Culture Maven: A noteworthy survival in the Gulf

New Orleans JazzFest celebrates city’s spirit despite the scattered ruins

Bob’s back at Galatoire’s. Sumptuous and gracefully worn, it’s New Orleans finest old-line eatery. Both survived Katrina. So far.

For the last several years, Bob has waited on our gang at an annual Galatoirean feast the night before the first day of JazzFest.

That the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fair itself would survive Katrina was far from a given. Its survival is the work of some supreme spirit force that bestows gifts on the flock.

Bob is a slightly disheveled thirtysomething waiter in an ill-fitting tux, the guy with a gleam in his eye and Stratford-on-Avon-quality double-take when diners are as offbeat as he. Despite his charming befuddlement, he’s a marvelous server in Galatoire’s mirrored main room, the one where the city’s gentry celebrates birthdays and lingering Friday afternoons.

That he and the restaurant are still around is a testament to this waylaid town’s tenacity.
Galatoire’s reopened New Year’s Day. Bob arrived in the nick of time.

Bob the vagabond: “I left town the day before Katrina hit. My brown lab, Bosco, and I put 9,000 miles on my Celica. Just driving around the country.

“I came back the day before the restaurant opened. I lost my house. Got a little insurance money for it. (He shrugs.) I’m renting now until I see how all this shakes out.”

Randy’s back in town, too. Or so I’m told. But not at his traditional spot. For 22 years, Randy was a bellhop at the Wyndham Canal Place, and its predecessor, the Westin. He knew how to make visitors to his luxe hotel feel special. He remembered faces from year to year, remembered who would like a bottle of water at the end of the jog, remembered who wanted their car in the morning and at what time to get to the festival. Randy pocketed some tip money.

According to another bellhop there, a new guy, Randy returned after Katrina. Then he left the hotel when business, especially conventions, was slow to pick up. Now he works for FEMA, “measuring yards for trailers.”

One mystery, among many in this forsaken treasure called New Orleans, is the sweet elderly man who for years rented us a car space. His home — if it’s still his home — is on DeSaix, a middle-class street along the backside of the Fairgrounds Race Track where JazzFest is held. The statue of Virgin Mary in his front yard seemed just right. He was soft-spoken. Trusting we’d return, he saved our spot every day.

His house is boarded up, the water line high on the battered siding. The statue has floated off its mooring, its whereabouts unknown. The base where it rested is covered with muck. There’s an abandoned surfboard at the curb.

DeSaix is Desolation Row. There were no neighbors to ask of his whereabouts.

A block away, the world’s greatest music fest in the best music town extant opened to boffo crowds two weeks ago. For 10 days New Orleans was alive again with visitors in unexpectedly large numbers. Restaurants were jammed. Galleries along Royal were packed. Revelers boogied ’til the break of day on Bourbon and Oak.

Yet the big question remains, its answer elusive nine months after this glorious, uniquely oddball, crescent sliver of a burg was devastated.

Whither New Orleans?

The Big Easy — that’s always been a misnomer. Genteel? Perhaps that’s a trait of this slow-paced city. If you live in Audubon Place with its expansive pristine lawns, or brunch on Sunday at Commander’s Palace. Make that past tense. Commander’s hasn’t reopened.

Gentle? Never. This is a town that’s lived on the edge since dandies traded slaves in Congo Square, a hard metropolis where danger lurks beyond the gleam of every street light.

Before Katrina, hardly a turista who spilled a Café du Monde beignet’s powdered sugar at 2 a.m. had heard of or seen the Lower Ninth Ward. Even though it was home to much of the city’s abundant working and welfare class, its future trombonists, its hotel clean-up crews and oyster shuckers.

To get to that hardest hit part of town from the French Quarter, you can drive down Claiborne, which runs roughly east/west under the interstate. The median, block after block after block, is overrun with the carcasses of abandoned cars. The Ninth Ward itself is a lonely place, pretty much abandoned. Few buildings of any type aren’t boarded up. Fewer people roam the streets.

The trip is not for the faint of heart. Those from the area who have survived, and work elsewhere in town, urge visitors to take a look. “Yes, go see it. The country needs to know nothing is being done.” Many who have fashioned some living space midst the ruin look warily as rental cars full of gawking out-of-towners creep slowly through the detritus.

There are reminders of Katrina everywhere. Along fabled St. Charles, where the trolleys don’t run. There are empty storefronts in the Garden District and at Riverbend.

Canal Street splits the city, from the Mississippi along the edge of Vieux Carre to midtown. Ten-foot piles of refuse litter its sidewalks just blocks from Rampart. At the corner of Carrollton and Fountainbleu, sheets of roofing, instead of moss, hang from a gorgeous tree. Only the lush verdancy along Esplanade masks destruction.

Yet this has always been a town of survivors. New Orleanians are a hardy breed. The spirit breathes. From many you hear the voice of local music legend Allen Toussaint, “You know we can. Yes we can can.”
Those who returned for Mardi Gras say it was something special, more a community celebration than it had been for decades.

JazzFest, too, was about rejuvenation, no requiems allowed. Annually this is the best of music festivals anywhere on the globe. That its existence was in doubt, that it was saved by fortitude and big corporate donations, especially, ironically, Shell Oil, made this year more special than ever. It was a 10-day oasis amid the ravagement.

During the opening set on the big stage, Lafayette’s Dave Egan sang “I’m a Dreamer.”

Nancy made it back. She’s been selling soft-shell crab po boy tickets at the same festival food stand for 29 years. “I retired,” she admitted. “But I had to come back this year. I couldn’t miss it. I’m so grateful. I only lost six trees in my yard.”

It was fitting that the Panorama Jazz Band played the first set at Fais Do Do, always the most fun of the festival’s nine stages. Their second line, Klezmer, Caribbean joy was infectious. Word is they were the first group to plug in on the streets post Katrina.

Galactic, a bunch of young New Orleans turks, steeped in the funk tradition, is now a major player on the national scene. They ended their set “with a song for New Orleans.” For a moment anyway, they shredded the negativity with a haunting Zeppelinized version of Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks.”

South African Hugh Masakela knows heartache. A man of color, he broke free from apartheid decades ago to world renown. He played the Congo Square stage. “Stimela (the Train Song)” always turns the spine to ice.

Especially this time around. When he screamed the train’s whistle, it melted the hardest heart. He was a great choice to play this year’s festival in this musical melting pot where no sound is foreign.

On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen, with his new folk orchestra, was a dicey choice to close the first weekend. “What’s he got to do with New Orleans?” asked traditionalists.

I don’t know. But I do know this. His set of classic American folk and protest songs, tales of empowerment and overcoming rendered rollicking and anthemic, fit just right. It was brilliantly conceived. Brilliantly executed. Brilliantly received.

He opened with “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” He had me at “Oh.”

Despite the joy and sense of renewal fostered by the celebration that was JazzFest, the jury is still out on New Orleans.

Acme Oyster Bar, sporting a new neon sign, is open and jammed. Felix’s Oyster Bar across the street is dark, nailed shut.

How does the reclamation kick into gear with an inert federal government standing idly by?
Where to start?

Fats Domino, outside of Louis Armstrong the city’s most prominent musical son, was to play the closing set of the festival. Earlier in the day he was hospitalized. Later, after being released, he greeted an adoring crowd. But he didn’t play.

Will Fats be back?

Will there be a vibrant New Orleans to host JazzFest?

And when Satchmo and Gabriel gather to jam, when they blow their horns to honor New Orleans, the greatest of horn towns, what duet will they play?

Will it be reveille?

Or will it be taps?