For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. Sixth stop: New Orleans, LA.
The biggest mistake out-of-towners make when they visit New Orleans is spending all their time in the French Quarter. The Quarter is not without its charms, especially if you move away from the touristy section by Canal Street to the more interesting blocks near Esplanade. But to really taste the full flavor of this fabulous city, you have to get out in the neighborhoods. Take a streetcar; take a bus; drive your rental car; walk, but do it.
The French Quarter is where the locals go to turn their art into paying jobs. The rest of the city is where the locals turn their non-job lives into works of art. It’s in their gardens and yard sculptures. It’s in their strange sense of fashion. You can taste it in their cooking. You can hear it in their music. This quotidian aesthetic is present all year long, but it’s unmistakably obvious during Mardi Gras season.
Mardi Gras gets a bad reputation because of the French Quarter, which fills up with drunken frat boys (both current and former) shouting and puking. It’s an entirely different experience out in the neighborhoods, where the parades are more of a family event, as people of all ages share the curbsides and compete for the plastic beads and fairground toys tossed from the passing floats. All generations are represented, and the alcohol consumption is more about getting a happy buzz on than drinking oneself stupid.
Many families in the city own a Mardi Gras ladder. It’s a step ladder with a seat for small children at the top. Attached to the seat is a bar for keeping the kid safe and small rubber wheels for rolling the ladder through the streets to your favorite spot. Some even have tubes for funneling beads down to a bag below. There’s no better magnet for beads than a cute young child on a ladder, and if you position yourself right, you can benefit from the spillover. And there’s no better symbol for Mardi Gras in the neighborhoods than these ingenious contraptions that allow the whole family to indulge in some silliness.
The nighttime parades, which take place in the days before Fat Tuesday itself, are the best parades. If you’re standing on St. Charles Avenue when the parade turns the corner from Napoleon Avenue, the lights suddenly pierce the darkness and reflect off the sides and ceiling of the long tunnel formed by the ancient live oak trees on either side. The flambeaux, African-American men carrying gas-fueled torches and shiny reflectors, light the way.
Then come the riders on horseback and the first of countless marching bands. The bands range from high school bands playing simple parts to college bands playing more complicated arrangements to pros moonlighting near home. But the songs, whether recent R&B hits, pop standards or traditional carnival tunes, are always given brass band treatments. And they always have choreography to go with the music. Most of these aren’t professional musicians; they’re doing it for the joy of being in a parade watched by thousands of people.
The floats are the main attraction, decorated with fiberglass figurines of iconic creatures or current celebrities, often with satirical lampooning. From the lower and/or upper balconies of each float, masked revelers toss favors into a sea of beseeching arms and the cries of, “Throw me something, mister!” Of course, most of what’s thrown are necklaces of those cheap, colored beads.
People like to complain about money wasted on these beads, which then clutter the town with heaps of plastic, but I’ve got to say, there’s nothing quite as exciting as a ring of colorful beads shining in the lights, spinning through the nighttime sky, maybe landing in your clutching fingers, maybe not. The very cheapness and uselessness of the beads is part of the thrill, because they remind us that the least impressive parts of our lives can be transformed into something exciting. And the sight of everyone in town walking around festooned with long, colorful necklaces is something you don’t see anywhere else.
Participants don’t get paid to be in the parades. In fact, each rider in the big parades often has to pay several thousand dollars apiece for dues and “throws.” But there are also small neighborhood parades with a much lower bar to participation and more freedom to create costumes and routines according to one’s own whims.
We stumbled into one such parade in the Riverbend neighborhood. The Krewe of Oak is based at the Maple Leaf, one of the city’s top nightclubs, but everyone in the neighborhood is invited to join in, so we ran home and got our costumes. This Friday-night parade only went a dozen or so blocks, and the paraders often outnumbered the onlookers. The pause at each bar we passed suggested that it was as much a pub crawl as a Mardi Gras parade.
But it was my favorite event of the New Orleans season. Tap Dat, a troupe of 16 women in mismatched gold-and-black outfits, tap-danced the entire length of the parade to music supplied by two marching brass bands: All for One and the Dudes. Another group of women had hand-beaded aprons in the style of the Mardi Gras Indians for their black bustiers. It was an immense investment of time and effort for one short parade, but the results were spectacular. Sometimes creating a one-of-a-kind work of art results in a pleasure that can’t be measured in money or celebrity.
Before and after the parades are parties in private homes with big aluminum pots of gumbo, each made from a different family recipe. On the tables are rings of king cake, the sweet coffee cake whose frosting is decorated with sprinkles in the gold, green and purple colors of Mardi Gras. One slice has a tiny plastic baby hidden inside. If it’s your slice, you have to buy the king cake for next year. The bakeries used to hide it for you, but now, due to nuisance lawsuits, you have to hide the baby yourself.
And there’s music everywhere. On the Sunday before Mardi Gras, the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church brought in Michael White & the Original Liberty Band, one of the best traditional New Orleans jazz bands anywhere. Where the congregation would usually sing a hymn, the septet played their syncopated takes on religious song, sometimes as an instrumental, sometimes with a vocal by the great trumpeter Gregory Stafford. Church has never swung so hard.
Later that night we saw the Soul Rebels at Le Bon Temps Roulet, a tavern on Magazine Street in the Uptown neighborhood. The Soul Rebels started out as the traditional Dejean’s Young Olympia Brass Band, but they have evolved into perhaps the best hip-hop/jazz fusion in popular music today. The horn solos are impressive, and the raps go beyond the usual boasting and dissing to get into the heads of abandoned lovers and underemployed fathers. Holding it all together are the funky dance grooves that kept the sardine-packed room moving despite the lack of space.
Here’s a band that would be hailed as groundbreaking if they were based in New York, Atlanta or Los Angeles, but because they remain embedded in New Orleans’ neighborhoods, they are a secret that can be discovered only by those who come to this city and venture beyond the French Quarter.