Beignets Don’t Travel Well

My Christmas present to myself this year was a 3 week trip to New Orleans, living in an historic apartment building in the French Quarter. I thought I was running away from my life, but in retrospect what I think I was really doing was running into my new life. The time had come to close the door on the last year and I needed to find a way to put a box around it, to draw a line and say “this was once important to me, but it’s not any more”.  And to spend time thinking, really thinking, about what my future might look like.  I needed contemplation space.

The other thing I learned, with nothing but time on my hands and no particular plans every day, was to live totally and completely in the present. Not to regret the past, not to wish for the future, but just to immerse yourself in every day and completely enjoy the here and now. After living for the last year wishing for a future that often never happened, then a couple of months of wallowing in the past, learning all over again how to just be present, right then and there, enjoying every minute of every day was a gift.

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My first night in town my landlord said to me, “well cher, some people are born in New Orleans and some of us are just New Orleaneans in our heart”.  That’s me, I found the home of my heart.  Note to self – always live places where people call you”cher”.   I’ve heard some people say New Orleans is dirty, they don’t like the food, service is slow and nothing works quite right.   I guess . . . but I never really noticed. I was too busy falling in love with gas lit cobblestone streets, French Caribbean architecture, lace work iron railings, amazing music and food.  I can remember so clearly walking home at night on the cobbled streets with the gas lights and the old houses and the music, it was just magical.  A place with a decadent sense of history, where time hasn’t so much slowed down, because there is too damn much going on 24/7,  but where it seems to stretch to encompass so much in every single day.  Where music, good food, strong drinks and the company of friends is not just fun, but a sacred trust. Where laissez le bon temps roullez is embraced as a truly worthwhile way to live.  The home of my heart.

I spent Christmas alone and I wondered if I would be lonely.  But once I got away from the commercial in-your-face-ness of Christmas in the cold and frosty northlands, I stopped feeling overwhelmed by the the need to have a “perfect life”  for that one day.  It’s a day, just like lots of others, and spending it lying on the couch watching old movies was great.  I might also have drank an entire bottle of champagne myself, but heck, it was Christmas.   New Orleans has  some interesting local traditions like the Cajun bonfires and Mr. Bingles.  I’m going back next year and doing a whole blog just on those.

Christmas Mr. Bingle

It was the most relaxing Christmas I can remember.  I did take myself out for a really, really excellent dinner on Christmas Eve – I like the dressing up part, and it was so much fun to see everyone out and about in all their finery.  I went to Restaurant R’evolution, the hottest new place in NOLA with chefs Rick Tramonto from Chicago bringing his big city sensibilities and style to partner with John Folse, a celebrated southern chef.  It’s a marriage made in heaven!  A wallet buster, but worth every dime.

The weather warmed up Boxing Day, so I went out to explore Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square.  The park became one of my favourite places to just hang out in the sun and read a book.  I loved sitting there, surrounded by the history of music on the bench by Satchmo’s statue.

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And Congo Square itself was . . .overwhelming.  The area where the square is located  has been used for celebrations since the time of the Houmas Indians and is considered sacred ground.   During the city’s Spanish and French colonial periods it was a public market and a place where slaves would gather on Sundays to drum, dance and celebrate one afternoon of joy.   These African traditions gradually became incorporated into the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, Second Lines and eventually what became jazz, rhythm and blues – the birthplace of the music I love.  In a haunted city, I didn’t come across a more haunting and moving place, you never wanted to speak above a whisper there.

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Mardi Gras Indian at Jazzfest
Mardi Gras Indian at Jazzfest

I loved exploring the cemeteries of New Orleans, with their above-ground crypts because the water table is too high. I went on the day after the world didn’t end (December 22nd) to give thanks at the grave of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. The 1st St Louis Cemetery is only a block out of the Quarter, but you have to make sure you go at the right time, because it closes early.  I  left a Canadian toonie and it worked out pretty well because I got what I asked for.

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But no matter how enjoyable it is having lots of time to yourself, sooner or later it’s great to have company as well, not to mention an opportunity to show off your mad new tour guide skills.   My friend E came back to NOLA for the New Years Eve weekend and it could not have been more fun.   There were a few twists – I had to give up my apartment in the Quarter and we moved out to what could best be described as a “bohemian” inn in the Fauberg Marigny.  On the upside, it was only a 5 minute walk to Frenchman’s Street and we did get to see a whole other part of the city, a part where real people live and there are no line ups for breakfast.  The best coffee shop was the Who Dat Cafe, a super casual locals spot to hang out and recover from last night.  Sitting in rainy Vancouver on a Sunday morning I miss the Who Dat!

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Downside, well, you know if you can’t laugh at being in one of the worst motels ever, then you need to get a sense of humour.  I thought that the claw foot tubs with showers would be romantic and bohemian.  Actually they are just short, low pressure and really, really hard to get in and out of without falling over! And all those damn curtains.  Give me a glass front walk in with rain shower any time!  And no-one needs a guy out in the courtyard playing Reveille early on New Years Day morning – but I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard.

We spent a lot of time playing the “Walk Around and Stop in the Bar Where the Live Music Sounds Good” game, which is a fantastic pastime in a city where the music is always great, street drinking is legal and go cups are a way of life.  If you get bored, or don’t like the music (like that ever happens) well you just grab your go cup and move on.  We well and truly finished the 15 Most Iconic Dive Bars in New Orleans list, then added a few of our own.  Loved Auntie Tiki’s and The Abbey was just plain nasty.

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The Erin Rose was not on the official dive list, but it made the grade solely on account of the bathrooms.  Spent a Sunday there watching the last Saints game of the season and spinning the wheel of no fortune – every time the Saints scored a touchdown (a lot that day) we had to spin the wheel for drink specials.  Who knew shots of Jameson went so well with Bloody Mary’s?  And in one of those days where time just keep stretching to encompass more and more fun, we got a call from friends who said they “had a good day at the track” and we should meet them for a late, hilarious Spanish tapas dinner at Lolas.  The cab ride out there was an adventure (see note above about Bloody s and Jameson shots) and we had to wait a while for our table (all the better to order more wine) but it was worth the wait for the incredible paella.

Somewhere around the end of dinner we got around to the story of E being back in NOLA for New Years and his long, and so far unsuccessful, wait for a real New Orleans beignet. As all locals will attest, beignets are only good hot and fresh at one of two places in the city and nowhere else in the entire world. We hadn’t managed to get into Cafe du Monde in the Quarter, it was lined up around the block with everyone in town for NYE. The only solution, declared our local heroes,  was to head to the Morning Call Coffee Stand, a New Orleans’ tradition for over 140 years and way, way off the tourist route. We piled 6 adults into the back of a pick up truck (seemed like a good idea at the time – but don’t they all!) and were soon throwing down chicory cafe au lait and hot beignets smothered in powdered sugar. Ten minutes before we were stuffed with paella, but we hit those doughnuts like we hadn’t eaten in a week.

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And then it was New Years Eve, a night with a dubious reputation at best.  I’ve spent NYE in a few party cities around the world, and this was, without a doubt, the best NYE ever.  Hands down.  Although we had avoided Bourbon Street all weekend,  it just didn’t seem right to not at least take a walk there and witness the debauchery.  We  started at Bourbon and Canal and made our way through the Quarter.  Along the way met a couple from Bavaria who had been to Tombstone 14 times to see the gunfights (crazy about cowboys, I guess?) and a guy made up as a cat who wanted to bite people.  Hmmm . . .And there were all the balcony parties and beads.   Just to set the record straight – I didn’t come home with beads!

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It was time to get out of the Quarter and back over to the Marigny,  with a refuelling stop at the Balcony Music Club.   BMC with tt’s tiny back bar, awesome beer selection and hidden courtyard where Chef Larry serves everything from Boudin balls to the best Jambalaya in town had become a favourite and there was no fancy sit-down hotel event that could have been better.

The only place to be at midnight was street partying on  Frenchman’s, which was so epic we almost missed midnight!  Caught it with 2 minutes to spare and brought in 2013 with style, and a huge fireworks display shimmering over the  Mississippi River.  It was magic, maybe my favourite New Years Eve ever and  I can’t imagine spending it any other way.  Sorry, no pictures except the ones in my head, I was too busy having the best night ever!!

The one singer I managed to miss, twice, was John Boutte (always leave something undone so you have to go back), so here he is serving beignets and killing Sam Cooke in the first season of Treme.

And although he’s gone, Coco Robicheaux was a legend in New Orleans and he loved to play at our favourite dive, the Apple Barrel.  His other favourite place to play was Eddie’s Attic in ATL.

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Head Over Heels with Blue Rodeo

I’m heading out tonight to see one of my favourite bands of all time, Blue Rodeo, the Canadian alt-country/alt-blues/alt-rock band that have been playing the sound track of my life for, well, most of my life.  From university days at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, through the saloons of Alberta,  rowdy parties at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver and those wonderful, intimate shows at tiny venues in California, I’ve loved every single show.   I’m working on another longer post that is challenging me a lot, so I thought I’d entertain myself (and hopefully some of you) with a round-up of my Top 10 Blue Rodeo songs.   What an awesome way to spend a rainy Saturday morning, going through their songbook and picking my favourites.   Loved it!  And I’m really excited to hear them in the amazing Orpheum Theatre – row 6 for me!  Last time I was at the Orpheum was in June for the Avett Brothers, now THAT was a show!!

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So here, in no particular order, are my Top 10 Blue Rodeo songs!

1.  Bad Timing  (5 Days In July).   Ok, this is my all time favourite, and it better be, I had some of the notes incorporated into my ink work    I still remember Jim Cuddy walking out with his mandolin to the front of the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and singing this like his heart was broken.  He stole mine that night!  And one of the coolest things about the video is that the beautiful woman is Jim’s wife, Rena.  They are still married and he says often and proudly that she is the love of his life and he couldn’t have done it without her.  It’s no wonder we adore him.

2.  After the Rain (Casino) Ok, this one might be tied for all time favourite and it has a history.  Way back when,  before Jim played piano in concert,he played this one on guitar.  Then one show he had a piano on stage, sat down and played this and brought the house down.  He’s played at least a couple of songs on piano every show since.   It also has a sad story that he still tells;  he was singing this at Malkin Bowl one night, went for the falsetto and  . . nothing.  It took two years and surgery to fix his vocal chords, but I’m so thrilled that he once again belts out those high notes with such confidence.   And it has one of my very favourite lyrics  “Tonight as I’m losing control, I will drink to the queen of my soul”.  Don’t we all wish we were the queen of someone’s soul?

3.  Trust Yourself (Casino)  Oh my, they are sooo young in this video!  And so rock star (well at least as much as BR ever gets).    When they play this one live the guitar work is always a long blistering jam where they get to show their mad skills.   Talented musicians doing their thing – really, really well.

3.  Hasn’t Hit Me Yet (Five Days in July)  Here is a big piece of the Blue Rodeo magic, what’s made it work for so many years – the collaboration between Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.   They have known each other and have been playing in bands together since high school.  Good years, really bad years, addictions, artistic differences, the whole gamut. It must be like another marriage.  Their enduring partnership and mutual respect is so unusual in the industry, it’s a testament to the type of people they are.

4.  Sad Nights (The Days in Between).  Jim wrote this song about their time in New York and his wife-to-be leaving after the summer.   He didn’t perform it live for a very long time then back in about 2009 they were playing an acoustic concert on the tiny backstage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica and I got to hear it again.  It was magic.  In fact that whole tour was magic, they were trying out a new keyboard player and played their entire songbook at a whole bunch of tiny,  iconic venues up and down the West Coast – The Mint in LA, the Independent in SFO, McCabe’s in Santa Monica.  It was so much fun travelling up the coast seeing them every night.   And if you’ve ever said goodbye to someone you care a lot about, knowing it’s going to be months till you see them again . . .well you will get this one.

5.  Til I Gain Control Again (5 Days In July) Although this is not an original BR song (it was written by Rodney Crowell)  I still love their version and the lyrics are amazing.

You know I love to spend my mornings

Like sunlight dancing on your skin (ok if anyone ever sings that for me, I’m done for!!)

I’ve never gone so wrong

As for telling lies to you

What you see is what I am

There is nothing I could hide from you

You see me better than I can

6.   Head Over Heels ( 5 Days in July )  Makes me want to put on my dancing shoes, jump up and dance around the living room – always!   “It’s the little things that get you through, like the same sun rising on me as over you” .   What a great song about life on the road, waiting to go home to your lover.  I think (?) Jim wrote this one when they were in Australia representing for Canada at the Olympics.    And yes, there are way better videos but we were at this show at the Mint in LA, that over enthusiastic “woo hoo” at the beginning is yours truly (but only that one, not the subsequent!!) and the head bobbing in and out of frame is my partner in crime for the road trip.  There was a fair bit of tequila involved that night, just saying 🙂  It was waaaay too much fun.

7.   House of Dreams (Diamond Mine)  Wow, going way back into the distant past!!   A great song, is a great song, is a great song.  They just don’t get old.  And there is that gorgeous, haunting guitar from Greg.

8.  Walk Like You Don’t Mind (Palace of Gold  ) Palace of Gold came out after a 3 year hiatus – we were starting to wonder if BR would ever tour again.  Thankfully they resolved their differences, put out a new record and went back on the road – with a horn section.   If they play this tonight, everyone will be out of their seats (or at least I will be – yup, I’m always that girl at these shows!!)

9.  One More Night (The Things We Left Behind). From their most recent album, recorded at their own studio in Toronto, The Woodshed.  It’s a great story.

10.  Lost Together (Lost Together).   The only song to close the post with, because Greg’s been closing shows with this song forever.   It’s the BR lovefest.   And I found this video with Steve Earle sitting in!

And the other reason I love these guys,  not only are they talented musicians  but they are also great supporters of the entire music community in Canada.  Sarah McLachlan got her start as their back up singer, Kathleen Edwards has opened for them many times over the years and the incredible Anne Lindsay (another friend from high school) comes out often to work her particular brand of fiddle magic with them.  And they have nurtured so many great (and some not so great!) young bands, taking them on the road to open for them.

Hope you enjoyed my trip through the BR archives as much as I did – I can’t wait for the show tonight.