Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street.
When it comes to the aura of revelry in New Orleans, Bourbon Street always seems to get more attention than Lindsey Lohan is sure to get when she checks into the grey bar hotel. This sprawling strip of misbehavior is universally held in the eyes of the world as the be-all to end-all of the city’s legendary nightlife.
Let me say up front that I by no means claim to be an expert on the Big Easy; I merely was graced with the opportunity to spend two nights and one day in a city unlike any other on this planet. I am not your new Frommer’s Guide and I couldn’t tell you much more about the music scene than you’ll see on “Treme,” but I can tell you that the heartbeat of this city (if you’re trying to find it) is not to be found on Rue Bourbon.
Don’t get me wrong, Bourbon Street is great for what it is; you will never be bored when surrounded by “Huge Ass Beers” to go and more watering holes than many entire cities can boast. A few of its gems include the Old Absinthe House, purportedly the oldest operating watering hole in the city, and the Dungeon (good luck finding the secret passageway to the bathroom when all those beers are trying to make their exit).
But make no mistake that Bourbon Street is a brand, and like any brand, it is tailored to a certain demographic. Bourbon Street is Disneyland, the mouse ear hats being replaced by strands of beads, Pluto-shaped cups of punch nudged out by jugs of ale, and Space Mountain supplanted by mechanical bulls that provide a reasonable explanation as to why they sell women’s underwear with phrases written on the seat.
The real New Orleans does not walk around with its shirt tucked into its khaki pants and a camera on its hip.
For my 36 hours in N’awlins, I had three personal “missions”: A proper Cajun meal, a hurricane, and some good local live music. All three are as easy to find on Bourbon Street as vuvuzelas at the World Cup. But as you may know, this reporter’s live music standards tend to run (pretentiously?) high, and when I say “local,” I mean I don’t want covers of “Moondance” all night.
For that, Frenchmen Street is the place to go.
Located at the upper Northeast corner of the French Quarter, Frenchmen St. is where the local sonic flavor thrives. By Bourbon standards, it is a fairly modest strip, reminiscent of one of the smaller ‘burgh areas of San Francisco and littered with the kind of vintage New Orleans architecture and flavor for which the city is so celebrated.
But the fact that it is “local” does not mean everyone is not welcome, Left-Coasters included. Like virtually the entire city, Frenchmen St. has a huge Welcome mat in front of it; you just have to wipe the Nickelback off your shoes before you enter.
It is live music utopia (with no cover charges) spread across a few accessible blocks, where drinks are dive bar prices and seasoned musicians roam the streets looking for their next adventure. Flute players will slide into the Spotted Cat to flank St. Louis Slim & the Frenchmen St. Jug Band. Sax and tuba players will wander into La Maison to blast along with Dat Boi Cue and the rest of the flash-frying funk and soul shakers taking part in the open jam.
We even had a couple of celebrity sightings. Abraham Benrubi was lifting a pint at the Spotted Cat; you may remember him from “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” and “ER,” amongst other roles.
We also bumped into Lenny Kravitz outside the Apple Box.
For self-proclaimed live music junkies, Frenchmen St. is the pharmaceutical fix to your streetside knockoffs; there may be no greater high than wandering back and forth from club to club and seeing a diversified and talented cattle car of musicians such as you will find in this little haven.
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a visit to Bourbon Street, it’s one of those things you just have to experience. But Bourbon Street can only shake your hand and welcome you to town; Frenchmen Street will give you a hug and buy you a beer
If any of you fine folks here in Sactown do have the opportunity to visit New Orleans and Frenchmen Street, it will most likely leave you yearning for more of that same sort of musical experience.
Well, Sactown ain’t New Orleans, but believe it or not, there’s still some great joints to revel in this kind of free-wheeling live music in our town, with local musicians doing their thing solo or in groups:
Fox and Goose (10th and R St.) – Open mic night every Monday, 7:30 p.m.; Irish jam session every third Wednesday.
The Old Ironsides (10th and S St.) – Open mic night every Wednesday, 9 p.m.
Café Luna (16th and N St.) – Nebraska Mondays, creative jazz hosted by Ross Hammond, 7:30 p.m.
Marilyn’s on K (9th and K St.) – Local Artist/Open Mic night Tuesdays, 5 p.m.
Torch Club (15th and I St.) – Open mic Wednesdays, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Blues jam Sundays, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.; X-Trio Thursdays 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Johnny Guitar Knox Saturdays 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.