Surviving as a lone wolf live music venue started in a then-undeveloped part of town is impressive, but developing into one of the top dogs among clubs in the highly competitive New Orleans market is something to howl about.
The Howlin' Wolf (828 S. Peters St., 529-5844) has become a standard among bars featuring live music since it opened 15 years ago and is a regular stop for music lovers who like to sample a range of genres in a comfortable setting. In the past few years the Warehouse District club has grown to join House of Blues and Tipitina's as the city's largest live music clubs.
"We do a little bit of a hodge podge (of music styles)," says Howie Kaplan, who bought the Howlin' Wolf two years ago. "I'm a big fan of local music; our calendar shows that all the time. We book a little of everything: rhythm and blues, funk, hip-hop, Cajun, country." He has an affinity for booking acts that are on their way up, such as a show last September featuring the pre-hit Nickelback, which now is a headliner booked into the Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena. The Wolf, however, no longer can afford to book that group into its smaller capacity space. "They get too big for us and move on," Kaplan says. "But it's nice to see bands go places and know you had something to do with it."
The layout of the club, with a large floor, high bar tables and stools, a low raised stage in the middle and service bars on three sides, allows musicians and their fans to feel they're closer to each other than at other venues. "I think a lot of people prefer to see shows in our room because it's like listening to music in your living room," the club owner says. "You're right on top of the band." He also attributes the success of the club to a high-quality sound system and crew. His claims are backed up by a Citysearch survey that twice has ranked the Wolf as the best place to see live music in the city. "It's a top-notch place to see a show," Kaplan says. "We get complimented about the staff." He also adds personal touches of service himself, providing all musicians who play at the club with his mother's home-baked cookies.
"The acts look forward to it," Kaplan says of his mom's treats. "Bob Weir (now of Ratdog, formerly of the Grateful Dead) has asked her to make a special oatmeal cookie. We try to make things nice for the musicians who play here. I respect people who can put a group together, practice, and get on stage and perform."
Another testament to success, Kaplan says, is watching the audience get up and move to the music even though there's no dance floor at the club. "It's not really a dance club," he says, "but if people like the music, they're going to get up and dance."
Just as the Warehouse District has blossomed into a booming business area since the Wolf opened as one of its only tenants in the early '90s, the Howlin' Wolf also has expanded to twice its original size and broadened its musical lineup to include everything from country to funk, rhythm and blues to hip-hop, Cuban to Cajun, Fredy Omar to George Porter Jr.
"There were a lot of styles I didn't understand when I first started, but now I book all kinds," Kaplan says. "(Some) are styles I don't normally go for, but to see these people do what they do so well and the audience respond so well is something."
Kaplan, who moved to Louisiana four years ago to operate a live rock club in Metairie, also uses the Howlin' Wolf to stage promotions for charity, such as an annual turkey bowling contest (frozen turkeys hurled at bowling pins) for the Karen G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and working with the Make A Wish foundation for children.
He now considers New Orleans home and even lives in the Warehouse District, where he spends most of his time at the club. "I own the place and I'm physically here all the time," he says. "No one cares about your business like you do."
It's not all about business, however. Kaplan says his favorite part of the job is interacting with a range of personalities and backgrounds. "I meet the most amazing people. Good or bad, they're always interesting," Kaplan says of musicians, audiences and other music businessmen. "They're a good group of people. It's nice to think I'm a part of that. For an out-of-towner to come in and become part of that is something. There's a lot of competition ... but I think that's good for music lovers."
- Club owner Howie Kaplan between the beer taps in the main bar at the Howlin' Wolf in the Warehouse District