomshany has joined The Fred for its Lil Tae tour, though I can’t really figure out what he’s doing other than adding texture to the lush sonic tapestry, which is, overall, so absolutely transcendent that I find myself forced to pick up a copy of the CD.

We enjoy the vibrations for about an hour before we are joined by Rich, a late edition to our NOLA crew. We’d met Rich on an Umphrey’s McGee message board, where fans of the band become fast friends – or enemies – based on their shared Um love. To defray the costs of our pricey NOLA hotel room, we decided to rent out the sofa bed in our suite and put up a “Seeking Temporary Roommate” post on the board. Hence our association with Rich, a University of Florida engineering student who’d responded to our post.

Rich is 21, lanky and fair and clear-eyed, smart and not shy exactly, but reserved in such a way that you can tell he thinks very carefully about what he’s going to say before he says it. He bring his girl friend (not girlfriend) Ilana, also a UF student, 20 and coltish with huge dark eyes, an appealingly sheepish smile and a big vocabulary. Her fake ID says 24, but she looks about 12. This doesn’t help her tonight when she tries to get in to d.b.a. without her ID, the first of several important items she’d leave somewhere that weekend.

Rich relates the dilemma to us briefly – Ilana has forgotten her ID, the grumpy, goateed door guy won’t admit her, and so she’s hanging around outside in the hopes that he’ll take pity on her. But he’s firm – she looks too young and there’s no way she’s getting in without showing him proof of her age.

Alex disappears to try and sweet talk him, but he returns a moment later, unsuccessful. “‘Who are you?” the door guy had asked Alex with so much spite Alex was immediately convinced that his mellow coerciveness wasn’t going to work.

Rich and Ilana had brought their bikes with them to get around the city easier. They’d biked to Frenchman, roughly 5 miles from our hotel. After discussing the situation, they decided the best solution would be for Ilana to bike back to the hotel, get her ID, and then bike back to d.b.a.

I think we’re all a concerned about Ilana, a youthful female riding her bike alone on the unfamiliar, unsafe streets of NOLA. She hasn’t returned by the time The Fred takes a set break, when we’re ready to leave d.b.a., but Rich doesn’t seem fazed. “I talked to her. She’s coming back,” he insists and so, with some reluctance, we catch a cab to the hotel. It’s about 2 a.m.

We call Rich when we return to the room and he confirms that, after some adventuring, Ilana made it back with her I.D. and has been admitted into d.b.a. with little fanfare. Both were now enjoying The Fred’s second set.

Alex, Phil and I tucked in. The next day would be our most busy: first, we’d be headed to the NOLA Fairgrounds for the day fest to see Stevie Wonder, among others. The evening hours were rife with possibility and would precede a late (2 a.m.) show by Umphrey’s McGee.

Stay tuned for Episode 2: Friday with the Wonder and Fire at House of Blues

Leilani will be continuing her "Adventures in NOLA" series on Blurbex.

My Creative Loafing coworker Leilani, her husband Phil and friend Alex, the three people I drove with to New Orleans two weeks ago for Jazz Fest, had a much different experience on Frenchmen Street than I did. You can read about my Saturday night revelry in the Bar Tab column "Up, up and away: Balloons, bars and bands in the Big Easy." Leilani visited the same entertainment district on Thursday. Here's her account, posted yesterday on CL's Blurbex blog.

Adventures in NOLA, Episode 1: Thursday Night on Frenchmen

May 13th, 2008 by Leilani in Elsewhat, For the People A little more than a week after returning home from New Orleans, I’ve finally recovered enough to reflect on my experiences.

We meander down Frenchmen Street casually seeking a place to eat. Me, my husband Phil, and our good friend Alex are three revelers among several hundred soaking up the festive atmosphere and cheerful chaos created by a citywide celebration of good times and great music. It’s the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, sometime around 11 at night, and the vibe is laid back in such a way that I hadn’t seen since my first Jazz Fest in ’05, the one before Katrina.

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