To the Temple of Beignets

As this year’s clarinet filigrees fade into memory, here’s a look at how another famous city kicks out the late-spring jams

Few towns in America have a bedrock musical heritage. The claim New Orleans has to jazz, that Chicago has to postwar blues or that Memphis has to that strange confluence of culture that emanates from it due to aliens landing and creating Elvis, doesn’t exist elsewhere. So cities and towns all across America, like Sacramento, draw from these fountains of inspiration and recreate them in their own images.

I know this, because I moved here a few years ago after living in all three of those cities. Before that, I lived in a small town in southern Indiana that laid claim to Cummins Diesel Engine Company and Chuck Taylor basketball shoes and eschewed anything having to do with fundamental musical roots.

The steep rise of music festivals and rapid decline of county fairs over the past two decades is a clear sign of people seeking a renewed impulse to come together and find a communal culture—even if it’s co-opted from someplace else. It’s not a bad thing, this seeking, but in early May I just had to go back to the well.

Often called “The Big Easy,” New Orleans, during its annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, is more like a safari to the human zoo. Despite the massive nature of this venerable gathering (a record 700,000 this year), it’s a remarkably well-run and happy event. Diehard fans and curious initiates come from around the world to celebrate music of the folk—blues, jazz, gospel, zydeco, Cajun, klezmer, R&B, reggae, Native American, swamp pop, roots rock and, now, jam-band noodling.

As my old friend the singer Marcia Ball noted, “Even those extra 40,000 people who stake their territory in front of one stage to see one band [this year it was either Widespread Panic or Dave Matthews Band] must get some residual effect of what this festival is really about.”

Maintaining stamina and calm over seven days—at 11 stages spread around a classic old horse racetrack—takes strategic planning. Sensible walking shoes, sunglasses, sun block, Camelback hydration system, Kings ball cap, mucho cash and a timepiece can battle that heady combination of sun and beer as you try to see at least 12 acts a day.

I hadn’t been there since 1995, and the one big change I noticed was the ubiquity of cell phones. The bleary-eyed, lost-person phenomenon is all but gone; it’s now a walkie-talkie-connected world. Still, a generous portion of celebrants didn’t need a cell phone to carry on a conversation, even when alone.

Lucinda Williams, the pure-voiced intellectual Ally McBeal-slash-media magnet, drew a huge mid-afternoon crowd to hear songs from her new album. Upbeat she is not, but so engaging is her yearning for love that I marveled at how well those introspective ditties could comfort souls lost in a sea of tan bodies.

After a time we scooted past two giant oaks, where wire walkers used to string rope and dance in the air, and headed over to the creamy, dreamy little Mango Freeze shed. This became a daily ritual. The Fais Do-Do stage next to it is home to all things Cajun and zydeco. Feet two-stepping and locks flying, the audience seemed to agree that some of the best Louisiana music is right here, where Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie were kicking up a bayou storm. I even recognized dancing couples from six years ago.

This is where the oldest band in existence held court the next day: the Hackberry Ramblers. Two guys, Luderine Darbone and Edwin Duhon, are founding members, from 1933—which predates the Rolling Stones by a few years. With fiddle, accordion, guitar, bass and drums, these tough, white-hatted and red-suspendered Cajun gents were a hoot, and their loopy version of “ Proud Mary” was as memorable as better-known Hackberry classics like “Jolie Blonde.”

And what of these piles of bright orange-red shells everywhere? First-time celebrants learn about fresh-boiled crawfish and li’l red potatoes real fast. “Suck the head and bite the tail!” Uh, the other way around? Like the “starve a cold, feed a fever” controversy, does it really matter? No, not when you’re also lining up for shrimp etouffee, alligator pie, corn machoux, oyster po’ boys, okra gumbo, jambalaya, sweet potato mash … my lord, you could fall into a pork-fat coma, an “immediate decline,” as they adore saying in genteel Creole society, then revive on another mango freeze and be carried off to the gospel tent where your soul would receive glory lemonade and the awesome Jackson Sisters, not one of whom weighs less than 400 pounds.

Later, while heading over to the fine listener-supported station WWOZ-FM tent to see the gigantic sculpted-head garden honoring the pantheon of New Orleans music-makers’ short list—Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Danny Barker, Sidney Bechet and Sweet Emma Barrett—we ducked through a hedge and suddenly found ourselves right in the thick of the Original Pigeon Town Steppers Social and Pleasure Club. Instant second line-karma! Boy, we was moving—through royal blue and white finery, boas, gloves, derbies, feathers, tubas, bass drums and white spats we dipped, swayed, stepped and cheered.

And sometime after that, at the House of Blues upstairs club in the French Quarter, Snooks Eaglin, the amazing spider-fingered blind guitarist, held court in a moody standing-room-only shotgun room that looked like a transplanted gothic set of Dark Shadows with its stained glass and hand-painted murals. Just before we ascended, the snappily dressed doorman took a fascination to my companion’s new Hawaiian shirt, which glorified the state of Louisiana. The map on his chest pinpointed all the major cities, cited the magnolias, hot sauce, crawfish, zydeco king Clifton Chenier and the state bird, the pelican. “Well, now look here, there’s the Capitol in Baton Rouge where they shot Huey Long, and now here’s Shreveport. My cousin lives in Shreveport,” he said, putting his hands on his knees, getting closer and closer and peering down below eye level.

“That’s great,” my companion quipped. “Just don’t go visit Florida, ok?”

Sunday night, my New Orleans buddy Ben Sandmel had scheduled us a trip to the Mother-in-Law Lounge. This is the ground-zero ghetto spaceship for the self-proclaimed Emperor of the World, the man of a thousand memorable phrases—“Burn, K-Doe, burn!”—the blessedly one and only R&B legend, Ernie K-Doe. We knocked, they graciously unlocked the door, locked it behind us, brought us beers, offered us free jambalaya with bread and seated us on the couch in the next room where Rico Watts, a black Elvis impersonator, was playing on a Casio keyboard. Finally, K-Doe, in a bejeweled white tux-and-tails and a Lord Robespierre black, wavy, below-the-shoulder length wig, entered the music room, stepped up to the mike and—with a large-screen TV behind him showing Andy Griffith as Matlock on WGN from Chicago—settled in for an evening of entertainment.

We began here, we ended here: Jackson Square near dawn, across from the mighty Mississippi River and the exquisite Café du Monde in the French Quarter. A breakfast of creamy café au lait and fresh, hot beignets sprinkled with powdered sugar, serenaded by carriage horses clip-clopping around the sculptured flower gardens and wrought-iron fences of the square, where local artists hang their watercolors and charcoal sketches. There is the Cabildo, the site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, the first seat of government. Next to it looms the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France. The cathedral never blinks, even though Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Queen shop hovers on a cobblestoned side street nearby.

During the final night of our stay, we took a midnight stroll to the four corners of the Quarter. It was Monday; the fest had ended the day previous with the sweet, heavily New Orleans sunset sounds of Fats Domino, the Radiators, Pete Fountain and the Neville Brothers. The mass exodus out of town had been in full swing for 24 hours. We passed by the locked-up wire and wooden sheds of the open-air French Market. The Big Easy had truly descended upon the weary shoulders of those still out. Stars sparkled, laughter drifted across private-home courtyards. And just up ahead, turning toward us, was a perfect epiphany—a streetcar with an LED readout scrolling across it.

“DESIRE,” it read.