Day 5 / The Daze Between ... Monday, April 27


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The three days between the two weekends of Jazz Fest, a.k.a. the Daze Between, allow for rest, relaxation, a bit of tourist-type activity, catching up with life in the outside world, doing some laundry, and in Laurie's case doing some work to avoid leave without pay. And of course, there will be food and music, because we're still in New Orleans!

So Laurie was planning on work this morning, and I was thinking about a number of possible excursions, but we woke up to weather warnings. A massive line of severe thunderstorms was approaching New Orleans, and before long a tornado watch was upgraded to a warning. Needless to say we decided to eat leftovers from previous meals for breakfast and make do with coffee from the Staybridge. It did not look inviting on the outside ... at all.

The storm arrived around 10:30 and lasted for a couple of hours. Several tornadoes were reported on the other side of the river, and the winds were strong enough to knock part of a train off of the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River further upstream (see a video at either link above). The wind made the shore of Lake Ponchartrain look like the ocean, and several lakeside roads were flooded. Power went out here and there, most notably at the Louis Armstrong International Airport. All we could do was watch and wait (and in Laurie's case, work). And shoot video, like this one! That's Poydras Street that the rain is being propelled down. The photo on the left was taken at 10:30 a.m.; the one on the right was taken just 10 minutes later. 

     

The storm was so intense that it created what meteorologists call a 'wake low' behind it, an area of low pressure that is results in very high winds. That prompted the National Weather Service to issue a high-wind warning. Numerous gusts near 50 to 55 mph were reported. This began around 30 minutes after the rain ended and continued for about an hour. Here's what this unusual weather condition looked like from our room on the third floor.

Things finally calmed down around 3 p.m., and by this time I was completely stir crazy so I ventured out for a walk. Today I went to the Riverwalk, which is on the upstream side of Canal Street. 

The old Port of New Orleans saw the Mississippi River lined with wharves, warehouses for goods arriving and being shipped out, and light industrial buildings providing services to the ships and the land-based transportation that served them. The range of goods arriving and departing was immense. As an example, the United Fruit Company was located in New Orleans and at one time almost all bananas sold in the United States arrived through the port of New Orleans. 

The expansion of rival ports on the Gulf Coast reduced the amount of activity along the river, and the Great Depression struck another blow. Many blocks off of the river became rundown, low-rent, and unappealing. This decline continued into the 1970s, when the departure of United Fruit for Gulfport, Mississippi, dealt yet another blow to the port in its old form. Today's Port of New Orleans has been revitalized, but at locations up- and down-river of the city, out of sight of most visitors (except for the cruise ship port, which is still downtown). It is the fifth busiest port in the United States by volume, and in the top 10 in the world. 


However, city leaders faced the dilemma of what to do with the wharves, warehouses, and industrial spaces in the neighborhoods abandoned during the port's decline. Many projects were proposed, but the one that gathered the most support was to hold a World’s Fair along the riverfront. The Louisiana World Exposition of 1984 was everything the city leaders hoped for in terms of a catalyst. 

Old wharves were demolished to make way for the fair's buildings and attractions, and after the Fair these became Riverwalk Mall and the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center. Old factories like Federal Fibre Mills were converted into exposition and office space, then repurposed as condominiums. Restaurants and bars that initially opened in the neighborhood for the six-month fair period stayed and became anchors. Casino gaming at Harrah's followed on the heels of the World’s Fair, further converting the area from industrial to residential and commercial. Next came the Julia Street Cruise Ship Terminal and Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World (both upriver of the Convention Center). What was once delapidated became the trendy Warehouse District.

The Riverwalk was originally an upscale mall, and it initially attracted both tourists and locals. On a Saturday afternoon in December 1996, a cargo ship named Bright Field, loaded with grain, slammed into the mall, injuring more than 60 people and damaging 15 stores. From that point on, it always had trouble attracting customers. It sustained wind damage from Hurricane Katrina, and it was extensively looted as it was next to the Morial Convention Center, which was used as a completely unorganized evacuation center. The mall reopened in early December 2005, but only a few stores were in business at that time. Eventually it reached near 100-percent occupancy but business was not good.

In 2014, the mall closed temporarily, was extensively renovated, and reopened in late spring as The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, the nation's first downtown outlet center, with many name-brand stores, restaurants, and a food court. It also has a lengthy promenade along the river, which is what appealed to me. It was cloudy and humid, and the temperature was in the mid-70's. The winds had dropped off to an occasional breeze.

I walked down Poydras Street, around the old World Trade Center building, which is now empty but is slated for conversion into a Four Seasons hotel with condominiums, restaurants and other attractions in the near future. Behind this building is Spanish Plaza. A gift from Spain for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, it has at its focal point a fountain surrounded by benches which feature tiled mosaics with the seals of the provinces of Spain. 

Spanish Plaza plays host to many festivities throughout the year, including the annual meeting of the monarchs of the Rex and Zulu Mardi Gras krewes on Lundi Gras day. The Carnival kings traditionally arrive by boat to Spanish Plaza and greet the mayor, who presents them with a ceremonial key to the city for Mardi Gras.

As I walked along the river, I saw all manner of traffic, from barges to tugboats to cargo vessels. The variety is really something to behold. When I reached the end of the walk I was near a large U.S. Navy vessel of some kind, which would explain the presence of many sailors out and about in the city the last couple of days.


In the outlet mall I satisifed my need for a late afternoon snack at a Smoothie King, where I got a Yogurt D-Lite with blueberries. The mall was nice, but we don't really come to New Orleans to shop. Although (if it had been open) I probably could have got a better pair of shoes to replace the pair that got ruined in the rain last year here as opposed to the Payless on Canal Street. All in all I was out for a couple of hours. 

Tonight we had dinner at Tomas Bistro, a new, for us anyway, restaurant. It's just a couple of blocks up Tchoupitoulas from Lucy's, so it's very close to the Staybridge. The restaurant definitely has an old-world feel to it, as does the menu, although it has some modern New Orleans Creole touches and the presentation is definitely on the contemporary side. 

Our table was the one on the left in the picture. It took us a bit of time to get the subtle humor of our waiter, but once we did we had a great time with him. He answered all of our questions honestly and it turned out accurately. He was a real pro. The music, too, was very nice, a collection of French jazz and cabaret music from the 1920s and 1930s. 

We were early tonight, with a reservation at 6, so the room was fairly quiet at first but eventually filled up. Still it was very comfortable.

Our wine selections were, for me a Gascon Reserva Malbec from Argentina, and for Laurie the Opolo Estate's Paso Robles Mountain Zinfandel from California. The appetizer was flash-fried Louisiana oysters served with an Abita Amber New Orleans style barbecue sauce. Wow. Gulf oysters are among the best to be found anywhere, and the variety of preparations you get here is astonishing.

My main course was Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, a saffron-enhanced shrimp broth with mussels, shrimp, lobster, fresh Gulf fish, and roasted garlic rouille crouton. A perfect dish for this coolish evening. Laurie had trout with crabmeat, served with Cajun mashed potatoes and haricots verts. For dessert we had a burgundy wine poached pear with crème chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) and fresh raspberries. For our other dessert (hey, the weather caused a lot of stress) we had cappuccino cheesecake with a sambuca sauce. 


   

I must say we really enjoyed this place a lot and would definitely return. When it was time to leave, guess what? New Orleans was being pounded by another thunderstorm. It was pouring rain with thunder again. Nothing serious this time, but thank heaven we brought our umbrella with us because it was really coming down. We had intended to have a leisurely walk to the Civic Theater for tonight's music, but instead we hightailed it back to the Sataybridge to catch our breath, sort of dry off, and check the radar to see how much this was going to affect the evening. 

When we got back to the room we noticed that the big RIMS Conference that was in town was having a fireworks display down at the river ... in the rain. We could see only about half of the fireworks, but it was very strange to see fireworks and lightning at the same time. Check it out here.

After a brief rest we headed off in just rain, not a downpour, to the Civic Theater, a few blocks up Poydras Street and a half a block over on O'Keefe Avenue, pretty much in the same neighborhood as the Little Gem Saloon from Friday. Built in 1906, the Civic Theatre is the oldest in New Orleans, a beatiful room with beaux arts plaster work on the stage and balconies. 


It's an intimate space, too, just right for the solo show we were about to see from the wonderful singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading. We were thrilled to see her at Wolf Trap back in 1990, and to be able to see her again, and in this place on this trip was just an incredible stroke of luck. We jumped at the tickets so fast that our seats were in the third row.

It is hard to believe that Joan has been recording for 40 years, but it is true. She has released 18 studio albums, almost all of it original material. She was born in 1950 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, the third of six children. Her father was a carpenter and her mother a housewife. When she was three, her parents moved with her two older brothers to Birmingham, in the U.K., while she was sent to live with her grandmother on another Caribbean island, Antigua.

Five years later, Joan joined her family in Birmingham. When she was 14, she began writing songs by setting her own limericks to music on a piano that her mother had purchased as "a piece of furniture." Her mother then bought her an inexpensive guitar from a pawn shop in exchange for two prams. (Her father had played in a band on St. Kitts but forbade his children from ever touching his guitar.

Joan left school at the age of 15 to help support her family. She lost her first job at a tool manufacturer because she took her guitar to work and played it during tea breaks. She first performed for an audience in a concert at Birmingham University when she was 16. She then performed her own songs around the local area with a friend from school, and played bass and rhythm guitar at local clubs. In 1968, she joined a repertory production of the stage musical Hair. There she met the lyricist Pam Nestor, and the two worked together on Armatrading's debut album, "Whatever's for Us," released in 1972. Nestor wrote most of the lyrics while Joan did all the vocals, wrote all the music, and played an array of instruments. The recording company considered Joan to be the more likely star material, and that ended the partnership with Nestor.

In 1975, Joan signed with A&M Records and issued the album "Back to the Night." A major publicity relaunch in 1976 and the involvement of producer Glyn Johns propelled her next album, "Joan Armatrading," into the Top 20 and spawned the Top 10 hit single Love and Affection. The album mixed acoustic work with jazz-influenced material, and this style was retained for the 1977 and 1978 follow-ups "Show Some Emotion," and "To the Limit," also produced by Glyn Johns. With those, she become the first black British female singer-songwriter to enjoy international success.

In 1980, Armatrading radically revised her playing style and released "Me Myself I," a harder pop-oriented album produced by Richard Gottehrer, who had produced albums for Blondie. The album became her highest ever charting album. That same style was present on "Walk Under Ladders" in 1981 and "The Key" in 1983, the latter also producing the hit single Drop the Pilot.

After 1985's "Secret Secrets" failed to produce a hit she sort of turned into an album artist and took over production responsibilities herself. Her albums all sold well but none achieved the commercial success of her earlier works despite successful national tours. In 2007, after an eight-year break, her album "Into the Blues" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Blues Chart, making Armatrading the first British female to earn that distinction. The album, which she said was "the one I've been promising myself to write for a long time," was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Blues category, making her the first British female to do that as well. 

Joan has announced this current tour would be her last major tour. At the same time it is her first solo tour (although she is occasionally accompanied by some pre-recorded material). However, she has made it clear that she is not retiring. Her songs stand up well without embellishment. In fact some, like More Than One Kind of Love, have more emotional and sonic power in the stripped-down setting.

She is really personable on stage, and appeared to be enjoying herself. "I thought I'd play a song from every album I've made," she said to cheers. "But that's not going to happen." Before the incredible All the Way From America she said, with a smile, "If you know it, join in. If you don't, then don't, because you'll spoil it." The entire concert was stunning. Joan's voice is fabulous and the songs, all of them, powerful in one way or another, whether in their strength or thier subtlety. They all tell stories of things that I think anyone could have experienced at one point in their life, and I think that's why you could hear a pin drop during most of them.

She spent a good long time telling us about her experience in Baton Rouge the night/morning before this concert. First there was a fire alarm, then a tornado warning during which all the people in the hotel were instructed to go downstairs. That was followed by a power failure, and once the power came back on the elevators didn't work so everyone had to walk back up to their rooms. Then there was the trip to New Orleans in more storminess and wind. She told it all with such good humor.

Another highlight of the show was when she presented a slide show of her life and career, with great commentary about what she was wearing, her hair style, who she was photographed with, and what it meant to her. You could tell she was particularly proud of her picture from the 20th anniversary of democracy celebration in South Africa where she was invited as the only non-South African artist and went on to meet the late Nelson Mandela (the audience erupted in applause) and the one with Queen Elizabeth from the ceremony when she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2001.

Her songs have been described as some of the most deeply personal and emotionally naked of our times. However, in a 2003 interview, she said, "My songs aren't about me at all. They're always about love, the pain and anguish of it. But the way I've always written is from observation. They're about what I see other people going through. If the songs were about me I'd be so embarrassed I don't think I'd be able to walk out the front door." 

She did on to say, "The optimistic songs reveal a bit more of me because that's how I feel. I'm definitely a 'glass is half full' kind of a person." Her Facebook page is full of pleas to "do something to make yourself feel good today."

Tonight she performed with a six- and twelve-string Ovation acoustics. She has played Ovations since 1973, explaining, "I'm a bit of a hitter, you see –- I bash -– and I like to have everything going at once: bass, harmony, and melody. This is why I love Ovations. They are very powerful-sounding guitars, and when I hit those strings, they ring with a nice, clear, percussive –- but not overly bright -– sound that highlights the rhythms I like to play." She also played a James Tyler Variax electric guitar and a Nord electric piano.

The show ended with a different kind of encore At the end of the main set, she said, "This is the end of the show. You've been to concerts before, you know what happens. I leave the stage, you cheer and shout, then I come back to do the encore. Instead I'm going to stay here." We cheered -- a lot -- like she'd left the stage anyway, on and on. The encore was Willow, a song about weathering life's ups and downs that champions both tenderness and strength. Everybody sang along, but quietly so as not to drown out the singer. 

On the set list below, I've linked videos from a show in New Jersey. Joan asked that there be no photography or video and when asked, I oblige. Sometimes that makes for a better experience anyway. If you are a fan, do what I will do and buy the recording that's going to be issued in 2016. It will be of much better quality, more deserving and supportive of this outstanding artist. Her's what we heard: City GirlPromise LandMore Than One Kind of LoveAll the Way from AmericaIn These Times; Mama MercyMy Baby's GoneDown to ZeroSteppin' OutKissin' and a-Huggin'The Weakness in MeEmpty HighwayWoncha Come on HomeLove and AffectionRosieDrop the PilotMy Myself IWillow. Wow (that's from me; it's not a song).

It was still raining when we emerged from the theater, but just lightly, not as bad as after dinner or when we walked to the theater. All in all it was another big daily rainfall total: 2.3 inches. I felt bad for the people at the Fair Grounds who were trying to get ready for Thursday's resumption of Jazz Fest. At least the news reported that the wind did only minor damage, easily repaired. We dodged the big puddles of standing water on the way back to the Staybridge and ended another completely different, yet ultimately very enjoyable day in New Orleans.

 

© Jeff Mangold 2012