Experiencing New Orleans With Fresh Eyes and EarsPosted on March 18th, 2014 by Lenny Alsfeld
On a recent Monday night the usual suspects gathered at BJ’s, a dive in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. They were there, as many are every Monday, to see one of the city’s premier bands, King James & the Special Men. Grizzled rockers in leather jackets leaned against the worn walls, smoking. Regulars hunched over the sticky bar drinking cheap draft beer. A group of clean-cut guys on a bachelor party binge swayed unsteadily near a vat of free red beans and rice and eyed a klatch of college girls in fluorescent hair and fishnets.
Suddenly, there was a flurry of movement in the back. Patrons helped move the pool table so the seven band members could cram themselves into a small corner of floor space. As the first few bars of sweaty rhythm and blues hit the room, what had at first seemed like a random collection of disconnected souls became a unified and joyful mass. Many began to dance, on their own with palpable abandon and in pairs, the boys swinging the girls around the makeshift dance floor, as if we’d all teleported to some out-of-the-way roadhouse from the ’50s.
“In New Orleans success is measured by how unhinged you can get,” Alex Ebert of the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros told me a few days later. “That lends itself to a wildness that’s beneficial to the soul.”
In the late 2000s, Mr. Ebert and his band mates had set up what appeared to be their own private bohemia in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. So I was surprised when he told me, in the spring of 2012, that he was moving to New Orleans, where he’d previously been only on tour. In connecting to what he called the city’s “singular culture,” he’s been able to build something deeper and more sustainable for himself.
Mr. Ebert is one of a notable group of artists, initially established elsewhere, who have of late been drawn to New Orleans. Court 13, the filmmaking collective behind the Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” found their creative footing after relocating from the East Coast to a series of dilapidated homes in the Bywater, a gentrifying area in the Ninth Ward. Last year the indie pop star (and younger sister of Beyoncé) Solange Knowles announced she was buying a house in the same neighborhood. And I know several writers who have begun making pilgrimages down to New Orleans to shake off the New York grind.
How accessible would this new iteration of the city’s famously rich art and music scene be to a total newcomer? I wanted to find out, so I tracked down a handful of transplants and asked them to show me around, in search of what has seduced them.
“New Orleans is not cosmopolitan,” said the actress Tara Elders. “There’s no kale here.” Her husband, Michiel Huisman, the actor and musician who moved here with Ms. Elders in 2009 to shoot the HBO series “Treme” (he’s currently on the series “Nashville”), agreed. “The sign on a shop says that they’ll open at 10? You’re there at noon and it’s not open,” he said.
We were sitting outside at Sylvain, a restaurant in the French Quarter that Mr. Huisman said “takes Southern cuisine and pushes it a bit more modern.” With its elegant but rustic décor, cocktails featuring noirish names (Blood in the Gulfstream, Dead Man’s Wallet), and inventive food, Sylvain wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn — but Ms. Elders said spots like this are still the exception. “So many of the cool places here are really rundown,” she said. “And not because a stylist designed them that way.”
As a teenager in the Netherlands, Mr. Huisman was obsessed with iconic New Orleans musicians like Dr. John and the Meters; he said he experienced “a strange feeling of homecoming” when he finally moved here. By day, the actor likes to leisurely bike from the Quarter through the Marigny and into the Bywater or drive out to nearby state parks and explore the bayous. But his evening schedule makes it clear that music is a big part of what keeps him here: On Tuesdays, it’s the Rebirth Brass Band at Maple Leaf Bar; Wednesdays, it’s the Treme Brass Band at the Candlelight Lounge. And on Mondays, Mr. Huisman usually heads to BJ’s.
“Music really flows through the veins of the town, like where we are going tonight,” Mr. Huisman said, referring to the United Mardi Gras Indian Practice. “It’s so true to itself and so African. That really resonates with me: Nothing moves me as much as that beat, that rhythm that is truly New Orleans.”
We all piled into the family Jeep and drove out to Handa Wanda’s, an open warehouse space with a band set up in the back, a bar in the middle, and red beans and rice on hot plates up front. This spot is home base for the Wild Magnolias, one of dozens of tribes. Come Mardi Gras day, the tribe leader, or Big Chief, will lead a procession in full costume, challenging other tribes to mock battles. But tonight is an open practice and all are welcome.
Perched upstairs in the rickety balcony, we drank whiskey and Cokes out of Dixie cups while revelers of all ages shook it to a rollicking beat punctuated by chanting from the Big Chief. Instinctively, all of us leaned over the balcony and started bobbing our heads. Mr. Huisman saw me trying to sing along to words I couldn’t decipher. He smiled and said into my ear, “They’re saying, ‘shallow water, your mama,’ ” a traditional Indian call-and-response.
The actors dropped me off for a nightcap at another classic lo-fi drinking lair, Mimi’s in the Marigny, by the border of Bywater. Downstairs is your standard neighborhood joint with a pool table, a place where you can stop in with your dog for a post-work beer. Upstairs it’s a lush little club that kicks off later in the evening and has been regularly hosting all kinds of music since right after Hurricane Katrina. I had been invited by the cellist Leyla McCalla to hear her boyfriend’s unnamed bluegrass-influenced group and meet her friend — and another transplant — the filmmaker Garrett Bradley.
Settled at an intimate round table, we drank well-mixed cocktails garnished with fresh herbs and shouted cheerily at each other over enthusiastic accordion music about the influence on all New Orleans artists of what Ms. McCalla called the “many amazing aspects of black culture represented here.”
Earlier that day the cellist and I had shared tasty banh mi at a local vegetarian-friendly spot, Green Goddess. Originally from Queens, she settled into the working musician grind in New York after graduating from N.Y.U., but felt both overly inspired and unsatisfied. “I was doing all these projects, but I didn’t feel grounded in any one of them,” she said.
During a monthlong furlough in New Orleans in the late 2000s she joined the ranks of the city’s buskers and discovered that the rhythm and unpredictability of this new life — “even when it was boring, was a different kind of boring” — opened her up creatively and settled her down emotionally. Ms. McCalla’s new album “Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes” reflects a strong Louisiana influence — as does her lifestyle. She lives in an apartment where her landlord is a voodoo priestess, she told me at lunch, before pausing to wave goodbye to friends who had been eating at an adjacent table and were now leaving. “Sorry I didn’t make it to Thanksgiving,” she called out. “I saw pictures of the smoked gator on Facebook. It looked awesome.”
If Delaney Martin, a co-founder of the community arts organization New Orleans Airlift, had her way, every newcomer interested in New Orleans would participate in the kind of tour she took me on: one less about which stores and restaurants and galleries to visit and more about how to explore the city by “respectfully engaging” with what she, and so many of her peers feel makes it special. “It’s the last bastion of living, breathing contemporary street culture and you don’t get it anywhere else in America,” she said.
We began with green juices at Satsuma Cafe, a Bywater spot where Ms. Martin said she’d first felt the New Orleans magic in 1998 when she came here on a road trip on her way back east after film school in California. “We arrived at 4 in the morning in a deep fog in the Garden District,” she recalled. “In my mind there were beautiful vampires on vine-strewn balconies.” Stops at graduate school and a few years working in London, where she had a successful career making dark, moody installation art (among other pursuits), followed.
After Katrina hit, Ms. Martin returned and founded Airlift, whose unofficial mission is to encourage intermingling among local and transplant artists. Their most famous project is the Music Box, refurbished shacks and shanties with instruments embedded in every surface; it has attracted everyone from Dickie Landry, a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, to the local bounce favorite Nicky Da B.
This year Ms. Martin and her team are expanding the playable house concept, building a series of homes that will be deployed as a roving musical village able to travel from one location to another and be played wherever it goes. Their first new home will be available for public interaction by late April. (Check dithyrambalina.com for details.)
Later, we hopped in her van and headed out to visit the recently converted factory that is Airlift’s new headquarters. As we drove, the voice of Taylor Lee Shepherd, her boyfriend and collaborator, crackled through the speakers. “He’s talking to us on our pirate radio station,” she said, smiling. Soon we all stood gazing out at the crumbling graffiti-covered train tracks in the overgrown back yard of the football-field-size space.
“This place has a way of drawing you in, but it’s not for everybody — it can chew you up and spit you out,” Mr. Shepherd mused. Ms. Martin nodded. “No one should have the illusion that New Orleans is some safe nice place for kids just out of college to move, because it’s not,” she said.
That edge is part of the city’s armor against being transformed into a cultural theme park. Mr. Ebert said he worries his adopted home will be pegged as “Brooklyn south” and become overrun by bright-eyed strivers looking for a new source of authenticity to co-opt. But he’s reassured by the city’s fundamental seediness. “It’s just a little too poor and a little too hot and a little too messy and a little too unkempt for the style to win out,” he said.