The Music Lover’s Guide To New Orleans
New Orleans is many things, but quiet is not one of them. The Louisiana capital isn’t only the birthplace of jazz, it might just be music’s modern day beating heart. Through the grit, heat and 100 per cent humidity, live music soundtracks the streets of ‘Nola.
It spills out of bars, it fills restaurants and it sets up shop on street corners, where the buskers aren’t lone men with guitars but full, 15-piece brass bands complete with trombones, drummers and dancing onlookers. This is a city without closing hours, where musicians like Solange choose to call home, and where you’re still more likely to hear the clang of live percussion than anything playing off a USB.
The city’s storied history with jazz makes Nola an essential pilgrimage for any self-respecting music fan. But even those who come here for other reasons – say, to sample the waistline-expanding soul food, or be awed by the Creole architecture – couldn’t escape the sound of a saxophone if they tried.
But in a city overflowing with music, where do you dive in? Getting any trip to Nola right starts with a trip to the legendary Preservation Hall, a French Quarter institution that’s spent over 50 years working to “protect, preserve and perpetuate” traditional New Orleans jazz. In service of their mission statement, The Hall hosts nightly shows in a tiny former art gallery that’s barely changed since it first opened in 1961.
Please note: this is a purist Dixieland jazz experience. A that’s inside the venue is the stage, a couple of rows of seats and some standing room. There’s no bathroom, no mobile phones allowed, and no bar – though you can bring in a drink from outside, thanks to Nola’s liberal licensing laws (a true novelty experience for any Sydneysider).
But that all adds to the magic: for one distraction-free hour, you get to be enraptured as the band — some of whom are old enough to have been doing this all 50 years — work through classics like ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. The Hall has up to five shows a night and while you could get there an hour early to line up for tickets, we’d rather pay a little more to book them online in advance.
But the main strip for live music in New Orleans is a few blocks over on Frenchman Street, where you can have your pick of pokey jazz clubs. The undisputed king of the bunch is the Spotted Cat, where crowds jostle for drinks and couples perfectly swing dance in front of the stage while the band plays. If it’s too crowded, head across the road to the more laid back Snug Harbour – or just watch the freewheeling buskers who set up nightly on the corner of Chartres Street.
The beauty of New Orleans is that the best music doesn’t always happen in the obvious places. To really do as the locals do, head over to Bywater’s Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits for dinner with a soundtrack. Bacchanal is Nola at its most charming – enter through the bottle shop where you can pick up a bottle of natural wine, then order from the selection of delicious share plates and pull up a seat while jazz bands play under the stars (sidenote: you’ll want to make use of the free insect repellent they provide). Bywater is also home to some of Nola’s most appealing dive bars, like Vaughan’s Lounge, where you can cue-up golden oldies on the jukebox until dawn breaks.
Stay at The Ace Hotel and you won’t even have to leave the building to catch New Orleans music at its finest – as well as hosting touring bands and DJs in its lobby bar, The Ace also regularly puts on free funk and jazz shows, many of which are free with RSVP. Non-guests are welcome, too.
But New Orleans isn’t only the birthplace of jazz – it’s the city that gave life to bounce, the high-energy, super-sexualised call and response genre built by artists like Big Freedia and the late Nicky Da B then horrifyingly co-opted by Miley Cyrus during her twerking phase. Your best bet for bounce is to hit venues like The Warehouse District’s Republic or Siberia in Marigny, which also serves Slavic soul food for those so inclined. Meanwhile, Nola music matriarch DJ Soul Sister leads soul takeovers at One Eyed Jacks on Friday nights, delivering ridiculously fun sets of funk and hip-hop classics (she also sometimes pops in at The Ace).
But, of course, the granddaddy of live music events is Jazz Fest, which takes over New Orleans every April and May for a week of jazz (naturally) as well as blues, R&B, gospel, bluegrass and more. But whatever the time of year, and wherever you go, you won’t have to look hard to find a good show – in Nola, the music finds you.
Published 10 October, 2018