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New Orleans Double Vision: Part 3 — Uncle Lionel

On the day that I sat alone, eating my muffaletta, a band was playing in the open-air restaurant. I enjoyed the background music as I watched people on the street in front of me, but I didn’t really gaze at the band much until he appeared.

Uncle Lionel.

I didn’t realize his fame and legend at the time. All I knew was that out of nowhere a skinny old man appeared, dressed rather spiffy in his cream suit and wide-brimmed hat. He was holding a cane, which also doubled as trombone — the sound coming from his own vocal chords as he slid the “instrument” back and forth in front of his mouth. He sang and entertained, looking as comfortable on that stage as anyone I’d seen, all the while appearing as if a strong wind could blow him over.

That was sweet, I thought.

Then came open mic night at La Maison. Musicians had been rotating on and off the stage all evening, taking turns leading the make-shift band, waiting for their opportunity to find a space on the crowded platform. As the emcee announced a new addition to the medley, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “Sorry folks, but there’s a change of plans. A legend just walked in the door.” And up came Uncle Lionel, wearing the same dapper dress including the dark shades.

There was an air of awe and respect among the other musicians, while Uncle Lionel sang and commanded the stage as if it were his own home. Which it practically was. We later learned he’s been performing in New Orleans since World War 2. I was glad that Reuben had a chance to see the man I’d told him about, and I was excited to learn that I’d been in the presence of an icon.

But my encounters with Uncle Lionel didn’t stop at two. On our last full day in the city, I was walking through a courtyard near the French Market looking for a place to sit and enjoy my sweet tea. Just before I passed by two old men sitting on a park bench, one of them called out asking what I was drinking. “Sweet tea,” I replied. It was then that I noticed Uncle Lionel was old man #2, just sitting enjoying the air, unmistakably recognizable. “What’s that?” his friend asked me again. “Sweet tea,” I repeated with a smile. “Pee pee?” he retorted, and I wasn’t sure if he was mocking or teasing me. But I didn’t care. I may be a tourist, but I know Uncle Lionel when I see him.


New Orleans Double Vision: Part 2 — There’s No Place Like Maison

Everyone’s heard of Bourbon Street. The beads, the balconies, the booze, the boobs — the street is a world all its own. So of course that was the first place Reuben and I headed after settling into our room at a nearby bed-and-breakfast. We hit the street at 10:30pm, and it was pretty tame. By 2am, I could barely absorb all the craziness I’d seen, heard, and smelled that night. It was an experience worthy of a post all its own.

But not this one. This post is about a lesser-known street, but one that is much more our style–Frenchman Street–and the fabulous time we spent there at a club called “Maison.”

Now, for someone who knows me well, it would come as no surprise that I would be drawn to a venue with a French name and located literally on French(man) street, but it was actually Reuben who was first compelled to explore the place. He’d heard it has more live jazz and blues than the dance-party infused Bourbon Street, and that it’s the place where the locals go for music. He heard right.

Frenchman Street was also not far from where we were staying, so we walked there on our second night in New Orleans. We passed by a club or two requiring a cover charge, which we were perplexed by since we’d already learned enough about the city to know that there is abundant and incredible music for free all around. So it wasn’t long before we entered the cover-free Maison.

That first night at the club, we discovered the Young Fellaz Brass Band. Their name is a pretty good description — they’re a group of young guys who (with the exception of the drummer) skip the vocals and focus entirely on their brass. Calling them talented wouldn’t do them justice — they are explosive! I wondered how their lungs could produce such a booming sound without bursting. And in the case of the trumpeter in the photo up top, I wondered the same about his cheeks.

But while it was a near-deafening sound, it was also a harmonious and rhythmic one. The kind of sound that makes it impossible to remain in your seat, and once you stand you can’t help but clap and wave your arms and dance.

We stayed there for hours and the musicians never seemed to tire. Neither did we tire of hearing their tunes.

We returned to the Maison once more during our trip, this time happening upon open mic night. Now, I’ve been to open mic nights where we live, and it’s nice to hear some live music from various artists. But you can’t even compare it to what we found in New Orleans. It should really be called open mics, plural, because instead of taking turns the musicians simply joined whoever was already onstage, flowing seamlessly into their songs and styles.

It was one of the best bands I’d ever heard–that open mic night–and the emcee told us these guys didn’t even know each other and had never played together before. I was astounded that strangers could make such mesmerizing sounds together.

Here’s a preview: Part 3 of this series will tell the tale of “Mr. New Orleans,” who briefly kidnapped the stage at open mic night. But, for now, here’s my double vision experience #2. 

On Tuesday I had an afternoon to myself and took a stroll around the French Quarter. I was drawn to the beat of energetic music I could hear nearby in front of the cathedral. As I approached I found the cheeks that still hadn’t burst, and the tuba that proved the invigorating band from Maison was giving me a street performance. I sat longer than any of the other tourists on the steps in front of the church, listening to the Young Fellaz blast their songs in the open air. I ate some pralines and drank some sweet iced tea, then I took a lot of pictures. It was a good day.

New Orleans Double Vision: Part 1

When we told people that we were taking a vacation to New Orleans, the reaction was always the same — “Oh, you’ll love it, the food is incredible!” Now, I like a tasty meal as much as the next person, but I realized something definitively on this trip: I am not a gourmand. Or at least, I prefer to spend my money elsewhere.

We did have some yummy jambalaya, delicious fish, and exceptional crawfish étoufée. I learned what a muffaletta is. It’s this ———–>, and it was okay.

And I must admit, I really enjoyed the beignets at Café du Monde. Although, I didn’t like the coffee with chicory as much as I’d hoped I would.

For Reuben and me, what we enjoyed most about New Orleans was the music.

When we lived in Seattle, one of our favorite things was to find venues with free (or cheap) live music, and we saw some great and diverse acts. In Portland, it’s a little more difficult, both because of the size of the city and relative size of the music scene, but also because now we have a child.

On vacation alone, in the birthplace of jazz, where nearly every venue has live music spilling out into the streets, we were giddy.

Our very first exposure to the New Orleans music scene happened at Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub. To be perfectly honest, there were only two reasons why we picked this place first:

1) It was the first non-dance club we passed on Bourbon Street after leaving our Bed-and-Breakfast.

2) There was a sign outside advertising $4 Hurricanes.

We hadn’t learned yet that you have to order the cheap to-go drinks from the window, so instead we went inside. Immediately, I was adorned with a string of beads, and we were escorted to the back of the dimly-lit pub, to a bench just one row back from the band. I was enthralled. There were antique decorations draped along almost every surface of the ancient brick walls. The rhythm of the music just a few feet away made it impossible for me to sit still, so I soaked it all in as I slapped my leg to the beat. In my other hand was a Hurricane, this one of the $11 variety. We hadn’t realized the drink would be so much more expensive inside the bar until after we ordered it, but this was one time when I felt that the experience was worth every penny.

Our stop at Fritzel’s began a theme of the vacation, for me anyway. I found that whenever I was really intrigued by a musician, that I would up seeing him again elsewhere, and completely unexpectedly.

First it was the trumpet player who was right in front of me as I drank my Hurricane. Maybe it was because he was among the first musicians I heard play in New Orleans. Maybe it was because he was so close that I couldn’t avoid watching him. Maybe it was because he was bald. Either way, I enjoyed listening to his trumpet blast throughout the small room.

Two days later at a Rotary dinner at Pat O’Brien’s (where, as an aside, a friendly waiter brought me the most amazing drink of fresh-squeezed lemonade, orange vodka, and triple sec) I saw him among the quintet serenading our event. It was almost uncomfortably crowded in the open courtyard, but I spotted him immediately.

The music that night wasn’t exactly my taste. At least, it didn’t make me want to dance in the same way I’d wanted to at Fritzel’s.  Still, I found it intriguing that in a city with as many talented musicians as New Orleans claims, that I would happen to see a repeat performance from one of them (as a tourist, no less) in a matter of days.

But that was just the beginning of my double vision experiences in NOLA.

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