Mardi Gras :: 02.12-02.16 | :: New Orleans, LA
Descending on New Orleans five days after the Saints’ enormous Super Bowl victory, we encountered a city boiling with elation. Despite the frigid temperatures, this city was as hot as ever, with deafening chants of “Who Dat?” reverberating night and day, bouncing off walls of venues, up and down parade routes, at dinner tables and tailgates. I have literally never seen a city so jacked up, and it was as infectious as ’twas intoxicating.
By day we walked various parade routes, first the Krewe of Morpheus and Krewe of Muses, enjoying the Cameltoe Steppers and Miss Karina’s Bearded Oysters, amongst others. For most parades we rolled uptown to watch on St. Charles and Napoleon Streets, though Saturday we started in Lakeview, rolling with Krewe of Endymion and feting Saints owner/Grand Marshall Tom Benson and Head Coach Sean Payton like Crescent monarchs, with Trombone Shorty the Grand Marshall’s personal guest.
Carnival is truly a cultural and family event. Generations of kin and friends of all races come together and celebrate in magnificent unity; the likes of which I have never seen before. The only moment I ever feared for my own safety was during the Krewe of Bacchus‘ parade when Drew Brees, Saints quarterback, Super Bowl MVP, and 2010’s King Bacchus, turned the corner of St. Charles on a parade float. It was as if Touchdown Jesus had arrived, setting off complete pandemonium.
As we thawed from the Morpheus/Muses parades Friday night, we strolled to Tipitina’s Uptown for the first of four visits to the hallowed room. Thriving in this celebratory atmosphere, George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli, Ivan Neville and Raymond Weber (Dumpstaphunk) took the stage to cheers. Henry Butler was then led stage right to a thunderous ovation as the band took their spots, with Butler seated at a keyboard facing Ivan, who was buried beneath an array of keys. They immediately congratulated the Super Bowl Champions to more screaming decibels. Ivan and Leo repeated the salutations throughout the show, a harbinger of “Who Dats?” to come.
Weber and Porter’s instant lockstep unveiled opener “Everything is Everything,” a crawfish jamboree of distinct NOLA styles, their collaborative spirit evidenced immediately. “Everything” had everything, passing around the jam, with driving Weber funk and George laying down his patented, joyful, nasty bass runs. This song encapsulated their entire performance – equal parts jubilant NOLA sing-along and vicious, loose, powerful funk – serving songs that resonated with joy, pain and the road to redemption. “Cabbage Alley” was a joyful romp through the Professor Longhair classic, with Fess grinning “Hey Now Baby” from the top of the house he built.
Henry Butler asked if he could take us to church, and that he did, with glorious bright piano and charming verve. Butler was distinguished royalty, and that’s amongst Porter, Leo, and Ivan, all stalwarts in their own right. The blind man stoked several raging Nocentelli screaming solos drenched in tubed-out distortion and Gibsonics. Porter and Weber responded with tight riddims and big wrap around fills swollen with laughter.
Ivan Neville’s charged “Fortunate Son” oozed Bayou and sparked some fantastic interplay between Ivan and Porter, plus more ragin’ Leo licks. This exhilaration was a theme for two full sets of huge smiles, jams and Crescent City spirit. “Talkin’ ‘Bout New Orleans” was just that – the pulse of a city ablaze. It’s Carnival Time!
For three consecutive nights we stumbled out of Tip’s and made our way down to the Blue Nile for the Backbeat Foundation’s 4th Annual Mardi Gras Funkstravaganza, a series of Royal Family hosted hoedowns lasting well into the wee hours, in true Quarter style. New York and NOLA are sister cities, and the likes of Adam Deitch, Eric Krasnoand Nigel Hall would make their presence known at this Lombardi Gras, and of course, be joined by their NOLA forefathers all weekend long.
Friday late night, Dr. Claw featured a malevolent conglomerate of Deitch, Kraz, Nigel, and locals Ian Neville on guitar and the inimitable Nick Daniels on bass and vocals. “God Made Me Funky” was an aggressive jolt of stutter-step bounce and friendly one-upmanship. A reading of R&B staple “Leave Me Alone” displayed soothing vocals from Hall and Daniels, while Kraz wailed away on a gold guitar emblazoned with the Saints’ fleur de lis. A Daniels propelled cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” was a bludgeoning stomp of lead-bass, wailing Kraz, and sordid drumming; this colossal rendition most displayed the group’s shared kinetic energy. Ivan Neville hustled down from Tip’s to join the aural fracas, with Raymond Weber and Papa Malichecking it out from the crowd.
On Saturday, the Nigel Hall Band (featuring George Porter Jr.) was geared to a more R&B feel. Krasno played bass before George’s arrival as Hall crooned with joie de vivre. A deep Rhodes take on James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” punctuated the early part of the set until Deitch commandeered the ship, directing Porter into murderous funk grooves. This was “Meters take Manhattan” on some crunk shit. Sheer delight shone on the faces of the elder statesman and boy wonder, as they played puppet-master to one another’s nastiness amidst carnival sights and sounds.
In true “only in New Orleans” fashion, long after the band had left the stage there were still 25 or so fans hanging around the Nile. As Jill Scott’s “Is it the Way” pumped through the PA, one by one the musicians returned to the stage, first Hall on bass with Krasno soon taking it from him. Hall shifted to keys as Deitch got behind the kit, and they moved from playing along to the record to some live improv. An elongated vamp morphed to a full-band version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” a boundless crunk-a-thon with seven different musicians rotating around the stage, including sax and keys maven Khris Royal, guitarist Andrew Block and local sax man Clarence “Trixzey” Slaughter. The half-hour workout was NOLA indulgence, almost a private show for the Royal Family Frenchman Street faithful.
Sunday evening at the Nile was billed as Eric Krasno & Chapter 2, the Soulive guitarist’s red-hot side project; which this time featured Porter in the mix. Several cuts from Kraz’s forthcoming solo album – “76,” “Be Alright” and “Too Sweet” – joined stormy covers including a rare-groove styled rendition of The Beatles’ “Get Back” and an aggressive take on Jimi’s “Manic Depression.”
Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers may have opened the 4th Annual Bacchus Blowout, but this was no warm-up act. Fellow Treme second-line prodigal son Ruffins absolutely owned this packed-to-the-gills room from jump. “How ’bout them New Or-lee-anz Saints!!” he greeted the roaring post-parade massive and led everyone into a jubilant “All Mardi Gras Day.” The audience upped the ante, as the obligatory “Saints Come Marching In” gave way to a bedlam-inducing take on the omnipresent Saints anthem by local rapper K. Gates, “Black N Gold New Orleans,” which was the theme song to the entire city – you couldn’t go three blocks without hearing a brass band, car stereo or house party system blaring it. When Kermit and Co. dropped it, the frontman’s lazy, gruff Treme drawl steeped in bliss, Tip’s fucking exploded.
Ever the showman, after a few healthy pulls from a Bud Light and some humorous banter, Ruffins quickly reminded us that it was Valentine’s Day as he delivered maybe The evening’s finest performance, a surreal take on the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets.” The swanky love-fest gave way to an appearance by Corey “Boe Money” Henry, a run through The Roots’ “U Got Me,” Frankie Beverly and MAZE’s “Joy and Pain” and more NOLA-fried second-line flavor.
After a lengthy changeover, the legendary Rebirth Brass Band delivered an enjoyable set of Crescent City ecstasy; cramped audience skanking and brass n’ drums thumping along. “Boe Money,” Derek Shezbie (trumpet) and Vincent Broussard (sax) led the troupe through an hour of bulbous brass anthems.
However, when headliner Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue took the stage just after 1 a.m., the energy levels in the room rose to even more raucous levels. Troy Andrews’ meteoric rise from child trombone prodigy and member of Rebirth to feted second-liner and member of Lenny Kravitz’s touring band to leading his own band is a true American dream. Hailing from the Treme, he has a long awaited album dropping soon and a reputation for superior showmanship. Leading a crack-band of childhood friends, including “Freaky” Pete Murano on guitar and Joey “In and Out” Peebleson drums, Shorty displayed a pomp ‘n’ verve that kept the room at full attention.
Andrews gave Kravitz a “le bon temps” lesson in crunkadelic rock with his reworking of The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” a pulsating banger with crunchy guitars and clobbering funk percussion. “Get Down” and “Orleans & Claiborne” were enigmatic doses of ridiculous second-line melodies and festive beats. “St. James Orleans Avenue” really took it to the Treme, and the new vibes took the crowd to “Backatown.” He led the boys through a medley that mixed hometown rapper Mystikal, the Black Eyed Peas, Sly Stone and the Violent Femmes. Crooning for the ladies, Shorty channeled Al Green and Marvin Gaye, and blew surreal trumpet runs between patented trombone romps that mesmerized the cuties.
The first show saw a short set of primarily new material from KDTU, highlighted by an incredible collaboration (“Baker’s Dozen”) between Denson, KDTU guitarist (and birthday boy) Brian Jordan and Galactic. The headliners threw down a show heavy on material from their newest record, Ya-Ka-May (JamBase review).
The annual Lundi Gras show was one to remember. Beginning with a fierce 90-minute set of firing KDTU, Diesel & Co. delivered the seminal “Ruff, Tuff and Tumble” and sultry “The Answer,” then closed with an ethereal version of “S&G,” a funk barnstormer that segued into evocative R&B. Galactic then hijacked their stage back and proceeded to uncork a colossal, three-set performance that went until 7 a.m. Culling from their now-vast catalogue of genre-bending compositions, the funk got deep and dark as the crowd bathed in their patented crunk gumbo, with “Boe Money” ably assisting throughout. Mixing in covers from Rakim to Zeppelin and featuring cameos from John Gros, Denson, Trixzey Slaughter, Cyril Neville and more, this was a gluttonously N’awlinz rager. Stanton Moore‘s punishing drums stoked the patented swamp-funk rumble, and bassist Robert Mercurio, guitarist Jeff Raines and sax/harp man Ben Ellman channeled the “Who dat?” mayhem into feverish pitches. Staggering out of Tip’s alongside the band, crew, staff and revelers bound for the 8 a.m. Zulu parade was a surreal experience, even for the Crescent City.
The musical portion of the Mardi Gras program is often overlooked by outsiders who see Carnival as a season of consumer excess with heaps of plastic beads, rivers of “Big Ass Beers” and boobs running the sleazy course of Bourbon Street. Beyond the celestial floats, bejeweled krewe members and mansion-lined avenues, a simpler Carnival culture flourishes in New Orleans’ neighborhoods. Seeking some truer roots and humbler hometown carnival essence, we looked for those marching betwixt the pricey floats and royalty costumes, i.e. the public school marching bands that rounded the corner of St. Charles and Josephine with the Zulu Parade on Tuesday morning. New Orleans’ uniformed youths marched beautifully through the route and it was clear this is ground zero, the place where the seeds of Jazz Fest, Jam Cruise and summer festivals are sewn. This is the path that the likes of Big Sam, Trombone Shorty and all the Rebirth Brass Band took during their school years in this city.
The spirit of New Orleans’ carnival music is caught not with a $30 ticket to Tip’s or Howlin’ Wolf, but for free out in front Handa Wanda’s bar room at 2nd and Dryades Streets on Mardi Gras Day. Tucked within Central City, this is the Mardi Gras of legends like Professor Longhair, James Booker and the Nevilles.
Post-Zulu, around 1 p.m., we went to check and pay respect to the Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, strutting in their suits to drum circle beats with family, friends and plates of barbeque. This year, as they do each year, the Indians donned the fruits of each year’s labor: Hand sewn suits and headdresses, some weighing more than fifty pounds with feathers, fabrics and intricate beadwork illustrations. There, in a crowd of mostly city locals, we enjoyed the peak of the day – some no-frills booty shaking among neighborhood royalty.
Additional reporting by Jessica Dore
JamBase | Louisiana
[Published on: 3/4/10]