NEW ORLEANS — The cab careened past Washington Square and onto Frenchmen Street. It was close to 10 p.m., and the neighborhood was filled with locals adorned with tattoos, piercings and lots of ragged black accessories.
"The cab drivers call this 'Freak Street,'" our driver said. "Because a lot of crazy characters hang out here — guys in skirts with huge holes in their ears, that kind of thing. But we mean it in a good way. This is where all the music happens."
My Australian friend, Jordan, and I had spent the last few days finding novel ways to avoid Bourbon Street, where I had twice been accosted by drunken frat boys in flip-flops who wanted to ply me with foot-tall Hurricanes and make me listen to bad cover bands playing Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
I'm a bass player and an avid music fan who was raised on jazz, including plenty of Louis Armstrong. I was 14 on my first visit here, but in those days I was more interested in voodoo and swamps. Times change and so have I: Now, I was here on a sort of musical mission to find out whether Hurricane Katrina, which had slammed into the Big Easy in 2005, had drowned its rhythmic soul.
It hasn't, but you won't find it on Bourbon Street. Ask anyone here who knows anything about music and they'll tell you to head to Frenchmen Street (and the surrounding area) and its warren of live-music clubs. It's about a 15-minute walk from Bourbon Street, but it is light-years away. (Hurricane Isaac hit the city in late August but inflicted substantially less damage than Katrina.)
After spending some time here, you'll realize this: You can't know New Orleans unless you know its music, and you can't know its music unless you get acquainted with Frenchmen Street.
There you'll find rockabilly, bluegrass, R&B;, jazz, blues, Latin music, hip-hop, rock 'n' roll and more in the numerous live-music venues that line a two-block stretch. Well-known musicians, including Ellis Marsalis and Charmaine Neville, show up regularly. The drinks are cheap and cover charges minimal. Music is such a part of life here that some restaurants on the busy strip feature a talented jazz trio with a tip jar.
Set aside a night just to roam the area and you'll begin to find the legitimate musical soul of the city in the characters who often pop up here: the R&B-fueled; majesty of native son Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews or the legendary post-punk, experimental noise rocker Quintron and his wife, Miss Pussycat.
How to pick your spots? Let your ears guide you. Wander from place to place; spend a few minutes or a few hours in this joint or that. Want something more formal? Look at schedules of acts online and plan your night that way.
We needed to be well-fed to sustain ourselves on our harmonic pilgrimage, so we started, as any club-hopping night in the Crescent City should, with fried chicken and rabbit-and-sausage jambalaya at Coop's Place, a hole-in-the-wall on neighboring Decatur Street. When it comes to décor, Coop's sets the bar pretty low: scratched wooden tables, a large, square bar and bathrooms outside in an alley.
The low-key ambience blended seamlessly with the down-home cooking: The fried chicken was juicy, crisp and golden, and it bumped up nicely against the slightly sweet coleslaw. We sampled the fried oysters with tangy tartar sauce and washed it all down with a house Sazerac, a New Orleans cocktail standard made of rye, bitters and sugar.
Sated, we followed our ears to a bar called the Abbey (also on Decatur), which our cab driver called "the nexus of all things dark." She should have added "and drunk." Inside this tiny dive we found a rollicking Irish-influenced bluegrass band called the Woodchuck Ramblers, which appears here on Sundays. The musicians played so loudly they didn't need microphones or amps.
"Got fat, got angry, started hating myself," the lead singer shouted while a fiddler sawed away and a banjo player kept the beat. They were sloppy but fun, and the beer-swilling punk rockers who filled the bar loved and taunted them in equal measures.
In contrast was the Vaso Ultra Lounge, where the Young Fellaz Brass Band rocked its way to heaven. Dressed in jeans, white T-shirts and tennis shoes, the members of the six-piece band played tirelessly, as befitting their youth. I was reminded of the frantic scene in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," in which, upon seeing a great tenor horn player, Dean Moriarty jumps around shouting, "Blow, man, blow!"
Before I could do likewise, Jordan dragged me out of Vaso onto Frenchmen Street, and we were soon sucked into the slightly more sedate Maison, a true jazz-style club with small circular tables. Here, the Lazy Boys played jazzy funk to a packed house. Performers, sometimes just drifting in off the street, kept hopping onstage to sing or play a horn.
As luck would have it, we were sitting next to one of the guest stars, a beautiful young vocalist named Nayo Jones who sang a sultry cover of "Route 66." Jones, who made her New Orleans Jazz Fest debut earlier this year, was sitting at a table with her father, Doc Jones, and Travis "Trumpet Black" Hill, who was gearing up for a gig at the Hollywood Bowl opening for the Neville Brothers.
"That's the beautiful thing about New Orleans," Nayo Jones said. "There's music everywhere, and we just sit in with each other."
We spilled out of the Maison in a kind of trance. It was close to 2 a.m., but discordant strains from club after club hung in the swampy air. We walked into Cafe Negril, a tiny bar where Ruby Moon and her Vicarious Pleasure Band wrestled "House of the Rising Sun" to the ground. Then it was off to the Spotted Cat, where Pat Casey and the New Sound played a mix of modern and classic jazz spiced with Latin swing and funk from a tiny stage. I had never seen a drummer hit as hard or as well.
I ended the night in line for the bathroom at the Cat. I waited for what seemed like forever until a young tattooed girl with neon red hair emerged, smiling shyly.
"I'm sorry, it's just that there's a piano in there," she said, pointing to the bathroom. "And I couldn't stop playing."