One of the goals of greatweatherforMEDIA with our anthologies of poetry and short prose is to grow a community of writers in cities around the country and the world. These relationships are forged through readings held in these respective cities. So when we had the chance to do an event in New Orleans LA with our friend John Sinclair to promote his appearance as "spotlight poet" in our current anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand, we jumped at it. The music, food and culture of The Big Easy was just the icing on the King Cake!
Great Weather editors Jane Ormerod, Russ Green and myself flew down a week ago this past Wednesday, and checked into the evocative Hotel St. Marie in the French Quarter. We started our evening at the birthplace of the Hurricane cocktail, Pat O'Brien's. It's a courtyard bar which we had ideal mild weather for. The Hurricane is a powerful, icy rum drink to kick off your evening. But O'Brien's proved to be a bit of a tourist trap, charging us for the signature glass the drink is served in (whether we wanted it or not), and "mistakenly" trying to charge us for an additional drink. We had a much better experience with our dinner at Mr. B's Bistro, where we sampled creole fine dining. Highlights included a meaty crabcake, my rabbit cooked in apple cider, bacon and pecans, and delicious bread pudding in Irish whiskey sauce, all washed down with sparkling wine from Oregon. We finished the evening with a stout at Molly's Irish Pub, and then Russ and I enjoyed cigars on the terrace of Jane's room facing Toulouse Street.
The next morning, Great Weather treasurer Peter Darrell arrived and joined us for breakfast at the hotel's restaurant, Vacherie. The breakfasts here were one of the highlights of our trip, with Fried Green Tomatoes, Crawfish Frittatas and a fresh baked southern biscuit that kept you satisfied til dinnertime the stand-outs. Our waitress each morning was the vivacious Aja, who as we expected was named for the Steely Dan album, confirming our suspicion that founding editor/Steely Danhead Brant Lyon's spirit was with us in the great music city. Within a half hour of us hitting the streets, we encountered one of the best groups of street musicians you could ever hope to hear, led by a superb female clarinetist named Doreen, accompanied by a band featuring two strong trombones. After strolling through Jackson Square, we sampled a brew at the historic brewery of the same name (mine was a Red Bean Ale, brewed with real red beans) and enjoyed watching television coverage of the blizzard back in New York. We then toured St. Louis Cemetery #1, the final resting place of Voodoo Queen Marie Leveau, the New Orleans Musician's Tomb, as well as the pyramid shaped grave allegedly purchased by desperate-for-attention film star Nicholas Cage.
It was getting close to the time for our event, and we prepared ourselves with the sublime Irish Coffees at Fahy's Irish Pub, an intimate place that felt like it could have been located in the land of my ancestors. Then it was off to the Gold Mine Saloon, where local poet and curator Dave Brinks runs a regular series on Thursday nights. Dave had his deejay start the evening with some outstanding Cajun music. Then I opened the program, followed by Russ and Jane. I am proud to say that we were inspired to give our best, even drawing praise from the hard to impress music dudes. The surprise of the evening was the participation of Cyril Neville from the legendary Neville Brothers, who read his poems of social justice and musical legacy. Then, the main event: John Sinclair read his piece, White Buffalo Prayer, a spiritual treatise on the connection between Native American peoples and the Black and Creole people of the Delta. John was accompanied by his New Orleans collaborator, guitarist Carlo Ditta, and the other members of his trio, playing dobro and accordion. They created a musical texture behind him which was seamless with John's words. After a short break, there was an open mic featuring a variety of local writers. Afterwards, we retired to Mister Sinclair's favorite local restaurant, Coop's Place, where I tried succulent Southern Fried Chicken with Red Beans and Rice. Then it was back to the terrace for cigars, bourbon and ghost stories.
After breakfast on Friday, we took a walking tour of the scenic Garden District with its southern mansions and fragrant flowers. Then we caught a cab to The Mint, a building which at one time served as the treasury for colonial, federal and confederate governments, and now serves as a museum of the mint's history, also housing an awesome photo exhibit on New Orleans musicians, as well as a music studio where our friend Carlo Ditta was performing with a modified version of his band with a guest appearance from the ubiquitous John Sinclair. Carlo has had a long career making music in the area with everyone from Louis Prima to Willy Deville, and also produces local acts on his Orleans Records label. His sax player at this gig had also produced the sixties number one hit Judy in Disguise. After Carlo and the band played a few tunes, John joined them onstage along with local blues harmonica player Smokey Burgess. Smokey had walked over from the stand he runs in the French Market to sit in on a couple of John's blues poems concerning the iconic harp player Sonny Boy Williamson. Smokey was as great a player as I've ever heard, and helped take the material to a deeper level. The Mint streams and archives their programs, and you can find them at http://musicatthemint.org.
After stopping through the French Market so that Russ could replace the sunglasses that were falling off his head the whole trip, we were back in the French Quarter wetting our whistles at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, which lays claim to the title Oldest Bar in America. I can believe it based on the overwhelming industrial cleaning product smell indicating hundreds of years of puke clean-up. This caused us to take advantage of the ability to enjoy our beers outside the door in the beautiful afternoon. This enabled us to spot a traditional marching club gathering on the corner across the street. Once the police escort had arrived, we knew that the city had opened its arms to us. We joined the Second Line, and went joyously dancing through the streets! Flush with that accomplishment, we sat down to dinner at the Old Gumbo Shop, where I enjoyed the blackened catfish entrée with a side of turnip made miraculously edible by being cooked in bacon fat. Then, at last it was onto Frenchmen Street for some of the finest music in the world.
We spent most of the evening at The Spotted Cat, where we caught two outstanding acts, The Washboard Chaz Music Trio playing country blues, and the Cottonmouth Kings, a six piece jump blues outfit dominated by a big man playing the rarely seen bass sax. Later we repaired down the street to the Apple Barrel to listen to a hard rocking classic rock outfit whose name has been lost in a flood of alcohol. At this point, a number of our group were under the weather. It was necessary for me to rather heroically guide them back to the hotel safely.
On Saturday, the group was kind enough to indulge my obsession with the classic book of New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces, by allowing me to pose with the statue erected outside the former location of the D.H. Holmes department store where the book opens of its erstwhile hero, Ignatius J. Reilly. If you have never read this hilarious book, I encourage you to drop everything and do so immediately. We then proceeded to the new World War II Museum. This museum is still under construction, but what is accessible already makes for a powerful experience. I think that it has instantly become an essential part of the New Orleans experience. We stopped by a little bar a short distance from the museum for oysters on the half shell and cocktails. We enjoyed a mint julep and the more indigenous Sazerac, and I was enchanted by a barmaid who promptly walked out of my life. . After a brief stopover at our hotel, we finally made it to Café Du Monde for the mandatory beignet and coffee. Then it was back to Frenchmen Street to drink in more of the spirit of creativity (along with more beer). Although we poked our heads into a couple of venues, the best music we heard that night was from a brass band made up entirely of teenagers who absolutely killed it for the appreciative crowd. At this point, I must admit, the group was slowing down. Everybody was feeling a bit banged up, except perhaps the indefatigable Peter Darrell. We made one more stop in the French Quarter at the Chartre Grill, where I experienced the Covered Strawberry, a pour of Murphy's Irish Stout with a cream ale with strawberry puree from a brewer called Covington's. Hey, don't knock it til you've tried it!
As we stumbled our way back to our hotel on a Toulouse Street backed up with traffic, I saw a figure clad in red hailing a taxi, As he climbed into the cab, I shouted, "See you on Christmas, Santa!". And pointing his gloved hand at me, he replied, "You got that right!". So I am sure now that Christmas is coming, for all of you, and for greatweatherforMEDIA too. Let's make it a blessed one.