Blues on a Sunday Afternoon

Max at Preservation Hall 061117About this time five years ago we were planning our move from St. Croix back to the mainland, and we had picked New Orleans as our landing spot.

It wasn’t the “safe” choice – we could have headed back to the Northwest where we have friends, know the lay of the land, could have blended right back in. But we wanted the adventure to continue. So we picked a city we’d visited once and found interesting and started getting ready.

We also wanted to give Max a chance to explore. He was 14 years old and really getting into music. What better place to scratch that itch than New Orleans?

And Sunday that all paid off! On Sunday, Max got a chance to perform in the legendary space of Preservation Hall, one of the cradles of traditional jazz and the blues. Pretty much anyone who is anyone in the New Orleans jazz world has played in that very modest space. And now Max has too.

Max has been taking lessons at the Guitar Center almost since we got here. Back on St. Croix he took lessons from a teacher at Good Hope School. This fall he’ll continue his study as a music major at the University of New Orleans.

Preservation Hall is not a grand concert space on the order of Carnegie Hall or anything like that. It’s actually one of the shabbier buildings in the French Quarter, and that’s a place that has some shabby buildings. The hall’s exterior is a muddy brownish color with streaks of other hues – it’s almost impossible to describe the color except for “old and weather beaten.” Inside, the paint is peeling, the plaster is cracked and falling. It’s maybe 25 feet square, with a couple of rows of benches in front of the performance space. I leaned against the wall in the back – but only after checking to make sure it wouldn’t collapse under my weight.

But it’s not about the state of the walls. It’s what has happened inside those walls, in the air, the enclosed space, that matters a great deal. It was started in the 1950s as a place for the city’s traditional jazz musicians to gather and jam. It became the place to hear traditional New Orleans jazz, and grew into a band that traveled the world, turning people on to the joy of their music.

That joyful music was starting to fall by the wayside in the ’50s, along with the musicians who had lived it all their lives. Preservation Hall became the place where it was collected and treasured and performed and revived. And now Max has a part of it.

The Guitar Center holds a regular performance time – I guess you could call it a recital – and the woman who organizes it happens to be married to the guy who does tech for Preservation Hall, and one thing led to another and there we all were Sunday at 11 a.m. Instead of cramming into the performance space at the center, we were cramming into one of the hallowed venues in the city.

Instead of the Guitar Center’s electronic keyboards, the piano students played the hall’s old upright piano – battle scarred but still with a bright sound. Several of the drummers, playing on the Preservation Hall kit, did very well. And there was a woman, I’m guessing in her late 30s/early 40s, who a year ago decided she wanted to play sax. She got up there and did fine. Got a ways to go, but I marveled at the guts she showed.

And then there was Max. He was playing “Graveyard Playboy,” a blues song he wrote that displayed both very good musicianship and his weird sense of humor. Over the years all our kids have all displayed humor that the more rigid, stodgy types might sniff at and call “inappropriate.” It comes from being raised in a largish theater family where the influences included a lot of hanging around with adults. And Max, being the youngest by a good many years, has it in spades.

Max is very comfortable in his skin, he knows who he is, isn’t afraid to show that to the world, and isn’t interested in judging or being judged about it. He just got up and performed – he’s a good musician, can play the hell out of that guitar he got as a high school graduation present, and perhaps more importantly, he’s becoming a very good entertainer. (You can see his performance here.)

So when he sang about meeting a woman in the cemetery who was there to bury her second husband (who had died when she fired a bullet “and he got in the way,”) he paused and said, “I like ’em crazy,” it was pretty funny. The woman sitting next to me paused, cocked her head then said, “OK” and laughed.

Max had a couple of things the other kids didn’t. It wasn’t just the musicianship. There was a pretty wide range of that. But most of the kids, you could see them thinking, could almost hear them counting, worrying more about getting the exact right note than keeping the flow, the rhythm. Max was just up there playing, relaxed and confident. He had stage presence. He missed a couple of lines, jumped a couple of places, but if you’d never heard him practice the song you’d never have known it. He just smiled and kept playing. He had fun with it, and the audience did, too.

And now, no matter where he goes in life, no matter what he decides on for a career, he’s always got that on his resume. “Oh yeah, I played Preservation Hall.”


Awful and Awesome – Mostly Awesome

Arlo Guthrie. “Alice’s Restaurant.” Awesome.

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

I was surprised how emotional I got Sunday in that last hour of the festival, when the audience was all singing along to that classic song.

We had planned to go to the New Orleans Jazz Festival Saturday, because the forecast for Sunday was so bad. (I had bought tickets for the final weekend before I checked the weather forecast.) Then it rained like hell all Saturday, so we figured, “Why not?”We went with the original plan

Blues Tent aisles awash
Blues Tent – Aisles awash!

I have never paid that much money to be that uncomfortable. When we arrived the sky opened with a torrential cloudburst, gutters instantly overflowing, lightning crackling and booming. As soon as we were on the festival grounds we took refuge in the Blues Tent – Brother Tryone and the Mindbenders, were  really good blues band – and the aisles down toward the front were a good three inches deep in runoff that had nowhere to run. (Although by the time we saw Arlo in the same venue at the end of the day, it had dried out. We didn’t, but the floor did.)


It never really stopped raining all day, but it never approached that opening deluge. So that’s something I guess.

We were armed with ponchos and umbrellas and a variety of other gear, but it was still pretty miserable And worth every minute.

Neal Young was really good. Arlo was great. Not just “Alice’s Restaurant.” He did “City of New Orleans,” “The Motorcycle Song,” “This Land is Your Land.” Classic Arlo stuff, and classic Arlo stage patter. He just comes across as this neat guy sitting around shooting the breeze and playing a few songs. And there was a delightful sing along at the end, a “new” Woody Guthrie song, “My Peace,” the words written decades ago by the legendary singer/songwriter, the tune written more recently by his equally famous son. I have seen Arlo on stage before, almost 40 years ago in concert with Pete Seeger, but he didn’t do “Alice’s Restaurant” then. He seemed almost unchanged, except for the hair, which is bright white. He apparently now uses the same stylist that used to do Col. Sanders. It was a wonderful and very emotional finish to the day. Loved it loved it loved it.

Neal Young fans in the mud
Neal Young fans in mud …
Youngster in the mud
A youngster in mud

Young was the only performer we saw in the outdoor area – standing in the rain, in a boggy mire. We were standing in the mire, the several thousand diehards there to see him. He and the band, of course, we on a covered stage. The mud was that special squishy,  silty kind of mud that creeps into everything, what my dad used to call “Army mud: Too thin to stand on and too thick to swim in.” It’s the kind of mud that at first feels semi-solid, but if you stand still for a couple of minutes you realize your feet have sunk in. Fortunately, Young and the band kept us moving our bodies, so we were all saved.

What must it be like to know that thousands of fans will do that to see you? His set was a mixed bag, a lot of jams that turned every song into 10 or 15 minutes. But yes, he finished with “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World, which is just one hell of a great song.

Of the acts we saw throughout the day, and that included Ellis Marsalis (the head of the clan, father of Wynton, Banford, Delfeayo … that whole insanely talented family,) the best was Trumpet Mafia. One bass player, one guitar, a keyboardist, a drummer and a conga player, and 12 trumpets. Twelve. A dozen. Wow! What a sound. Powerful! And all of them really terrific players. I have 30 seconds of video I put on Youtube just to give a soupcon of what it was like. Just amazing. Check it out.

So yeah. Tori, Max and I were wet. We were cold. We were exhausted.

We had a great time!