Something Else! Guide: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

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NICK DERISO: As Mardi Gras dawns in a reborn New Orleans, we provide your cool-rocking road map to some recommended local hot spots. Now, most will say Preservation Hall, next to Pat O’s. But that’s overrated, and too crowded for our tastes. A sampling from elsewhere — though the list is by no means complete:

1: DONNA’S BAR AND GRILL. This is on Rampart, across from Armstrong Park on the northern edge of the French Quarter.

She generally has brass bands here — the best is the Treme unit — but also makes room for more traditional stuff from small groups ked by the likes of Leroy Jones or Shannon Powell (pictured at right), who has a terrific show most Sundays. Powell played drums for Harry Connick Jr.’s Big Band, and has sometimes brought along Jason Marsalis (I once saw him on vibes, when he was working on a tribute to Lionel Hampton) as well as the swinging singer Germaine Bazzle.

Couldn’t find a quick listing, but I’ve never had a bad time here. Plus, Charlie Sims’ barbecue is excellent.

Donna’s fun fact: Donna’s has, over the years, issued music on its own label, called Rampart Records — including “Kick Some Brass” by the Michael Foster Project and “Slippery Seven” by Mama Digdown’s Brass Band.

1b: SNUG HARBOR. This is in the part of New Orleans known as the Faubourg Marigny, which is down past Cafe Du Monde to the east of the French Quarter.

Ellis Marsalis – the piano playing father of Wynton and Branford – is the mainstay. You’ll also find guys like pianist Michael Wolff – who has played over the years with Sonny Rollins, Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

What’s cool about Wolff is that he is in the pocket, but he’s not as conservative as so many of these younger cats who do acoustic jazz. He knows that sometimes, you’ve got to get a little outside.

The quote: “Groups like Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, electric Miles …that’s the music I grew up with. I remember the first time I heard ‘Bitches Brew’ on a juke box at this place in Berkeley, California.” – Wolff.

2: FUNKY BUTT. This is down the street from Donna’s on Rampart, at the Armstrong Park Arch.

The great, great jazz banjo player Danny Barker suggested the name for this club, in honor of Buddy Bolden’s raunchy ‘Funky Butt’ theme song. During Bolden’s reign as the cornet king of New Orleans, the song lent its name to a hall where Bolden often played. Appropriately, the current Funky Butt stands opposite of Congo Square, the heart of African culture during the mid-19th century.

Signature food item at the Funky Butt has been Red Beans and Anne Rice. Heh.

Funky Butt fun fact: There’s a particularly voluptuous painting in the vestibule. It depicts, of course, a butt.

The quote: “What other city can say that it has a Funky Butt?” – New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

3: MAPLE LEAF: For blues, I recommend as an offbeat choice the Maple Leaf Bar in the Riverbend section of uptown New Orleans. Your staple is Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a local master of blues, soul, funk and jazz.

Maple Leaf fun fact: Scenes from the film Angel Heart — featuring the late, great blues man Brownie McGhee — were shot here.

The quote: “When I was comin’ up, all we had was one black station that was playing any kind of (good) music, period. But listening to these cats (Washington reveres B.B. King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland especially), it was like new voices and it stuck in my head. I must have known then that I was going to do something in that order — blues. I fell in love with it.” – Washington

4: PRALINE CONNECTION: I’ve had some great times at the Praline Connection Gospel and Blues Club in the warehouse district, a block over from the Riverwalk. They don’t really do blues anymore, but the gospel brunches are still held Sundays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Praline fun fact: They’ve done hip-hop at 11 p.m. on Fridays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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