New Orleans

I was in New Orleans for several days and within the first hour it has become my favorite city in America. Music, food, roaches.

There was a family of musicians playing on the street in the French Quarter: clarinet, sousaphone, drum kit. It was the most amazing clarinet and sousaphone playing I’ve ever heard. Here’s a brief sample.

Football! I went to a New Orleans Saints vs the Carolina Panthers game. Now since the Saints won the Superbowl last year, Saints fans are borderline fanatical. Here are several pictures and clips from the game (they won 16 – 14, and by the end I somewhat knew was going on in the game)

I made it to my scalped seat in the nosebleeds just as the anthem started. A member of the New Orleans Opera Association sang, and while I couldn’t see or hear any spectators singing, most of them stood at attention with their hands over their hearts and gave a huge cheer once the anthem soared to a finish. I ended up sitting beside Bobby, a diehard Saints fan who has had the same seats for his season tickets since he was a boy and was surrounded by his family, his boyhood friends and their families, and who was my helpful narrator during the game. You can hear him in this track, and others below. The dB level in that place was unbelievable: I believe it was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard a group of unamplified humans make. I didn’t bring my sound level meter with me, unfortunately, but I would peg the level to be between 100 and 105dB. I put in earplugs.

Beer vendors hiked up the stadium stairs like mountain goats selling overpriced, low grade American beers. (Water was $4). In the track below, after Bobby gets a beer, the crowd starts it’s now-familiar pattern of cheering. When the offense has control of the ball, the crowd makes as much noise as possible to try to ruin their play. The quality of the cheering changes drastically when the home team makes a good play and the cheering switches from catcall/booing to happy screams. You can hear music, ads, and the announcer playing on huge speakers suspended like moons from the ceiling of the Superdome. The clicking you can hear during the cheering was a woman across the aisle hitting wooden spoons together. Bobby also goes on to tell me about why everyone loves the Saints, and goes into the economics of the area.

After the Saints score their first (and any subsequent) touchdown, the fans do a collective dance to the “Stand Up and Get Crunked” song and do a lot of cheering.

At the half time entertainment marching bands take over the field. There must have been over 200 performers on the field, and the sound carried up to my seat fairly well. During the Lady Gaga number, each group of instruments had sweet dance moves to carry out, as well as during the familiar “Get Crunked” song. Catch the announcer at the end of this track – he was worth the ticket!

Bells ringing from the church in Jackson Square. I waited for the 4 o’clock chime, and instead got a 5 minute chorus of real bells for a wedding.  The church had ‘quiet’ signs in front of it, but the buskers, traffic, pedestrians and the church bells themselves didn’t bode well for whatever quiet the signs were hoping for.

I met a fellow wanderer named Jack, and we wandered together for part of a day through the Gretna Heritage festival (highlights being a 4-trombone rock group called Bonerama, and the Temptations resplendent in blue sequined suits). Then we came across the fair tagged on to the festival. I went on my first circus ride, and don’t have to do that again for another 25 years. But the track below is full of bells and whistles and happy circus-goers as Jack and I walked around the site.

I could hear the whistle half a mile away. I expected to find some flautists playing through stereo system on steroids. I eventually reached the river in front of the “Natchez” steamboat loading up with tourists. On the top near the stern was an older white-haired lady standing at a metal box that obviously had a keyboard in it. Beside her were the pipes, brass and shining, and each note she played made steam shoot out of individual pipes. The performance was nonstop; the songs didn’t end, they morphed into the next without letting the steam organ take a breath. It was background music at 86 dB and I’m sure it drew people to the attraction as it drew me. Happy ragtime, traditional American songbook tunes, it was a bright, riverside sound that match the sunny day.

At the French Market there was a swing dance competition. I recorded the social dance of maybe 35 couples a-jivin’, a-shakin’, a-shimmying’, and definately a-swingin’. They were on a plywood dance floor and you can hear the thudding of feet on the floor and the amazing band that had the biggest sax I’ve seen played live. Dancing is a very quiet thing- it’s meant to be the visual complement to the music. The thumping feet is almost a distraction. The dancers were stunning and everyone watching was smiling.

A walk down Frenchmen Street. I pass many bands playing music in bars and on the street, covering perhaps 3 blocks. It was like slowly turning a radio dial – sometimes the music would cut out to the static of street-crowd chatter; other times it would overlap and the two bands (or more!) would battle for your ears’ attention.

A street band on Frenchman Street in the French quarter. Trombone, trumpet, clarinet/sax, banjo, upright bass, and half a drum kit with James Brown’s portrait painted on. I am no longer a proponent of recording live performance and I’ll atone for my previous bootlegging sins in the next life. However, the sonic landscape of New Orleans would be incomplete wihtout showing the street music that is absolutely everywhere. This particular band, the Sweet Street Symphony, was barefooted and brilliant and had the whole street dancing.

My encounter below is with Matt Robinson, “Poet for Hire” on Frenchman Street. His typewriter was on two stacked milk crates and he asked me for a topic, any topic, wrote me a poem, and asked for whatever I thought the poem was worth. The street brass brand (including sousaphone) was playing a block away and Matt’s typing was just another part of the music of the night and the street.

Water drips from hanging pl;ants on the upper level story balconies at any hour of the day that their tenders feel like watering. It is an out-of-place sound on a sunny sidewalk during the day in New Orleans.

The streetcar system in New Orleans is great; it runs down the middle of the street fairly often, it’s cheap, old-fashioned looking, but miraculously quiet. The airhandling system is the loudest part of the transportation, and sometimes when it cuts out briefly, the trolley simply hums along. The one horrible sound it does make, however, is the razor-rattle of the buzzer when someone pulls the cord to request a stop.

On my ride from New Orleans to El Paso, Texas, we stopped in several places along the way. The track below is from a stop in San Antonio when I got off the train to stretch my legs and wandered under an overpass.

This track is from Alpine, Texas. We stopped and the train was on a crossroads for about 20 minutes, and this warning bell rang the whole time.