Headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras? Music advice from a seasoned pro

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Parade in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)
Parade in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)

Editor’s note: Our parent company, Local Voice Media, has employees who work in all different parts of the organization to make our content possible. Some take some pretty interesting trips as well. This story is from Tom Mahnken, our Vice President of Creative Services.

Mardi Gras is coming to New Orleans on Feb. 28, so it is not too late to book a flight for the biggest party of the year. During the carnival season, which actually started the first week in January, more than 70 parades are held in and around the city, from small affairs to large shindigs that rival Super Bowl halftime shows for their pageantry and music.

The city of music and parties will have more music and parties than ever, but there’s something you should also know: Mardi Gras is a great time, but anytime is a good time to visit New Orleans.

It’s an overwhelmingly joyous and interesting city throughout the year. And wouldn’t you know it, the cost for flights and lodging drops precipitously after carnival is over. If you’ve never been, there’s no need to make Mardi Gras you first trip. Go shortly after, when everything is cheaper, there are fewer people and it’s easier to get into all the places you’ll want to see.

Musician Tom Mahnken at the Mother-In-Law Lounge in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)
Musician Tom Mahnken at the Mother-In-Law Lounge in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)

Speaking of places you want to see, I often see visitors to New Orleans flock right to Bourbon Street, which stretches across 13 blocks in the heart of the French Quarter. My typical response: Why?

I try to think back to what I thought Bourbon Street was before I had walked down it hundreds of times in the early morning, the middle of the day, or late at night. Maybe I pictured trumpet players hanging out of every window, blowing sweet jazz into the magnolia-scented evening.

I don’t remember now.

But I can tell you this: Bourbon Street is not New Orleans. Its chief merit for me is the architecture, but that is mostly obscured by its chief detriment, which is drunken tourists. When it’s busy, the place is filled wall-to-wall with people who can’t get over the fact that they are actually drinking outside. The cacophonous sounds of horrible music blasting from every third doorway will also give you a hangover before your first drink.

Still, I suppose there’s an attraction. There are many hard-working servers and some fine musicians who can use your business, too. OK, you should probably see Bourbon Street. Just once. But as soon as you get your daiquiri “to go,” you should do just that. Go.

Most of what made New Orleans great left Bourbon Street long ago, and what still makes New Orleans great is easily found within a short walk or a cheap cab ride.

St. Louis Cathedral sits in the French Quarter facing Decatur Street and the river. The square in front of it is always full of artists — visual and con — as well as musicians, young and old. But to me, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing a bunch of young kids playing the brass band music that has been a staple of New Orleans since the 19th century.

Sure, it’s gotten a bit funkier over time, but it has never gotten old. For an example, check out the Hot 8 Brass Band’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”.

It’s also not uncommon to see a brass band suddenly pop up on a street corner or find that you’ve stumbled into the middle of a parade, where hundreds of people are dancing in the second line, following the band wherever they might lead them. It’s hard to say who’s having more fun, the band or the audience.

While it is generally accepted that jazz music was born in New Orleans, another important contribution is often overlooked. For my money, New Orleans also has a greater claim to the title “Birthplace of Rock and Roll” than any other city in the country. Especially Cleveland.

At the edge of the French Quarter, at the corner of Rampart and Dumaine there is a laundromat. In my opinion, it’s the single most important street corner in American musical history, and there’s hardly anything to see. But where the laundromat exists today used to be the home of Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studios.

It was 80 degrees and clear on Sept. 14, 1955, when a wild-looking young guy stepped up to the microphone and hollered “Wop bop a lu bop, a wop bomp bomp!” This is where Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti”, “Rip it Up” and many other tunes that define rock and roll.

Little Richard was hardly the first to make history in that studio as J&M had already hosted Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, T-Bone Walker and hundreds of others. This is where Roy Brown recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, one of the many New Orleans tunes that would inspire a young Elvis Presley.

With only the name of the laundromat, The Clothes Spin, and a plaque on the wall to give you any indication of what went on there, it’s still a magical place. I love to stand there and imagine people like Ray Charles and Guitar Slim hanging out and chatting between takes. It’s not exactly a photo-friendly place, but in terms of where it all happened, the corner of Rampart and Dumaine is every bit as important as the Cavern Club in Liverpool or Sun Studios in Memphis. 

Here’s are a few other places of musical interest to see in the Crescent City:

Congo Square: Located inside Armstrong Park, just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. In the 1800s, slaves in New Orleans were given a day off every Sunday. Hundreds of them would gather in the area known as Congo Square to hold markets, sing and dance. The influence of African and Caribbean music on New Orleans — and the world in general — surely begins here. The repercussions of these gatherings are still felt in popular music to this day.

Fats Domino's house in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Rick Page)
Fats Domino’s house in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Rick Page)

Fats Domino’s house and business office: Fats no longer lives in the house, but it’s still a place to drive by and pay homage to one of the most popular and criminally under-appreciated stars of early rock and roll. One of the more joyous moments in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina came when Fats was found alive and well.

The Mother-in-Law Lounge: It was started by singer Ernie K Doe of “Mother-In-Law” fame and is now owned by New Orleans trumpeter and bon vivant Kermit Ruffins. Even when it’s closed, the wildly painted exterior makes for great photos, and when it’s open, live music and friendly people make for a great evening.

Frenchmen Street: In the Marigny neighborhood across Esplanade Avenue from the French Quarter. This is now the big music and entertainment district in New Orleans. Frenchmen Street completely obliterates Bourbon Street in terms of being the place to see great music at club after club. Over a dozen venues are packed into this small area, affording the opportunity to see New Orleans mainstays like John Boutte, Jon Cleary, and the New Orleans Jazz Vipers as well as immensely talented up-and-comers. All on one street in one night.

Rock ‘n’ Bowl at Mid City Lanes: From Wednesday to Saturday (and sometimes on Sundays), the Rock ‘n’ Bowl is a very unique place where you go to see live music, dance, eat, drink, and bowl a few frames.

And a few upcoming annual events (besides Mardi Gras) worth attending in the Crescent City:

The French Quarter Festival: Held from April 6-9, a few weeks before New Orleans gets packed for the Jazz and Heritage Fest, the French Quarter Festival serves up a heaping helping of New Orleans musical talent that is not to be believed. A great choice if you don’t want to pony up for Jazz Fest prices on flights and lodging.

The Ponderosa Stomp: Held October 5-7, the Ponderosa Stomp boasts “three days of the best music you’ve never heard of,” as part of its mission: “Celebrating the unsung heroes of American music.” These unsung heroes can range from the session players who you’ve heard on hundreds of records to the stars of yesterday, who would still be household names if there was any justice (Duane Eddy is a prime example).

IF YOU GO: A comprehensive list of places to go and people to see in your hunt for the best live music in New Orleans would likely fill up the internet. Two good places to get a better idea of what’s going are OffBeat Magazine, with extensive club listings and articles about New Orleans bands, and radio station WWOZ. The “guardians of the groove” spin loads of New Orleans music from classics to contemporary, and sitting through even 20 percent of their live music calendar is enough to make you wonder if New Orleans has left any musicians for the rest of the country.

Tom Mahnken is the Vice President of Creative Services at Local Voice Media and has written and produced more than 10,000 ads since he joined the company in 1996. When he’s not working in radio, Mahnken plays bass guitar all over New England with his band Trailer Park and tours the world playing saxophone with the Young@Heart Chorus.

During the Mardi Gras carnival season, there will be more than 70 parades in and around New Orleans, from small affairs to large shindigs that rival Super Bowl halftime shows for their pageantry and music. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)
During the Mardi Gras carnival season, there will be more than 70 parades in and around New Orleans, from small affairs to large shindigs that rival Super Bowl halftime shows for their pageantry and music. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our travel section, email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com