Most Tuesday nights for sixteen years, the Rebirth Brass Band has funked up New Orleans’ Maple Leaf Bar, an ancient, low-slung tavern in the Carrollton neighborhood with pressed tin walls and two bare bulbs above a tiny stage. But since Hurricane Katrina, crowds have nearly doubled, with over 200 fans dancing, drinking and spilling onto the sidewalk. On August 29th, the storm’s first anniversary, Rebirth bass drummer Keith Frazier escaped the crush to spend the set break outside. “People that never saw us before come out now,” he said. “They took it for granted. Now they know this could all be gone.”
At most, half of New Orleans’ 480,000 residents have returned. Ruined houses still haunt large swaths of Lakeview, Gentilly, the Lower 9th Ward and other hard-hit neighborhoods. With rents on the rise, schools in disarray and medical and city services stretched thin, scores of musicians, including Frazier and two Rebirth bandmates, still live elsewhere.
But most music clubs, from the Maple Leaf, Carrollton Station, Le Bon Temps Roule and other neighborhood joints to 1,000-capacity showrooms such as the House of Blues and Tipitina’s, are not only up and running, but reporting surprisingly strong business. Before the storm, Maple Leaf owner Hank Staples often dipped into bar revenue to pay bands. “Most nights now, the door covers the bands,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”
One factor across the city is an influx of relief workers, many of them Latino, flush with cash. A previously ignored Tejano song recently topped the Maple Leaf’s jukebox playlist; the monthly Brazilian night at the Howlin’ Wolf, a large room in the Warehouse District, routinely attracts crowds of over 600. Also, “a lot of locals are going out more than they used to,” Staples said. “After working jobs and repairing their houses, they need that release.” Still, a dearth of tourist traffic has forced clubs, especially in the French Quarter, to adjust. For decades, the no-frills Preservation Hall served up traditional jazz 364 nights a year a block away from Bourbon Street; now it is closed most weeknights, with revenue down over sixty percent. Tipitina’s, the flagship Uptown nightclub, has benefited from a truncated schedule dedicated almost exclusively to homegrown talent: Only one show since the storm has lost money, says music director Adam Shipley. In January, Tipitina’s drew the largest crowd ever for the annual two-night anniversary celebration of the Radiators, the long-running local roots-rock and funk band.
The French Quarter franchise of the national House of Blues chain suspended its lunch service and Sunday gospel brunch, but has gradually ramped up its music roster, adding more shows to its monthly calendar. Touring acts are still uncertain about the New Orleans market, despite sell-outs at the HOB by Kem, Anthony Hamilton, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello with Allen Toussaint. Says talent buyer Sonny Schneidau, “I still hear from agents, ‘My band is thinking of coming to New Orleans, but we’re not sure if anybody will be there.'” Summer is traditionally a slow season in New Orleans. Attendance was down in June, then rebounded in July at the Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n Bowl, a vintage second-story bowling alley in hard-hit Mid-City that features southwest Louisiana zydeco bands every Thursday. “I’m not doing as much business overall as last year,” owner John Blancher said. “But being solid in July gives me hope.”
Katrina claimed casualties among the clubs. Wind and rain devastated Ray’s Over the River, a swanky jazz joint atop a high-rise alongside the Mississippi River. Six feet of polluted floodwater trashed Mid-City’s punk rock Dixie Tavern, which is now gutted. Several blocks away, water also swamped soul singer Irma Thomas’ Lion’s Den; ruined drums and posters still litter the floor. But elsewhere, there are signs of renewal. The R&B and smooth jazz club Jin Jean’s Lounge opened this spring in the old Uptown building occupied years ago by the Nite Cap, an early Neville Brothers haunt. Ray’s Boom Boom Room, with its eclectic roster of local jazz and funk, has joined the bustling Frenchmen Street entertainment district near the southeast corner of the French Quarter. The equally diverse Chickie Wah Wah in Mid-City has also debuted since the storm. “It never occurred to me not to do it,” said owner Dale Trigeuro.
More touring acts are expected to visit this fall. The Voodoo Music Experience, featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Duran Duran, My Chemical Romance, the Flaming Lips and reunited New Orleans funk legends the Meters, returns to its traditional home in City Park for Halloween weekend. Meanwhile, club owners hope that locals and visitors alike continue to escape Katrina memories with music. Thanks to its post-storm windfall, the ramshackle Maple Leaf now boasts new plumbing, insulation and security cameras. On August 29th, the Rebirth’s Frazier marveled at the carnival-like atmosphere outside, complete with vendors barbecuing pork chops and frying chicken wings. “People are coming out to remember and forget at the same time,” he said. “There’s a silver lining in this somewhere. Thanks, Katrina.”