Big easy squeeze

Vans, sedans and accordions at New Orleans Jazz Fest.

"I'm gonna die of exhaustion," I told Tommy last Friday around 11 p.m. "Or, because of your driving."

"Nah," he said with a wicked grin. "You'll be fine."

Tommy whipped the beater of the sedan we had borrowed from his buddy through the narrow, bumpy streets of Uptown in New Orleans. The neighborhood is lined with ancient oaks, old two-story houses and cars we missed by mere inches. We were outside the French Quarter, a safe distance from the onslaught of 100,000-or-so tourists who inundate the city every year for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. We bobbed our heads to the second-line grooves broadcast by the city's famed community radio station, WWOZ-FM 90.7. Another gigantic pothole sent beer suds spilling into my crotch.

"Slow down, damn it," I barked.

Tommy just laughed. The cold ache of fatigue ripped through every nerve in my body. I longed for a quiet room and a clean, soft bed. What had I gotten myself into? Jazz Fest had just begun and I was already reeling like a fighter who'd been clocked with a dozen right hooks.

The 11-hour road trip from St. Petersburg found four of us riding in a cramped van, munching on gas-station beef jerky and unable to get comfortable enough to sleep.

For a few hours Friday morning, we crashed in a shitty motel in Micanopy that reeked of mold and cat piss. That came after a long Thursday night of live music and free drafts in Gainesville.

We finally made it to New Orleans late Friday and set up camp at Tommy's pals' place in Uptown.

An affable fellow named Will, who may or may not deal in premium weed, occupied the front bedroom. The upstairs loft belonged to Ben, a first-rate man-whore. The back room was where Aaron slept when he wasn't managing The Kingpin, a classic Big Easy dive bar located within walking distance of the house.

Tommy and his pals all met while attending Loyola University in the Crescent City. He lives in St. Pete now, but most of his crew decided to stay after finishing college — soaking up the beautiful madness that is the Big Easy regardless of whether the next hurricane will actually cause floodwaters to reach their Uptown region of the city. They're all party aficionados and live-music geeks and great people to stay with during jazz fest — unless you are dog tired and in need of actual rest. About a million people traipsed through the house at all hours of the night. Someone mentioned we should check out a musician named Sunpie.

"We're here," Tommy said as we pulled into a side street off Tchoupitoulas. The joint looked like converted house and the sign read "Dos Jefes." I could hear live music spilling out into the sidewalk. My spirits quickly lifted. No cover charge. Nice. We climbed the short staircase and entered to find the band located in a corner to our left.

Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes and his Louisiana Sunspots were holding court, and every person in the packed, midsized room had their eyes on the burly black man with the squeezebox. "That guy makes the accordion sound like a Hammond," observed the blond woman next to me, who smiled and spoke with a distinct Louisiana accent.

Barnes alternated between vocals, harmonica and accordion. His backing band included a drummer and bassist — and laying down some hot licks on electric guitar was Carl LeBlanc, the banjo player with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Sunpie and his crew issued a Big Easy blend of Zydeco and upbeat blues that turned even junkie laments like "Junco Partner" into toe-tapping rave-ups. The band launched into "Iko Iko" and couples danced in between the tables.

It was party time in New Orleans. During intermission, Barnes wiped the sweat from his brow and walked to the patio where Tommy and the rest of us were hanging.

"It's all about entertainment," said Barnes. "Serving it to people on a silver platter; it's like medicine for them and for us up there playing it." Just as Barnes and I got deeper into our discussion about how music is sanctuary for the hard-hit people of New Orleans, two good ol' boys in suits stared at Tommy and the young, drunken woman who was using him as leaning post.

"That's your husband?" I heard Tommy ask the woman, nervously.

I shook Barnes' hand and thanked him for a great night of music. Tommy made a beeline for the door. The rest of our group followed. It was time to go, back to The Kingpin, where the drinks flowed in between games of shuffleboard and darts until 5 a.m.

Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar, 5535, Tchoupitoulas St. 504-891-8500.

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