The TBC Brass Band hasn’t had a regular Sunday night gig since they ended their long run at the Blue Nile earlier this year, so I was thrilled to hear that they were beginning a new Sunday night gig at Groove City up on A. P. Tureaud in the Seventh Ward, nearly across the street from Bullet’s where the Pinettes hold forth on Fridays. As I have pointed out before, brass bands seem to come into their own when they play in neighborhood bars and clubs as opposed to the bigger tourist venues. There tend to be more second-liners, a more exuberant atmosphere, and a better interplay between the band and their fans. For a first night, there was a decent crowd, and great music.
When I had first arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday night at Celebration Hall, there were rumors about a second-line being held on the following Sunday. Ultimately, they proved to not be true, but the second-line activist Big Red Cotton sent me a Facebook message that indicated that there would be a Stop The Violence Picnic uptown at A. L. Davis Park sponsored by the Kings of Kings Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and that brass bands would likely appear. So after breakfast, I headed out to A. L. Davis Park, formerly Shakespeare Park, which is the scene of the annual Uptown Super Sunday at which the Black Indian tribes appear. I found that there was a picnic going on, with basketball under the pavilion, youth football games in progress, and a DJ, but no brass bands, perhaps because there was also a heat emergency, and the temperature was near 100 degrees outside. Still, some little kids were having fun playing football and basketball, or watching the others, and the event called attention to the problems New Orleans has been having this summer with street violence.
Wanting to try something different for breakfast on a Sunday morning in New Orleans, I headed to a place called Wakin’ Bakin’ on Banks Street in a neighborhood called Mid City. This was a part of New Orleans that I had never seen before, and there actually proved to be several legendary breakfast spots in the area. In addition to the one I chose, there was also a placed called Biscuits and Buns on Banks, which had a line of people sitting outside waiting to get in, and a dive bar/music venue called the Banks Street Bar & Grill that apparently serves brunch on Sundays. There were also a couple of other kinds of restaurants for other meals of the day, such as the brightly-painted Mid City Pizza or The Crescent. Although it was hot, I chose to sit outside at a sidewalk table, since Wakin’ Bakin’ had quite a wait for an inside table. As is usually my choice, I opted for a bacon and cheese omelette, with breakfast potatoes and toast, and all was quite good. Prices are not particularly expensive either, so Wakin’ Bakin’ is a good go-to for breakfast in the Crescent City, although you should be aware that they are not open on Mondays.
4408 Banks Street
New Orleans, LA 70119
I had heard from friends in the TBC Brass Band that they were playing for some event at a place called Le Maison Creole in Harvey, a town on the West Bank, so when I left the Midsummer Mardi-Gras, I headed over there and caught up with them. I never could determine whether the event was a birthday party or a wedding reception, but the TBC band played for about 20 rousing minutes of second-lining and partying, and then headed back across the river to the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club for another gig at a party. Although it was nearly midnight, there was a fairly large crowd along Broad Street in front of the Zulu Club, and I was really quite excited. The Zulu organization, although called a social aid and pleasure club, functions more as a Mardi Gras krewe, and now I was getting to witness a party there for the first time. The band members started playing on the sidewalk in front of the club, and then we all marched into the clubhouse, which was already quite crowded with people. Perhaps because of the late hour, the TBC played a shorter set than they had at Harvey, but the crowd seemed excited nonetheless.
The event calendars for New Orleans showed something called the Midsummer Mardi-Gras that was supposed to take place at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street far uptown, in the part of the city called Carrollton. I had imagined something like a little Mardi-Gras-themed summer block party, but what I found proved to be far more elaborate. Operating out of the Maple Leaf, and somewhat affiliated with it is an organization called the Krewe of OAK, which I soon learned stands for Outrageous and Kinky. The Krewe sponsors a regular Mardi-Gras parade through Carrollton during the Carnival season, but also sponsors one during the Midsummer Mardi-Gras in August, and this turned out to be quite an event. Several hundred people were already out in the middle of Oak Street in front of the bar when I arrived, and there were a number of marching units. The Krewe had hired the All For One Brass Band to play for the parade, and this was a band I had heard of, but never heard. They provide to be a fairly good band, and with a speech from the King and Queen of OAK from a balcony on Oak Street, the parade was soon under way. The New Orleans police had blocked off Carrollton Avenue, and I had assumed we would march up Oak Street to Carrollton and stop, but to my surprise, we turned up Carrollton Avenue and kept rolling. Crowds were everywhere, along both sides of the street, and in the neutral ground, and fireworks were being shot off from in front of an old mansion on a corner. It seemed we might roll all the way to Earhart Boulevard, but we ended a little sooner, turning into the main entrance to Palmer Park. Inside the park, another stage had been set up where a jazz band was already playing. They had a tuba instead of an electric bass, but they had set drums instead of the traditional snare, bass drum and cowbell rhythm section of the streets. As the parade arrived into the park, the All For One posted up near the entrance and kept playing until everyone had entered the park. It was now thoroughly dark, and brightly-colored lights were being projected into trees in the park. I decided to walk back toward my car, and soon found that there were still significant crowds on Oak Street. I grabbed an iced mocha from the Rue de la Course, and then continued on my way. The festive mood continued in the area, but I set out to catch up with my homeboys in the TBC Brass Band.
While the Cutting Edge NOLA hip-hop showcase was going on at Cafe Istanbul, a music industry mixer and showcase was also going on a few blocks away at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club, so I stopped by there after I left the Istanbul. The next band to go on stage after I arrived was led by a young drummer named Jamal Batiste, whom I had seen play a couple of years ago with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers’ at Mayfield’s second jazz club at the W Hotel. His band this year included members of the Yisrael Trio, a really talented contemporary jazz group that I had seen during last year’s Cutting Edge when they played at a club called Mojitos. Not surprisingly, this group sounded really good indeed. But I had intended to drive further up to Louis Armstrong Park, because the New Orleans South African Connection (NOSACONN) was supposed to be sponsoring some sort of second-line from the park to Sweet Lorraine’s, and I had originally planned to park the car and get it in. But it was outrageously hot, and when I neared the park, I saw that the second-line had only a few musicians and buckjumpers, maybe about 10 in all. So I decided to go uptown and grab dinner instead, and then maybe head to something called the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras that was listed in the event calendars.
The Caribbean atmosphere of New Orleans has been pointed out many times, from the fact that the city celebrates Carnival, to the African-derived cultural practices of the Black Indian tribes and brass bands. But yet another point of Caribbean-Louisiana fusion is the unexpected prevalence of reggae music and culture in New Orleans. Young Black men often sport dreadlocks, reggae shops are found in many inner-city neighborhoods, reggae music is popular, and there is even a First Church of Rastafari in the 9th Ward. This shop on North Claiborne seems fairly typical, and wouldn’t look out of place in Montego Bay or Ocho Rios.
After lunch, the Cutting Edge NOLA Music Business Conference held a rap and hip-hop summit at Cafe Istanbul in the St. Roch neighborhood sponsored by Shive Magazine. There were several preliminary presentations, including speeches by the owner of Shive Magazine, and by local rap CEO and activist Sess 4-5 of Nuthin But Fire Records, followed by a number of rap performances, including one by St. Louis-based hip-hop group the A-Team.
My morning panel at the Cutting Edge NOLA Music Business Conference was so early that I barely had time for breakfast, which I grabbed across the street from the conference hotel at John Besh’s Luke Tavern, which was good, if pricey. But after the panel, I decided to run out and see if I could grab lunch at the legendary Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme, a restaurant I had never gotten to try. I wasn’t at all sure I would get to. There are restaurants like Franklin’s Bar-B-Q in Austin that are just too crowded to get into, and Willie Mae’s has recently been featured on some Food Network TV shows. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, and after all, Willie Mae’s is known for one of my favorite dishes, fried chicken, and I wanted to see how it stacked up against the hometown favorite Gus’s in Memphis.
One thing that anyone visiting Willie Mae’s needs to know is that they do things a little differently than most restaurants. Though there is always a wait, there is not a waiting list as such. Instead, you stand outside under a tent, and people are seated as tables become available. Individual diners are encouraged to sit at the bar, and people are seated according to the number in their parties and what tables come open, not the order they first started waiting.
As for the menu, it is a typical soul food menu, but what almost everyone wants is the fried chicken, and with good reason. Like Gus’s in Memphis, it gets a pretty dark-brown coating, but Willie Mae’s seems a little less spicy than Gus’s, although there is a spice-laden finish that grows with Willie Mae’s over time. The crunchy coating encrusts pieces of white meat chicken that are juicy but not greasy at all, and for an up charge, one can get a breast and two wings. Although there are mashed potatoes and greens, I opted for the french fries instead, and they were basically good. The atmosphere, though crowded and bustling, is basically homey, and great soul music plays from overhead.
As for how it stacks up against Gus’s, I would have to call it an even tie, although there are subtle differences of course. As a lover of fried chicken, and both restaurants, I cannot proclaim either one the winner.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St
New Orleans, LA 70119
After dinner, I drove over to the Seventh Ward, to a neighborhood sports bar called Bullet’s, where the all-girl Pinettes Brass Band has a weekly gig on Friday nights. The Pinettes won last year’s Red Bull Brass Band competition in New Orleans, and gets a lot of attention, as female brass band members are the exception rather than the rule. Bullet’s is the kind of neighborhood joint that you would miss if you weren’t looking for it, but I should have noticed the oil drum cooker out in front of it, which is a common site at New Orleans community bars. Inside was already packed, with an NFL preseason game on the big screen, but one by one the Pinette musicians arrived, and soon the club was rocking. The Pinettes are a decent brass band, with good arrangements, and a loyal following that soon filled the dance floor. While they played a lot of tunes unique to them, they also played some songs I recognized from the TBC, like “When Somebody Loves You Back” and Deniece Williams’ “Cause You Love Me Baby”, which I have never heard outside of New Orleans, but which is immensely popular there. After a brief intermission, the Pinettes played a rousing second set, and then everything wound to a close at midnight. By that point, cars filled the median on A. P. Tureaud.