Like many locals, I love catching live music out on a weeknight or weekend. I am also protective over my nightlife environment and music venues as many other residents are. New Orleanians are fun-loving and easy-dealing until someone steps in front of their view, or squats in chairs too close, or far too early for a show. I rarely listen to bands for a venue’s “scene”. I go for a cold drink and a hot, humid bar where people are squeezed in too tight. As New Orleanians, we love the ability to interact with the band and listen to music to forget about our work day.
Bourbon Street is off-limits, labeled as a “no-go” zone, for locals with any dignity. The local attractions (Lafitte’s, Bourbon Pub, Oz) are small gems that many still consider a watering hole despite their constant grumbling about amateur, visiting drinkers. Frenchman was the hideaway when I first moved to the city. It was a place locals could still buy cheap well drinks in clear Solo cups. Yuki was a favorite of my friends not only to eat or drink inside but to use as “home base” during big festival weekends. St. Claude was another hideaway, hidden among the camouflage of tattooed patrons and dirty gutter punks loitering with dogs. As I’ve grown through my “work hard, play hard” decade I’m not sure if the changes on these streets are more noticeable because of my hindsight, or because of the clientele that now loiters about the street and neutral ground.
The beauty of New Orleans’ music venues is that they aren’t concerts. Musicians don’t rely on lights or multi-million dollar sound equipment or stagehands to help them perform at their best. The singers, guitar players, piano soloists, and drummers hit all the right notes because they are enjoying the intimate proximity of patrons who love the feeling of being involved with the music. In New Orleans, musicians don’t leave the stage behind curtains or backdoors. They jump off into the crowd and amble up to the bar just like everyone else.
One of my favorite locations to witness these interactions is the Saturn Bar. This was my first venue for Mod Night and dancing like no one should watch. The beaten floor is always packed as people filter through the bottleneck between the bar and the “stage” trying not to knock over instruments or trip on power cords. “Krazy” Kajuns was a highlight of any late night for its lighter-fluid well drinks that will give anyone the ability to sing on stage in front of 200 strangers.
Before heading off across the street to Hi-Ho or Siberia let’s consider why St. Claude is worth mentioning. Of course, it’s a major thoroughfare that connects the 9th Ward and the city. It has seen a LOT of new developments over the course of ten years but has retained its earned reputation of the “nitty, gritty, dirty” part of the city. Now, as the entire city feels inundated with new faces from tourism and new paint and construction on our beloved locations more and more residents have wondered what will happen to St. Claude.
The progression of tourists seeking music and experiences is increasing. The flood line has left Bourbon Street and swallowed Frenchman (a.k.a “Bourbon Lite”) whole. Every big show or holiday weekend brings those tide lines into St. Claude now. Where will the influx of more tourists go after St. Claude is saturated? Are these three areas still different experiences?
Now, Kajuns has replaced the lightheartedness of karaoke with large parties of overly-intoxicated patrons looking to jostle and elbow their way onto the song list. The bartenders have tried to overcharge me three times in a row, or simply not answer my request to get my check, perhaps hoping for an overnight tab and an automatic 20% gratuity. What was once a hideaway for semi-private members of the LGBT community is now seen as the “Cat’s Meow on St. Claude”.
The Hi-Ho Lounge is still somewhat of itself, if not packed more with strangers than neighborhood night owls. I can’t blame all bar-goers, however, because let’s be honest, I’m at the end of my twenties and weeknight jaunts past 10 PM aren’t in my wheelhouse anymore. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. New restaurants like Kebab, or those inside St. Roch Market, have given residents from other parts of town a reason to make the trek past the quarter and into an “edgy” part of town.
I remember living on the 3600 block of Burgundy and seeing Jaguars, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benz cars lined up on the block to eat at Maurepas. During the daylight no parking spots were available, but come nightfall all vehicles over $10,000 in worth were gone. When I look at St. Claude I am reminded of 18-wheelers headed towards Arabi, cars parked on the neutral ground, and white, dirty people wrapped in too much leather. Night outs there consisted of taking a taxi to the front door of an establishment. We never walked around there unless the group was three people or larger. Mixed in with the well-meaning older gays of the surrounding Marigny area were houses filled with psychic readers, musicians, blue-collar workers, and the bare bones house used by squatters of varying ages and ethnicities.
Now, Land Rovers are parked on the neutral ground and I’ve seen a pair or two of the Chubbie shorts in Hi-Ho. It may be that I’m jealous of the new found freedom of walking to Frenchman and St. Claude and feeling slightly safer than years before. I may be jealous that I’m no longer going to bump into friends randomly on a Tuesday and drink a beer with them. Or, I may now have an outside view of how the streets around downtown are changing. I drop in on occasion and have more people stop and ask directions than friendly faces smiling and grabbing me for hugs. Sure, the neighborhoods are changing as they are all over, but at least the mentality of the strip is still consistent. People want to listen to great music, watch colorful shows, eat amazing food from local pop-ups, and be where the action is. That will hopefully never change.