The neighborhood where the new Offbeat Arts gallery is located is called the Midtown Arts District, and is Jackson’s fastest-growing arts community. Unlike Fondren, where rents are soaring, Midtown still has affordable buildings, but it is rapidly becoming the hippest neighborhood of Mississippi’s capital. Although the emphasis is on the visual arts, there are a few places that involve music, including the Soul Wired Cafe, Offbeat and TurnUp Studios.
I had heard from friends in the TBC Brass Band that they were playing for some event at a place called Le Maison Creole in Harvey, a town on the West Bank, so when I left the Midsummer Mardi-Gras, I headed over there and caught up with them. I never could determine whether the event was a birthday party or a wedding reception, but the TBC band played for about 20 rousing minutes of second-lining and partying, and then headed back across the river to the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club for another gig at a party. Although it was nearly midnight, there was a fairly large crowd along Broad Street in front of the Zulu Club, and I was really quite excited. The Zulu organization, although called a social aid and pleasure club, functions more as a Mardi Gras krewe, and now I was getting to witness a party there for the first time. The band members started playing on the sidewalk in front of the club, and then we all marched into the clubhouse, which was already quite crowded with people. Perhaps because of the late hour, the TBC played a shorter set than they had at Harvey, but the crowd seemed excited nonetheless.
The event calendars for New Orleans showed something called the Midsummer Mardi-Gras that was supposed to take place at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street far uptown, in the part of the city called Carrollton. I had imagined something like a little Mardi-Gras-themed summer block party, but what I found proved to be far more elaborate. Operating out of the Maple Leaf, and somewhat affiliated with it is an organization called the Krewe of OAK, which I soon learned stands for Outrageous and Kinky. The Krewe sponsors a regular Mardi-Gras parade through Carrollton during the Carnival season, but also sponsors one during the Midsummer Mardi-Gras in August, and this turned out to be quite an event. Several hundred people were already out in the middle of Oak Street in front of the bar when I arrived, and there were a number of marching units. The Krewe had hired the All For One Brass Band to play for the parade, and this was a band I had heard of, but never heard. They provide to be a fairly good band, and with a speech from the King and Queen of OAK from a balcony on Oak Street, the parade was soon under way. The New Orleans police had blocked off Carrollton Avenue, and I had assumed we would march up Oak Street to Carrollton and stop, but to my surprise, we turned up Carrollton Avenue and kept rolling. Crowds were everywhere, along both sides of the street, and in the neutral ground, and fireworks were being shot off from in front of an old mansion on a corner. It seemed we might roll all the way to Earhart Boulevard, but we ended a little sooner, turning into the main entrance to Palmer Park. Inside the park, another stage had been set up where a jazz band was already playing. They had a tuba instead of an electric bass, but they had set drums instead of the traditional snare, bass drum and cowbell rhythm section of the streets. As the parade arrived into the park, the All For One posted up near the entrance and kept playing until everyone had entered the park. It was now thoroughly dark, and brightly-colored lights were being projected into trees in the park. I decided to walk back toward my car, and soon found that there were still significant crowds on Oak Street. I grabbed an iced mocha from the Rue de la Course, and then continued on my way. The festive mood continued in the area, but I set out to catch up with my homeboys in the TBC Brass Band.
While the Cutting Edge NOLA hip-hop showcase was going on at Cafe Istanbul, a music industry mixer and showcase was also going on a few blocks away at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club, so I stopped by there after I left the Istanbul. The next band to go on stage after I arrived was led by a young drummer named Jamal Batiste, whom I had seen play a couple of years ago with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers’ at Mayfield’s second jazz club at the W Hotel. His band this year included members of the Yisrael Trio, a really talented contemporary jazz group that I had seen during last year’s Cutting Edge when they played at a club called Mojitos. Not surprisingly, this group sounded really good indeed. But I had intended to drive further up to Louis Armstrong Park, because the New Orleans South African Connection (NOSACONN) was supposed to be sponsoring some sort of second-line from the park to Sweet Lorraine’s, and I had originally planned to park the car and get it in. But it was outrageously hot, and when I neared the park, I saw that the second-line had only a few musicians and buckjumpers, maybe about 10 in all. So I decided to go uptown and grab dinner instead, and then maybe head to something called the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras that was listed in the event calendars.
My morning panel at the Cutting Edge NOLA Music Business Conference was so early that I barely had time for breakfast, which I grabbed across the street from the conference hotel at John Besh’s Luke Tavern, which was good, if pricey. But after the panel, I decided to run out and see if I could grab lunch at the legendary Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme, a restaurant I had never gotten to try. I wasn’t at all sure I would get to. There are restaurants like Franklin’s Bar-B-Q in Austin that are just too crowded to get into, and Willie Mae’s has recently been featured on some Food Network TV shows. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, and after all, Willie Mae’s is known for one of my favorite dishes, fried chicken, and I wanted to see how it stacked up against the hometown favorite Gus’s in Memphis.
One thing that anyone visiting Willie Mae’s needs to know is that they do things a little differently than most restaurants. Though there is always a wait, there is not a waiting list as such. Instead, you stand outside under a tent, and people are seated as tables become available. Individual diners are encouraged to sit at the bar, and people are seated according to the number in their parties and what tables come open, not the order they first started waiting.
As for the menu, it is a typical soul food menu, but what almost everyone wants is the fried chicken, and with good reason. Like Gus’s in Memphis, it gets a pretty dark-brown coating, but Willie Mae’s seems a little less spicy than Gus’s, although there is a spice-laden finish that grows with Willie Mae’s over time. The crunchy coating encrusts pieces of white meat chicken that are juicy but not greasy at all, and for an up charge, one can get a breast and two wings. Although there are mashed potatoes and greens, I opted for the french fries instead, and they were basically good. The atmosphere, though crowded and bustling, is basically homey, and great soul music plays from overhead.
As for how it stacks up against Gus’s, I would have to call it an even tie, although there are subtle differences of course. As a lover of fried chicken, and both restaurants, I cannot proclaim either one the winner.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St
New Orleans, LA 70119
After dinner, I drove over to the Seventh Ward, to a neighborhood sports bar called Bullet’s, where the all-girl Pinettes Brass Band has a weekly gig on Friday nights. The Pinettes won last year’s Red Bull Brass Band competition in New Orleans, and gets a lot of attention, as female brass band members are the exception rather than the rule. Bullet’s is the kind of neighborhood joint that you would miss if you weren’t looking for it, but I should have noticed the oil drum cooker out in front of it, which is a common site at New Orleans community bars. Inside was already packed, with an NFL preseason game on the big screen, but one by one the Pinette musicians arrived, and soon the club was rocking. The Pinettes are a decent brass band, with good arrangements, and a loyal following that soon filled the dance floor. While they played a lot of tunes unique to them, they also played some songs I recognized from the TBC, like “When Somebody Loves You Back” and Deniece Williams’ “Cause You Love Me Baby”, which I have never heard outside of New Orleans, but which is immensely popular there. After a brief intermission, the Pinettes played a rousing second set, and then everything wound to a close at midnight. By that point, cars filled the median on A. P. Tureaud.
As I headed back toward the CBD, I drove through the Central City area, and with the weather blazing hot, when I saw a snow-cone sign on Washington Avenue, I took a detour onto the side street and found a snowball stand called The Red Rooster. While New Orleans people are familiar with snowballs, I need to point out that New Orleans-style snowballs are quite different from the snow cones that are sold elsewhere across the country. Not only are the flavors different, but so is the ice, which at the better snowball stands is shaved. This particular stand also serves food, and has a shrimp po-boy on the menu that I will have to try on a future visit. The street where the stand is located looked familiar to me, and might have been the location where I visited Eddie’s 3-Way Records back in the 1980’s. I recall that it was on a side street off of Washington Avenue, that it was a block from a housing project (likely the Magnolia Projects), and that there was a snowball stand nearby that served po-boys. Further down in Central City, I came to a number of inspirational murals, which are common in New Orleans. One listed the Zulu Nation Laws of Success, as well as a number of famous men and women and was attributed to the Central City Art Project. Another one stated “Be The Change You Seek.” One of the things I love about New Orleans is the prevalence of public art, official and unofficial, even in the roughest neighborhoods.
My bass-playing friend Monte Butts had asked me to come down to Tupelo and play a gig with him at the Linc Center, and when the gig was over at 9:30, I didn’t just feel like turning around and driving back to Memphis. So I used my Hangtime app on my phone, and saw where a band called the House of Funk was playing at Woody’s Steakhouse on Gloster Street. I had always thought of Woody’s as an upscale steakhouse, and not the sort of place to book a band with a name like House of Funk. But I dutifully headed over there anyway, and discovered that far in the back of Woody’s is a place called the Captain’s Den Lounge, with a stage area for bands, and there the House of Funk was, playing a delightful mix of soul and rhythm and blues, with a room full of their fans in the bar. They took an intermission, but only a brief one, and soon returned with a fiery latin instrumental, and then performed a couple of vocal originals that were actually really great songs. I was actually disappointed when their performance ended for the night.
Tupelo, Mississippi has always had a big-city ambiance that belies its relatively small size. It has a large regional mall, its own TV station, a zoo, a large convention center and arena and a fairly big downtown, complete with tall buildings. Now, Tupelo also has a big-city steakhouse called Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen on Main Street downtown, opened by the same people who run the Neon Pig in North Tupelo. KOK is not just a great steakhouse with great food and an attractive ambiance, but it is also a burgeoning part of the locavore movement, a trend toward restaurants locally sourcing almost everything. A wood-burning pit downstairs fills the restaurant with an inviting aroma, and this is where steaks are grilled and shucks of corn are roasted. My expertly-cooked filet mignon was accompanied by fingerling potatoes, which were delicious, and I had substituted a husk of roasted corn (also amazing) for the vegetables. The large upstairs dining room is bright and cheerful, with local art works on the walls and plenty of windows, but there is also seating around a downstairs bar near the pit. Although I’m not a beer drinker, there is a decent selection of craft beers, many of them regional, for those who like that sort of thing. Altogether, I had a great meal and good fun at Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, and will certainly be back.
Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen
124 W Main
Tupelo, MS 38804
While walking back to my car, I spied this interesting chair on a porch in Treme. The text on the top of the chair says it is a throne of St. Expedite (St. Expeditus), a Catholic saint who is extremely popular in New Orleans and amongst practitioners of voodoo in the city. The rest of the chair is covered with “veves”, drawn symbols that represent the spirits (or “loas”) of voodoo. The names of two of the voodoo loa, Baron Samedi (the lord of the cemetery), and Legba (the guardian of the crossroads) are emblazoned on the seat and legs of the chair. The cult of St. Expeditus in New Orleans is interesting in its own right. Tradition says that Saint Expeditus was a Roman soldier killed by the Roman Empire for converting to Christ. Supposedly, when he decided to become a Christian, Satan tried to deter him in the form of a crow, which called out “Cras, cras”, which is the Latin word for “Tomorrow.” Expeditus is said to have replied, “No, I’ll become a Christian today”, and threw the crow to the ground, stomping it to death. Much of the iconography of St. Expeditus pictures him saying “Hodie” (“Today!”) while crushing the crow beneath his feet as it is saying “Cras!” (“Tomorrow!’). But how Expeditus made his way to New Orleans is less clear. The best (and funniest) story is that during the French colonial period of New Orleans, some statues of saints were shipped to a church in New Orleans, perhaps Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Most of the crates were labeled with the name of the saint whose statue was within, but the last one was stamped only with the French word “Expedite” (literally “Rush!”). According to this story, the people at the church assumed that Expedite was the name of the saint whose statue was within the box, and it was set up in the church with that name! At any rate, St. Expedite soon became a favorite saint with the older Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. When she fixed love potions, or perhaps cast spells or curses, she taught her followers that prayers to St. Expedite would make everything happen sooner! And I’m reliably told that Expedite is much beloved in the Black Spiritual churches of New Orleans too.