I spent most of my second night in New Orleans in pursuit of the Crescent City's culinary delights, but did manage to catch a nightcap at Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, right in the heart of the French Quarter. Irvin himself usually plays on Wednesdays, but he gave over the podium last night to a crack quartet led by a clarinetist playing standards like "A Night In Tunisia" and "My Funny Valentine." It was a welcome oasis from the bedlam outside on Bourbon Street, amplified to near-Mardi Gras levels this week with folks in town for both New Year's Eve and the Sugar Bowl. Best part of all: there's no cover, and you can stay as long as you like. (More pics below.)
The last time I was in New Orleans was December 2004, eight months before Katrina devastated this fragile and fabulous city at the southeast end of Louisiana. Arriving here last night, I didn't notice any obvious differences: the trolley still runs across St. Charles, the food is still magnificent, and the drinks are still, well...plentiful.
The other thing that fortunately hasn't changed here is the music, which can be found all over town. On Tuesday night, the place to be is the Maple Leaf Bar, where the Rebirth Brass Band kicks it each and every week, to a packed house. Last night they played three sets over 2 1/2 hours, and blew the roof off with their unique mix of jazz, funk and hip-hop. They reminded me of another brass band that has a Tuesday night weekly much closer to home, which made leaving a little less painful. (More pics below.)
As soon as I dropped off my bags in Memphis Sunday morning, I immediately hailed a cab and headed to the south end of town. No, I wasn't going to Graceland (though I did visit there later in the afternoon.) My destination was the Full Gospel Tabernacle, presided over by the Rev. Al Green. Yes, that Al Green: Lifetime Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, best known for saucy 70's ballads like "Let's Stay Together," and "Love and Happiness." Green founded the Full Gospel Tabernacle in 1976, and has been present there most Sundays (in a big easy chair with "Pastor" written on it) for the past 33 years.
Not surprisingly, the church has become something of a tourist destination: at the service I attended, visitors hailed from everywhere from Italy to Australia, with Green welcoming everyone to higher and higher shrieks of delight. At first, Green left the singing to members of the Gospel Tabernacle Choir: a group of a dozen singers, all with serious chops, backed by a full band (guitars, drums, etc.) But, once Green took over, any resemblance to a traditional church service dissolved and it became nothing less than a performance, Green strutting around the altar just like any other stage. As he preached, he would half-shout, half-sing; at one point, he slipped into his famous falsetto, and the crowd and choir all went crazy, everyone up and clapping along.
"I brought a little anointing oil with me here today," Green said with a grin, "just in case some of you might feel inspired."Believe me, I've had plenty worse offers. (More pics below.)
It may only be a four-hour bus ride from Nashville, but the music of Memphis could hardly be more different than its country-and-bluegrass neighbor. Memphis is the cradle of the Blues, the place where musicians like W.C. Handy and B.B. King would graduate to after playing the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta. It's a very different scene on Beale Street these days, with most bars featuring tourist-ready bands playing old covers - though I did manage to find a solid cat named Vincent Johnson at the Beale St. Tap Room before turning in for the night. (If I'd had a car, I would have ventured out to the clubs in Midtown, looked to be more the real deal.)
Of course, Memphis is also the birthplace of Rock and Roll, home to Elvis, Carl Perkins, Sun and Stax Records. From what I could tell, there isn't much of a rock scene here anymore - though I did read in the Memphis Flyer that some local bands joined together to host a SXSW showcase just last year. Wish I had another night to explore it further, but it's time to head south. (More pics below.)
Greetings from Nashville - or, as it's more commonly referred to down here, "Music City." I arrived here last night just as the Titans were wrapping up their loss to the Chargers over at LP field, and the honkytonks on Southern Broadway (a.k.a. SoBro) were starting to heat up. I eventually settled in at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge - the self-proclaimed "#1 honkytonk in the world" - where Willie Nelson landed his first songwriting gig and Tim McGraw played in public for the first time.
Last night, a black-hatted local named Scott Collier played an extended set of songs by favorite sons such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, working only for tips: $20 got you a request; $150 would get you "a low-carb breakfast in the morning." The room was packed: apparently, noone in Nashville sits at home on Xmas night. After an hour or so, Collier brought up a young guest singer from Texas named Alicia, who knocked my socks off with her easy looks and effortless charm, with great pipes to match. These country girls have had their bar set almost unattainably high by stars like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, but that doesn't seem to keep a whole new army of hopefuls from trying to fill their boots. (More pics below.)