Saturday, February 25, 2006

Carnival Blogging Day 2.5

Ah, yes. The second day of Carnival, and already I've broken my unmade promise.
So it goes. My pal Sawyer arrived yesterday, straight out the 201, as they say (I'm 504ever, according to the solid authority of the Decatur St. t-shirt shops), and we partook of the festivities. Hence my dilatory post. So it goes, so it goes.

Yesterday was our first day of Uptown parades, and what a time it was. We watched the parades on St. Charles and Clio (Cleeo, Clyo, or CL10; pick one), nestled amongst the muse streets, finding inspiration for more wine and song. Babylon rolled first, much to the confusion of the crowd. No one seemed to know who they were, even the children in front of us, catching the beads and cups. It didn't help, of course, that they used recycled beads (Hey, wait a second, this isn't Orpheus. Or if it is, Harry, what happened to you?). But eventually we caught on, and it was, after all, a real parade.

Bablyon was followed by Chaos, which contains the remnants of one of the oldest krewes. For better and worse, the original Krewe stopped rolling for idiotic reasons I'd rather not think about if you don't mind (I'm trying to have Carnival over here, no reason to bring things down). There was some outrageous political satire, some of it funny, some of it not so much, and none of it really to my taste. So be it. The parade itself was quite lovely. Here's a memory: the "Headless State" float, which rolled without the usual Papier Mache head at the front. In its place was a bare steel rod. The riders wore stark white costumes, and the float itself was white on white. They threw cups that, at first, appeared to be blank, but on closer inspection turned out to have the Chaos logo embossed on them; again, white on white. Make of it what you will; it kept me in mind of the ghosts at our elbows.

Muses followed shortly thereafter. It's one of my favorite parades -- a female krewe that inevitably has the most creative throws. Two annual floats always stand out, a neon emblazened giant shoe, emblem of the krewe, and a bathtub made for forty, playpen for the "bathing muses". Their theme this year had something to do with the games we play, and again Katrina was a prime subject. Take for instance the Operation float, which depicted George W. Bush as the familiar patient from the board game with a price tag for every operation he needed (remove foot from mouth; oil addiction treatment, you get the idea). Given the theme, I figured we'd see the "Blame Game" float soon enough, and I wasn't disappointed. I won't detail every float; that's what Charlie Brown gets paid to do on parade cam, and he's much better at it than I am. I will note, however, the power of the MAX band. Three local private high schools, St. Mary's, St. Augustine's, and Xavier Prep; all victims of the storm, have united to form a mighty musical force, a strutting, shimmying, pounding, blaring, funky, proud ensemble that stretches for three city blocks. Kids, you looked fantastic.

After Muses, we stumbled back to the Big Top gallery, where the Tin Men were playing. The Tin Men are (as if you didn't know) New Orleans' premiere tuba, guitar, and washboard combo. This was the second day in a row I'd seen Alex McMurray and Matt Perrine perform (Alex played his standing Wednesday night Circle Bar solo gig and, despite a touch of the flu, blew the house down. He may be -- and I do not say this lightly -- the most gifted song writer working in New Orleans today. Look, the guy brings to mind the Gershwins, Rogers and Hart, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello; let's just say he can write a song. He's the cigarette-ravaged voice of Royal Fingerbowl, but to my mind at least, as his song writing has become less far ranging, less ambitious on some scores, he has gathered his forces undiluted, moved from scythe to switch-blade (which would you want in a street fight?).) The Tin Men were in top form, playing everything from Mo-Town and old New Orleans R&B to sea shanties, Zeppelin and The Who covers (did I mention they play tuba, guitar, and washboard? Yeah, it's like that.) They also played a fair number of McMurray originals, including one of the tunes he wrote about his experience working as ambient entertainment at Disney Sea Tokyo (as the titular character of "The Ballad of Cap'n Sandy," he was paid to stroll around the park singing sea shanties. Just don't call him a pirate, though). While neither Alex nor Washboard Chas was born in New Orleans, I really can't imagine this band springing up anywhere else, and I can think of few better arguments in defense of New Orleans than that it allows for this sort of lunacy.

That takes us to tonight (it's nearly six a.m.; I'm taking one for the team here -- the team being the two people who read this blog (to you I say, Right On!). Today I commited what may be the Cardinal sin of Carnival; I worked all day. This shall not happen again, I promise. But the evening was salvaged with a heroic pub crawl that took in a number of beloved dives (should I sing the praises of Smitty's bar, where we found polar beers, an open pool table, and a Barry White medley on the juke box? Oh, let me count the ways! Or perhaps I should extol the virtues of The John, with its brimful cocktails, a wall of Elvis album covers, and assorted toilets stationed along the wall of the main room -- functional furniture or art piece? all depends on the time of day. Then there was Molly's, one of two stalwarts of the French Quarter where locals outnumbered the guys wearing store-bought grapefruit-sized compensation beads (the other? well, I'll give you a hint. It didn't close during the storm. I think Anderson Cooper may be downing a dearly-needed pint there as we speak.)

And finally we rolled into One Eye'd Jacks, where we saw the Morning Forties put on a show that would have sent even Anderson off on a three-week bender. But as McMurray reminds us, "there's a new bender waiting around the next bend," and I'll need to freshen up a bit before it starts.

Tomorrow is costume-making day, and honestly, I haven't a clue which direction I'll take. Fortunately, we've accrued the obligatory box o' Carnival foolishness, which is typically stored somewhere out of sight, just in front of last year's beads. I brought the box down yesterday (ok, so it has grown to two boxes of wigs, chiffon, face paint, masks, capes, a tiara or two, boas of various feathers, Thrift City cast-offs from float-riders of days past, a glue gun, glitter, sun glasses, a rubber pig snout or two -- and those are just the items I can recall without opening the box (it is nearly six a.m., after all)).

So, I hope to post a bit more coherently tomorrow. Again, no promises, you two. But I'm hoping to get a second to step back and look at this madness, something utterly impossible when I'm chasing that next chaser.

Until then, may you feel as blessed to be where you are as I feel to be here today.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Carnival Blogging

Mardi Gras 2006 promises to be unlike any other for all the obvious reasons, so I've decided to try keeping a daily blog entry going throughout the festivities to record my impressions. In the thick of things, this might get a little difficult, so no promises (even to myself). Let's just see what happens.

We kicked off Carnival season two Saturdays ago with a party for Krewe du Vieux, an old-fashioned parody parade with small, mule- and horse-drawn floats, outlandish costumes and themes -- all unspeakably ribald and damned good fun. Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams was the reigning king, and Katrina themes were the topic du jour, of course. I caught a toy gold croissant from the mime on the "Buy Us Back, Chirac" float (a much better throw than the more traditional fake dog poo). But I didn't get one of the "FEMA Condoms" from the Krewe of Spermes sub-krewe (the tip of each condom was neatly perforated and "guaranteed to leak"; I heard my neighbor say, "man, I'm a coon-ass*, that's no problem for me; I'll just put some duct tape on it"). Spermes' theme this year had something to do with "mandatory ejaculation" or "premature evacuation." You get the idea.

I didn't make it to the parades last weekend, unfortunately. Not even Barkus, the French Quarter dog parade. Instead, I went back to St. Augustine's for Mass. Fr. Ledoux was even more charismatic and engaging than I'd heard; more St. Aug's blogging to come.

That brings us to yesterday and the first annual Krewe t' Screw, a 9th Ward marching group centering around two of my favorite haunts: Bacchanal wine shop, at the very bottom of the Bywater, and Mimi's in the Marigny. Chris from Bacchanal and the eponymous Mimi were king and queen, and they made an elegant, decadent couple:

We had a couple of small trailer floats, a brass band that included James Andrews, Kevin O'Day, and Matt Perrine, and a couple of flat-bed based electrified bands at different stops. We second-lined behind the band all the way from Poland Ave up to Franklin, descending upon thirteen bars (or so I heard) along the route. Here are a few photos courtesy of my many-talented wife:

Extra credit to Tony for keeping the theme -- those are not satsumas!

Happy Carnival, y'all. More to come.

*Coon-ass: derogatory term for Acadians (Cajuns) now proudly taken up by the Cajuns themselves. A common bumper-sticker where I grew up read "Registered Coon-Ass" and included a cartoon of a mooning raccoon. No one can claim we take ourselves too seriously.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Swampish Goes to Mass

I went to Mass today. It has been a while; no weddings or funerals in my life for some time, I guess. But I went today because I had heard some bad news about a church I had always wanted to visit. St. Augustine's, in the Treme, is to be closed. Since even before I moved to New Orleans, St. Augustine's has been on my list of New Orleans things to do. It's a list that's shorter since the storm; some things I won't be able to do now. But I still hadn't managed to make it to St. Aug's.

One reason is that attending the Sunday Mass there is a real committment: no half-hour quickie service for these folks. The gospel-jazz Sunday Mass is legendary, as is the charismatic pastor, Father LeDoux. I had heard of his ranging, stirring sermons, the powerful music, the Kiss of Peace--in my experience a brief, staid series of handshakes and mumblings of "peace be with you" directed at the people within arm's length--during which the parishoners spilled out of the pews and greeted everyone in the church. St. Augustine's is not, let us say, your typical Catholic church. It is, in fact, the oldest African American Catholic church in the country. And it is a deep and variegated slice of what New Orleans means.

Looking around the church is a glimpse into New Orleans history. The parishoners are every color of coffee, from the richest French roast to the brightest au lait, and a latte or three with some international flavors. Once, it is said, the cultured Creole elite of St. Augustine sat proudly in the center pews, while slaves occupied the side pews. And now, St. Augustine's is among those cultural tourist attractions that European tourists seem to discover long before their American counterparts.

And, more importantly now, St. Augustine's represents something of the real New Orleans. The congregation is small but fervent; they're slowly coming back from Houston and Atlanta and all points North. The choir is powerful, of course, but it isn't a show choir of professional musicians. With the exception of Sun Pie of the Louisiana Sun Sports, they are just average parishioners with above-average voices, praising in the way they know best.

And now this, too, may pass. Another vestige of the real New Orleans may become a historical footnote. So, I went to Mass, and I'm going back. Father LeDoux may be back next Sunday, and I don't want to miss it. And for me to attend Mass twice in the same month must count as a minor miracle on some scale. Maybe it should contribute to the beatification of Fr. LeDoux; maybe enough of these minor miracles, and he'll reach the stature of Fr. Seelos, and then they'll have to keep St. Augustine's open. The time is ripe for a miracle or two down here.