Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I headed over to yet another new breakfast spot in New Orleans, this one in a familiar location, 139 South Cortez in Mid-City which was the original location of the Ruby Slipper, now a fairly-popular breakfast chain in New Orleans. The chain had let their original location go as they opened new locations closer to the tourist areas, but I was surprised to see that it had reopened in June as a new restaurant called Fullblast Brunch. Opening a breakfast restaurant in New Orleans would seem to be a foolhardy proposition, as the city seems to have more of them than any other place I have been, and yet, with few exceptions, they seem to fare well despite the obvious level of competition. One must conclude that New Orleanians absolutely love to eat breakfast out rather than at home. One of the things I find so special about the city as well is its tendency to have great restaurants on street corners in otherwise residential neighborhoods, a dynamic that is certainly true of the building where Fullblast is located. The restaurant is still relatively new, and to our surprise, we had no trouble getting a table at all. Both the food and the coffee were great, and although we enjoyed standard breakfast fare, we heard others rave about the crab cakes.
After breakfast, I wanted to head out along St. Claude Avenue to get some pictures of the neighborhood murals, which are another unique facet of New Orleans life. Every time I visit, it seems that new murals have appeared along the major thoroughfares, celebrating local hip-hop artists, Black history icons like Harriet Tubman, or the musicians and social aid and pleasure clubs of the 9th Ward. The latter mural particularly interested Darren, as it included a painting of TBC’s deceased saxophone player Brandon Franklin, who was from the 9th Ward, but I was somewhat shocked by a building on which seemed to have been painted the slogan “Support Murder.” I am well aware of the problems in America today, but I wasn’t expecting to see so stark and violent a message. But as it turned out, a crucial letter was hidden behind a telephone pole, and when we got closer, the slogan actually read “Support C-Murder,” the former No Limit Records rap artist, a sentiment that I agree with whole-heartedly.
Darren and TBC Brass Band were getting ready for a performance at some beer and barbecue festival at Wollenberg Park along the Mississippi River, but I had to get on the road and head back to Memphis. Leaving New Orleans is never easy for me, and it typical leaves me rather sad. However, I was able to stop at a Rouses in Ponchatoula, and load up on French Market and Mello Joy coffee capsules for my Keurig machine at home. I also picked up a pound of beans from a Baton Rouge coffee roaster called River Road Coffee Roasters, and was quite pleased with the results when I got home.
Monuments, memorials and murals are common to cities. All cities have histories, and important events and people are often honored with statues, parks, buildings or other public markers. But few cities have such things to commemorate a form of music. Yet over the last several months (because it wasn’t there in November), a brick wall behind the Circle Food Store in New Orleans was remade into a colorful and beautiful tribute to bounce music, New Orleans’ most recently created musical genre. Since bounce is a DJ-based music, there is of course a DJ in the mural with turntables, as well as the “Wobbly, Wobbly, C’Mon” chant which is ubiquitous in most bounce music. It’s quite a cool thing to see along North Claiborne Avenue.
It took me nearly an hour to get from Metairie to the North Claiborne Avenue area where TBC Brass Band was supposed to be playing, and where, incidentally, Darren had told me I might run into some of the Mardi Gras Indians. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find any parking, but out north of the Interstate bridge, I found a vacant lot across from a church where nobody was charging any money and lots of people were pulling in and parking. It meant a long walk across a long, vacant commons towards the new Lafitte Project, but the sun had come out and the weather seemed a bit warmer. Under the I-10 bridge, the crowds were truly massive. There was a large stage on St. Bernard Avenue, where bounce rappers were performing, but I could not find any of the TBC Brass Band members anywhere. Since it was more than an hour after they were supposed to start playing, I might have missed them. There were vendors and food trucks, a DJ spinning on a street corner, people zooming around on motorcycles and four-wheelers, and up at the far end, elaborately-costumed Mardi Gras Indians, as I had hoped. I soon found, however, that eager crowds pressed around them so that it was hard to shoot pictures or capture video. But still, seeing the Indians in their beautiful costumes up close was amazing in itself, and I was able to follow one tribe and its drummers down into the Treme neighborhood as they were on their way home, and got some better pictures and footage there.
Choosing the area under an interstate bridge for a festival site may seem strange, but the evidence is that the neutral ground of Claiborne Avenue was a festive site for New Orleans’ Black community long before the interstate was built. Community leaders in the Treme neighborhood had tried to halt the interstate construction, but had failed. More recently, since Hurricane Katrina, some activist white kids had suggested removing the interstate in that area, redesignating I-610 as I-10, and restoring the neutral ground of Claiborne as the grassy, tree-lined site it once was, but with the Superdome so nearby, that is unlikely. Black residents resent the overhead interstate, but continue to use the space during Mardi Gras and also after second-lines, when large crowds often gather there. The one positive thing that I’ve had people tell me about the bridge is that brass bands sound really good under there.
Gradually, it got dark, and the crowds began to gradually disperse, so I left as well, headed Uptown to see if I could find any of the Uptown Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
Another thing I love about New Orleans is the fact that you often run into humorous signs, graffiti or slogans in many neighborhoods of the city. One night in the Marigny neighborhood I ran into this sign that had been altered from “One Way” to “Wo-Day.” “Wo-day!” is the way a lot of New Orleanians say “wodie”, a customary greeting to a friend whose origins are somewhat murky at best. Conjecture has attributed the term as deriving from “wardie”, someone from the same ward of New Orleans as the speaker, as the city is divided into 15 historical wards that are still used as locations, especially by Black residents. But I’ve never liked the “wardie” theory much, since it doesn’t seem to fit, particularly as I can’t figure out how the pronunciation “wodie” would spring from “ward.” On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to hear a New Orleans resident say “Whoa, now!” when running into a friend on the street, and I have wondered if “wodie” derived from that. At any rate, New Orleans rappers used the term much like Memphis rappers used “roadie”, which derived from “road dog”, one’s friend. It doesn’t seem as common now as it did during the heyday of Cash Money Records and No Limit Records, but it is still occasionally heard.
On previous years at Grambling homecoming, there had been something of an impromptu car show up and down Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones Drive, but this year, local authorities had managed to prevent that, and the street was nearly empty. Instead, there was a block party featuring DJ Jubilee outside the Favrot Student Union, and the custom cars were cruising through the campus on Main Street instead. With the weather was warm as it was, the party drew a huge crowd of people, but eventually the campus police and parish sheriffs moved to stop the cruising loop of cars. The resulting gridlock actually made it hard for me to make it off the campus and out of town.
Holly Grove (or Hollygrove) is a neighborhood of New Orleans to the west of the intersection of Earhart Boulevard and Carrollton Avenue, in the historic 17th Ward of New Orleans. It’s not a neighborhood I knew much about, aside from mentions in New Orleans rap songs, so after breakfast at Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, I headed into the area to see what I could see. Like many other neighborhoods of New Orleans, the main thing I noticed was little neighborhood bars, grills and lounges on street corners. These places are everywhere in New Orleans, and often are headquarters for various social aid and pleasure clubs, or for the gangs of Black Indians that parade during Mardi Gras season. But I also came upon an historic old theatre called the Ashton, and several nearby historic business buildings in need of restoration. Altogether, while most of the houses seem to be in good condition, it appears that commercial buildings in Holly Grove haven’t fared as well.
Running a record store was never easy, and Gary Holzenthal’s Odyssey Records on Canal Street has seen more than its share of adversity, from the transition from albums to cassettes to CD’s, to Hurricane Katrina,to the closure of the Iberville projects where many of the store’s loyalest customers lived. Somehow, through it all, the iconic store has survived the ravages of time and a particularly-nasty hurricane and is still in its rightful place on Canal Street. This is one of a handful of stores in New Orleans that helped incubate and develop the bounce music and New Orleans rap scenes, and to walk in is to step into history. Besides compact discs, the store offers vinyl, official Bob Marley clothing and headphones. Visit them on Canal Street, or at http://www.odysseyrecordsneworleans.com/.