A Night on the Town
If you only have a night or two in New Orleans, you should try your best to hear some incredible live local music. How to choose? Here is a guide to some of the best regular performers doing their best to keep their city's musical traditions alive. Okay, it would take a whole bunch of nights to hear them all, but you can't go wrong with any one -- or two, or three -- of the following.
Bob French, a drummer and second-generation powerhouse, is the keeper of the flame of traditional New Orleans jazz both on the bandstand and on the air at WWOZ. Neo-traditionalists the Jazz Vipers, Loose Marbles, Cottonmouth Kings, Meschiya Lake and Dem Little Big Horns, and the New Orleans Moonshiners each bring their own flavor along with solid, speak-easy swing chops, while Panorama Jazz Band adds an Eastern European spin with their own flavor. Hot 8 means nonstop booty shaking from one of the top of the current crop of brass bands. The Soul Rebels subtly integrate hip-hop energy into traditional brass band sound, while the Stooges guarantee solid jams and fun. John Boutte is one of the voices of New Orleans these days and a national treasure, now known for "Down in the Treme," the theme song to the HBO series Treme, but always known for his ability to turn a wide range of old and new songs into topical, pointed missives. Boutte's one of the finest singers in the country, and not to be missed. Rebirth Brass Band's Tuesday-night gigs at the Maple Leaf remain must-do marathons, as are Thursdays at Vaughan's, where trumpeter Kermit Ruffins holds forth on stage and behind the grill (that's his custom barbecue rig parked outside). Local boy turned national phenom Troy ("Trombone Shorty") Andrews brings on the funk -- he's touring the nation constantly but if he's back home in New Orleans, don't miss him. His mentor and older brother James ("12"), also a leader on the scene, stays a bit more traditional. Cousin Glen David Andrews preaches high-energy funk that has to be seen to be believed. Miss Sophie Lee sings speak-easy sweet, while Sasha Masakowski's jazz stylings are swoony and feathery. Tom McDermott takes audiences on a tour of Caribbean, southern, and South American piano styles that helped shape the music of Jelly Roll Morton and others. He's always a wonder, in particular in his shows with clarinetist Evan Christopher. TBC Brass Band is bringing raw new vigor and another generation into the brass-band fold. (If you can't find them in a club, check the corner of Bourbon and Canal sts.), while the well-established Treme Brass Band gained much deserved, wider recognition from their appearances on HBO's Treme. Big Sam's Funky Nation: Descended from Buddy Bolden, so he claims, trombonist Sam Williams ain't lying about the "funky" part. Formerly of popular party band Cowboy Mouth, Paul Sanchez may be the top singer-songwriter in town. Catch him solo, with his Rolling Road Show, or double-billed with breakout trumpeter Shamarr Allen or Susan Cowsill -- yes, that Cowsill! Susan, now a superb singer-songwriter, covers a lot of ground in her terrific solo shows, especially her "Covered in Vinyl" nights when she and friends re-create entire classic albums by Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, U2, Fleetwood Mac, and others. Sax man Donald Harrison, Jr., mixes his top-flight modern jazz with the spirit of his role as chief of the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian tribe, a role he inherited from his father.
Henry Butler is an heir to the piano crown of Professor Longhair (though he's not always in town). Butler can also bring in some modern styles with dazzling keyboard skills, as do John Cleary and Joe Krown on B3 -- and if piano royalty like Dr. John or Allen Toussaint happen to be playing, that's a gimme. Bonerama is a brass band, sure, but with funk-rock variations heard on versions of such songs as "Helter Skelter" and "Frankenstein." For deeper funking, catch Galactic or Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, while any incarnation of superb songwriter Alex McMurray (he's in about six bands) is undoubtedly worthwhile. Irvin Mayfield has become a central educator and ambassador of a wide range of New Orleans jazz, on top of being a star trumpeter and leader of the superb New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO).
Jazz & Blues Clubs -- This being New Orleans, jazz and blues are everywhere -- though not all of it is worth hearing. Not that any of it is bad, per se. It's just that there is world-class stuff out there competing with tourist traps for your ears, so don't just settle for the first thing you hear. Seek out the really good stuff and you'll be rewarded. Opening and closing hours of New Orleans's clubs and bars are a bit loose: Bars can stay open constantly; clubs can open randomly; announced shows often (but not always) start later than posted; and some clubs never shut down.Cajun & Zydeco Joints -- There are surprisingly few of these here in the big city (they’re plentiful in Lafayette or beyond). You might catch the world-renowned Beausoleil, raucous Pine Leaf Boys, or Lost Bayou Ramblers at d.b.a. or Tipitina’s while they’re “in town.” Tip’s hosts a Fais do-do Sundays at 5pm, with live Cajun music and dancing. Thursday Zydeco Nights at Rock [‘]n’ Bowl, where the bands and dancers vie for “hottest” title, are a sure thing. Mulate’s (201 Julia St., at Convention Center Blvd. in the CBD; www.mulates.com; tel. 800/854-9149 or 504/522-1492) is a tourist-friendly dinner-dancehall with patient instructors to help you become one of those dancing hotties (well, we can all aspire). The food is ordinary, but the dancing is folksy, all-ages fun. Open 7pm nightly; call to make sure it’s not closed for a private event.
Throughout this guide, we keep nagging you to leave the Quarter. This advice is most important at night, when you can check out some of the many terrific clubs on the city's fringes. And not only do they feature some of the best music in town (if not, on some nights, in the country), but some aren't designed as tourist destinations, so your experience will be that much more legitimate. Rest assured, every cabdriver knows the way.
An Evening Cruise -- The Creole Queen and the slightly smaller steamboat Natchez both host pleasant (if a bit touristy) river cruises with mediocre Creole buffets, but much better live jazz and dancing against a backdrop of the city’s sparkling skyline.