One of my favorite assessments of the current state of New Orleans is just that -- a favorite -- for its pragmatism. For several installments of the Basin Street Records newsletter, label president Mark Samuels exhorted, "Come to New Orleans! 99 percent of the things a tourist did before the flooding are still available and you will have a great time."
It's true. My own neighborhood, the lower French Quarter and Marigny, felt normal as soon as the Humvee patrols were gone; so did the toured-within-an-inch-of-its-life Garden District. Obviously, just because our little Mardi Gras mask is intact doesn't mean we're anywhere near OK, but we can and should let potential visitors know that they can, undisturbed, happily eat red beans and rice, shop for made-in-Taiwan feather boas and listen to jazz and funk and brass, for the most part, until it runs out their ears. Tipitina's and Snug Harbor are open and pouring drinks, and, to be practical, that will make nine out of 10 visitors perfectly happy.
Now, this summer shows signs of life in some venues that supported music and performance that wandered off the beaten path. Before the storm, cheap living in the city had generated a vital underground music and performance scene that ran the gamut from aggressive punk rock to circus music. In July and August, two venues that championed that scene -- the Hi-Ho Lounge and the Dragon's Den -- are returning, with two somewhat divergent agendas.
John Hartsock, who plans to have the Hi-Ho Lounge reopened next month, is banking on the emergence of the surrounding neighborhood to support the bar, an area that realtors had already dubbed "New Marigny." He's homesteading.
"We believe this area, from Elysian Fields and St. Claude to Claiborne and St. Roch, is gonna be the new Marigny," he says. Having owned property in the Lower Garden District and Algiers Point before each was particularly desirable, he's probably more equipped than some to predict that. Later on in our interview, he pauses to call a neighbor -- Jeff Coates of the Urban Conservancy -- to confirm that their block is, in fact, 75 percent owner-occupied and that 10 families in the immediate area had bought within the last two years. His partners in the Hi-Ho venture are John Barrett, a longtime chef at the Santa Fe restaurant on Frenchmen Street, and Laurie Bernard, who previously managed Cosimo's Bar on Burgundy. They share his infectious enthusiasm, talking about plans for the bar's full menu as well as the possibility of a streetcar line on St. Claude Avenue, a project the city had considered pre-K.
The jerry-rigged looseness that characterized the Hi-Ho, and brought it its punk-rock charm, will not be retained here. It's not that the three new owners disdain the rock -- but to follow Hartsock around the gutted club is to immediately recognize his distate for things that aren't done well. For one, he's taken out the claustrophobically low ceiling, which opens the club up several feet, and installed stained hardwood up above.
"The physical plant is going to be solid," he says enthusiastically. "This way the music doesn't bounce back -- it's not compressed." His sound booth will be a self-contained unit that will roll away to be easily secured; the pool table will as well. As for booking, Hartsock is seeking advice from local talent buyers at other clubs and planning a locals-heavy roster with music three or four times a week.
At Dragon's Den, the Hi-Ho's former booker and manager is shining up the opium denlike second-floor venue to bring it back to exactly what it was, but cleaner. Below, in the former Caf Siam space, is the new downtown home of the bohemian-friendly, 24-hour coffee shop Z'otz, whose regulars include many of the experimental performers who'll play up above.
"We have A/C now," says David Kubicki, also known to perform locally as DJ Proppa Bear. "New electrical, new plumbing. It's pretty much business as usual with a little more injection, a little more fusion. The free jazz, underground electronic circus sets, freak-out sets, avant-garde." Dragon's Den's renowned Monday sake nights will return with the new ownership, as well as the poetry nights that were regular events before the storm, and the touring acts from outside the mainstream that regularly stopped there. Christian Kuffner of the Zydepunks will play Dragon's Den's inaugural show July 21, opening for the gypsy-electronic punk outfit the World Inferno Friendship Society.
"That was the first club that booked us," says Kuffner. "It was our home base -- we played there about every two months. When it was closed, I think I even dreamed about it. In terms of a small independent club, there's really no comparison. For a long time, the Circle Bar was the only one. It's a combination of the actual space, and the sound you get in there, and the proximity to the Bywater and all the people who live there and do their stuff there."
- Cheryl Gerber
- Willie Noveck and David "BRX" Kubicki at the Dragon's Den.