Thursday, October 5, 2000

The Crescent City

New Orleans is one of the great loves of my life. Over the years she (it is most certainly of female gender.......or I'm unwittingly gay) has provided me with much warmth and affection, a ready and sumptuous welcome, and a tangible feeling of well-being when I allow myself the time to stop and savour her many-faceted delights. They are borne on the bayou breezes....... the smells of fried okra, crawfish, hot peppers, catfish & oysters cling to your senses, and are as exotic a stew as is to be found anywhere on the planet. So it goes for the music, and music is most certainly the life-blood of N'awlins. It is everywhere in a libidinous and carefree way, an extrovert whore who cares nothing about her weight & size, but only about her passions and her next shot or whatever to maintain the fun and fury of the moment.

And where there is music of this rare depth and commitment, there is an audience to match. We had just such an audience here two nights ago, at the House Of Blues (though the venue, great though it is, is probably irrelevant - it would have been the same at Tipitina's or elsewhere). From the moment we walked onstage, to the final rousing notes of the encore, the spirit in the house lifted us to the kind of heights we marvel at in the local musicians from the wards of New Orleans....the Nevilles, the Meters, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint & co, and Ellis, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, to name but a few. Then there are the lesser-known gems that we are beginning to discover, like Kermit Ruffins, a younger version of Louis Armstrong, who must find it impossible to frown in life, so thoroughly happy and alight is his persona when he performs with his B.B.Q. Kings. We were lucky enough to catch another of his sets last night, on our rare night off, at the old Bon Temps Roulee; you will hear more of that joint, as it features in a song I've been writing over the last four years. "Four years?" you say - yes, sometimes songs, like sculptures or paintings, take much revisiting for little bits of paint and clay that, over time, make the gradual but uncanny difference between the mediocre and the truly formed.

Even the sunset here is a work of art; the sun doesn't simply go down at seven o' clock, it puts on a performance worthy of the great emperor that it is, tumbling across the gulf coast sky with an intensity that blisters the senses and strips them of their paint, but like a great molten magnet it pulls you in towards the orange and red, turning to sapphire, and eventually to the deep ink, and, of course, the real reason for existence here - the night time.

Well, we have no more nights here this visit, so it's back to the road and the reality, as we head north towards Virginia, Washington DC and finally Philly area for the final three hits of this run. However, I must divert from the tour for a second to let you know about a rare and wonderful event that took place just one week ago, in Glasgow, Scotland, no less, and where the great and collective 'WE' were honoured by our own countrymen with a lifetime achievment award for services to Scottish music and culture over the last 28 years. It certainly was a glittering occasion, held in the magnificent City Chambers of Glasgow - an incredible marble edifice that was opened by Queen Victoria in 1888, and the likes of which would be unfathomable in this day and age of minimalist and economist architecture. By jove, in those days, budgets were for wimps...........when the design called for marble, ships were sent to empty the quarries of Italy to provide the pillars & pilasters of this towering statement, and the finest of painters were called in to decorate this Scottish Sistine Chapel with a pictoral ceiling sixty-odd feet above the floor of the main chamber. Quite awe-inspiring, and a fine place to be given the accolades of one's fellow musicians, media, and others of note in the fabric of Scottish life at the sharp end. Only Onnie and I were able to attend unfortunately, but, like Stuart Adamson who accepted on behalf of Big Country, we share the honour with everyone from the past to the present........Molly, Roger, Robbie, Hamish, Steve, Eliot, Fred, Adam, and also Pete & Tyger, who were such a big part of our resurrection.

The only problem was the leaving, next morning, to begin what was for us an incredibly arduous journey, first to London, then on to New York, where we met the rest of the troops, and a dawn flight to Houston, Texas, to begin this run through the South, which brings me back to New Orleans again, as we pack up the circus tent and prepare to leave here. A last but fleeting touch though, just to point out what a massive cultural (and geographical) divide between the opulence of our surroundings back in cool, rainy Glasgow last week, and our presence here in the heat and humidity of this swampy delta, where it seems all of America's substance is washed down the mighty Mississippi through this final cleansing stop, before being released into the Gulf for recycling, and rejuvenation in the form of rains returning northward to nourish the soul of the land.

Right now, however, and before this all begins to smack of a paid 'travelogue' for the Crescent City, I must answer those (two) of you who were clamouring for some political comment or other, in this season of election fervour. I think that my views are of very little importance in the present scheme of things, but the one thing I do want to impart to everyone right now, is that I hope you will all damn well get out there and VOTE. If you aren't registered, and are eligible, GO to the post office or wherever, and fill out the (very simple) form that allows you to practise what two world wars have been fought for and lives sacrificed to preserve - freedom and democracy. Only by your vote will the right man win. Only by your vote do you have the right to complain, criticise and control what happens afterwards. Only by your vote do you have a voice, and a very, very valuable one at that. Right now, ask yourself what either of the candidates would pay for your committed vote were you able to call them up and offer it unconditionally; quite a lot, I'm sure.

It doesn't matter if you adhere to the widespread body (there's that whore again) of opinion that neither candidate is made of Presidential stuff; I've heard that one before and it didn't make any difference to the fact that you're going to get at least four years of one of these characters, so you may as well take a moment to make a decision, and then put your choice in the only place it matters - the ballot box. Where I come from, everyone votes. Grannies are wheeled from sickbeds, workers miss their midday bite, chairmen are chaired (or whatever pompous and highly visible conveyance can be found) to the polling booth, but no one would dream of missing their chance to make their presence felt.
Otherwise, we might as well cancel the whole process, and then kids wouldn't get a day off school, and that's a scary thought, kids, isn't it?

Well, music's alive and well I'm delighted to report, no hurricanes have yet destroyed much of anything this season, Onnie & I have recoverd somewhat from our travels, and the general air of well-being is firmly in the tyres below us...............did some smart-ass just say 'bowels?' Let's not go there, please. Why scratch the otherwise perfect veneer of respectability that covers the rest of this piece, to reveal the soft underbelly of filth and cheap humour that lurks just beneath.

It is time to look northwards to fall weather and cool nights, so my advice to you all is to huddle together for warmth and safety. It may not protect you from everything, but it's a lot more fun than sleeping alone. Saves oil, too.

Time for Community coffee and beignets at the old French market, so I will pack up my ancient Remington, my quill pen and indian ink, and saunter - yes, saunter through The Quarter to gratify this last craving for "Storyville." Who knows, I might bump into the ghosts of Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden and Satchmo on the way home from The Nightshift..............