Saturday, April 20, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles, Part 1: French Quarter Fest

Several years ago, Keith and I were soaking in a sublime vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico when we started seeing reports of Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans.  We watched the dire weather predictions warily, thinking surely it couldn't be as horrific as they were predicting, could it?  As we were all soon to discover, Katrina proved catastrophic to New Orleans. Now here we were, many years later, reveling in a truly delicious week in NOLA itself while we watched the tense events unfold in Boston.  My mind was alive with lovely memories of Boston, another beloved city to me, while devastating images of the Boston Marathon tragedy flickered on the hotel flatscreen. The great city of Boston would prove far stronger than its challenges as the Big Easy itself did. The comparison of the two challenges is far from exacting, a devastating Act of God vs. an act of terrorism, even if it was done in the name of God. Both cities, however, would stand against unimaginable odds, and Boston will go on as the Big Easy has.

Boston has already shown its mettle and is getting back to normal but how does a city recover
from the absolute devastation and loss wrought by Hurricane Katrina? Maybe that's why I felt such a soul-deep connection with New Orleans on this visit.  I was here on a brief party weekend many a pre-Katrina moon ago and while there was plenty of over-the-top celebrating going on, I didn't truly immerse myself in the culture of this amazing city then. That said, I had an almost visceral reaction to watching the news reports of the Katrina devastation..it was not unusual to be empathetic in times of great tragedy like this, but I couldn't shake the vivid Katrina images and stories and yet I could not stop watching, when typically I would abandon such wall-to-wall coverage from being overcome by the bleak reports but where Katrina was concerned, I couldn't shake it.  I felt compelled to go volunteer to help and yet I never did fro various reasons.  Many volunteers did go help though, including friends of mine, and NOLA while forever changed, inched toward recovery.  Since Katrina, I have closely followed various reports of New Orleans coming back, but I wondered how different it would be post-Katrina. I later found myself so caught up in the David Simon HBO series Treme and its riveting depiction of the city's music and food culture, that my appetite was whetted in every way to return.  Return I would, and soon I would soon learn the Big Easy was better then ever, and that its rebirth has made NOLA that much sweeter, in my opinion. 

The opportunity to return came when Keith's national Mainstreet conference was taking
place in New Orleans this year.  We arrived on a Saturday night and once off the plane, the spell was already beginning to weave, in the cab of all places, with the windows rolled down and feeling the already sultry breezes as we sped toward downtown. The feeling became overwhelming as we found ourselves in traffic that even the cab driver seemed stunned by. We finally got to the Ambassador Hotel where we would stay.  The Ambassador is a historic and recently renovated little charmer of a hotel in the thriving Arts District of New Orleans; all exposed brick and ceiling fans. We headed off toward the French
Quarter and the overwhelming feeling was creeping back as the 30th Annual French Quarter Festival was happening and the streets were crazy crowded.  As Jazz Fest has become so huge with its roster of national headliners, the French Quarter Festival has become center stage for the plethora of local music New Orleans is known for.  Now, I've attended many an overcrowded event over the years,  but this was different, though; it FELT different in a good way and it ain't easy to summarize why it feels different in New Orleans, but here goes....the crowds may feel intimidating at first, but soon you are wrapped in the amazing food aromas emanating from various sources and soon, you hear the music that stops you in your tracks and spins you right 'round until you are dancing with complete strangers in the middle of the street and finally, you are indeed spellbound by it all.

After wading for some time through the raucous crowd, we discovered a lull in the action as we walked into Jackson Square.  The Square was thick with festival-goers but many were still and mesmerized by the Opera at Dusk performance from the third floor balcony of a corner building overlooking the Square.  The male singer's strong tenor transfixed the crowd in the shadow of the stately St. Louis Cathedral and despite the myriad distractions of some of the Fest's more eccentric characters, we were all taken by this singular soaring voice.  Newly zen from the opera performance, we entered Jackson Square Park just in
time to score some fine local Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House grub: two Po' Boys, one a finger-lickingly spicy Bourbon BBQ Shrimp, the other a Roast Beef Debris with thick roast beef slathered in gravy.  Also armed an ice-cold Abita Amber Ale, I found a spot of wall to lean against down the street and we dug into that crusty, flaky bread laden with flavors. Our favorite was the BBQ Shrimp with its spicy bourbon and rosemary BBQ sauce and meaty shrimp but the Debris was no slouch.  The spot by the wall we found was also near

the Chevron live music stage for the French Quarter Fest.  Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience were on and indeed and while there wasn't much room to dance where I was, I still found myself boogieing in place to this way-fun show.  Not a wise move dancing with a messy Debris Po'Boy for sure, but there I was, bouncin' to that groovy zydeco wearing a big, dumb grin with gravy on my chin.  Blissed out, indeed.

We sauntered our way back to the hotel where we decided to enjoy one last drink at the sidewalk cafe while soaking in the warm, breezy evening and prime people watching before retiring for the evening.  What a marvelous first night in N'awlins.  The week was only beginning, though...

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