My several days and nights celebrating American roots music at The Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans sailed past me faster than a greasy BP oil slick blowing across the gulf.
My mission statement in an earlier blog post at the beginning of my trip to NOLA with five pals and a gal was…
“Eat. Drink. Be Merry. Soak up the deep roots of American Music…celebrate the pure joy of it. Good times with friends. Try to stay out of trouble…
…and to arrive home in Scottsdale on Monday October 5 with as little damage done as possible to what is still a reasonably normal senior digestive tract (food) and brain (drink).”
I made it home. Mission accomplished. On all counts. In fact, I succeeded far beyond my wildest expectations in the “Eat. Drink. Be Merry” categories. And for the most part I stayed out of trouble…but I must admit only by the narrowest of margins. Oh…and the “Good times with friends” mission was far surpassed by “Great times with friends.”
Now I’m trying to dry out and lose the six plus pounds I gained on my little sojourn. I’m enlisting the aid of an Emergency Morning Concoction of blended spinach, carrot, mint and blueberry juice…and a diet of lean meat and Lake Pontchartrain quantities of water.
This morning I found just enough bravery…er, stupidity…deep within my belly to huff and puff my way onto the bathroom scale to verify the complete lack of healthy regard I had for my old bod while playing down on the blue bayou.
The weighty bad news off the groaning calibrator read “Fatso”…a designation I hadn’t accepted for myself since I was a tubby, roly-poly twelve year old who could only pretend that the Ben Davis overalls I squeezed myself into everyday, were really the cool denim Levi’s all the other seventh graders were wearing.
I meekly conveyed the miserable scale’s info to Sonja.
I begged…“Please! Sonja! Don’t go out today! I can’t be left alone! I’m so depressed, I might roll down to the tallest building in town, the Olive Garden at Osborn and Scottsdale Roads…and throw myself off the roof onto a pile of stale, cheesy bread sticks and cardboard lasagne.” Sonja, God bless her…calmly said that she still loves me…and reassured me that after a week of crushed veggies and fruit, I’d be back to my old self. Well, the “old” part didn’t help…but her sympathy did.
Ah, the price we pay to participate in simple pleasure.
Boogie-Down-Memory Lane-Music filled days, nights and early mornings…Monstro-size portions of deep-fried catfish and briny shellfish…hours spent soaking up southern atmosphere and Crescent Moon gin martinis…I over-indulged in all of it.
And I wish I could begin the adventures all over again.
Our second night at the Ponderosa Stomp began with a short walk from our Airbnb to Pal’s Lounge…a mid-city neighborhood “Cheers” type bar rocking with cheap drinks, free chili dogs, local personalities…
…and a recent, dark history laced with insanity and murder. More on that in just a little bit.
Pal’s was discovered by my lifelong buddy Tim Giusta. He’s a Super Yelp fan and web surfer who expertly handled our logistics and mad adventures on our NOLA trail. Tim struck gold when Pal’s popped up in his browser.
To enter the joint, you gotta poke a button size door buzzer, kind of like the ones at the cheap apartments I used to live at in Berzerkeley 45 years ago. Jennifer, the bar keep, would then unlock the door by releasing it with the buzzer behind the bar.
After dark…7:00 pm or so…a surly, hurly-burly-man uniformed rent-a-cop guards the door. Gun. Badge. Scowl. The whole package. The scene is stranger than fiction. Again, there’s more to come on that, just down the page a bit.
Not long after gaining entry that evening, we were treated to a round of drinks by a Pal’s regular…a transplanted Boston Southie who was there celebrating his 50th birthday. I can’t remember his name, so I’ll call him “John”. Might’ve been John…or Tom…not sure. Hell, who knows? I could hardly remember my name. Anyway…never one to shy away from free booze and tall tales…I tried to focus through the haze of my third Crescent Moon Sapphire Gin Martini as John began telling me about some of Pal’s Lounge unique legend. With a Fens accent still thick even after his 25 transplanted years of living in NOLA…he began describing how an emerging, new, gentrified class in the neighborhood was trying to shutter Pal’s. John said that the sentiment expressed by the new kids on the block is basically, “We don’t want a bar in our neighborhood”.
On the other hand, the regular patrons at Pal’s are a comfortable blend of locals; employed middle class types and hip young professionals out on the town for a night of fun. Their position is…hey, Pal’s is a great place to drop by after work or on the weekends….visit with friends or make new ones. It’s walking distance close to home…and we don’t have to get in our cars and drive after having a few pops at the bar. It makes complete sense to me.
But not to the newbies in the neighborhood. Nope. Because of complaints voiced by these party poopers, Pal’s Lounge is frequently visited by undercover Louisiana alcohol control agents. They act upon requests by some of those self-righteous folks in the ‘hood to try to dredge up trash on the place, which then might be used against Pal’s in order to have it’s liquor license revoked. Pretty shitty, right? But a curious side consequence created by this chicanery is that Pal’s bartenders will card anyone and everybody they don’t recognize as regulars who drop into the place…in an attempt to ferret out the state’s sly spies.
So, our group…each of us right around 68 spry years old…was ceremoniously carded each visit before staff would serve us our booze. Ha. And I thought I was being flattered. Silly me.
Pal’s also has a pretty cool reputation as a getaway for Hollywood A-List types when they wanna dodge the press and hangers-on while doing their thing in NOLA. John pointed to a table and chair right behind my barstool and said, “Helen Mirren sits right over there when here with her husband, Director Taylor Hackford. Sean Penn hangs here…and Matt Damon too.”
Then, just as I was getting an even warmer, fuzzier feeling than I’d had earlier about the place, Pal’s dark side was exposed.
I’d taken a large sip outta my latest beverage and asked John, “So, John…why’s there always a big rent-a-cop sitting on guard out front by the locked front door?”
Without missing a beat…“There was a murder here.”
Huh? I nearly choked on my lemon twist.
“Back in 2007”, John recounted, “some guy who was a tenant in a nearby apartment was in here meeting with his landlord. Why the two picked Pal’s to meet, I don’t remember. But the landlord had wanted to evict the guy because she thought he was a weirdo. They argued. She wanted him out of her building. The tenant got pissed…stormed out of the place and soon returned to Pal’s. With a big knife. He ran up behind the first two people he saw sitting at the bar and slashed their throats. A young woman…27 or 28…bled to death here. A young guy who was slashed, lived. The killer acted insane. Later used insanity as defense at his trial. That’s why there’s a guard out front…and another reason the neighbors wanna shut Pal’s.”
Well, that put a chilly damper on my evening glow. At first I thought John had a sick sense of humor. When I believed he was dead serious…he told me more about that evening and what happened to some involved. You can read about this terrible story, the victims, murderer and trial here:
I had turned away from John for only a moment…looking for one of the guys to share this with…and when I turned back…John was gone. Creepy.
On that cheery note…it was time to scramble over to the Rock ‘n Bowl for Night Two of The Stomp. Gotta admit, ol’ Gustav was pretty drunk, music fans. I hadn’t been so greased up since the Giants won the World Series in 2010. And it didn’t help one bit that the Uber ride that showed up at the bar to dump us five happy, loaded guys off at the next venue was a mini car…the size GOP candidates and Barnum-Bailey clowns tool around in. A Mazda 3, I think. Who cares? It was small. When the young guy driving pulled up and laid eyes on our group, he sighed deeply. I read his lips chant a prayer that we wouldn’t burst the rivets out of his nifty little import or worse yet, barf all over his grey faux plastic seats. I don’t remember who got to ride in the front seat next to our nervous host. It was either Tim or Bob. Whoever it was had LOTS of space.
All I recall is that I was the last clown to fold myself up into half the man I am…and squeeze into the back seat…mostly on top of Ed. Or was it Les? Hell I don’t remember. All I know is I had to take a leak so bad it felt like my bladder was screaming…”You fucking idiot! Don’t you realize it’s five miles and ten minutes to the next porcelain stop…on streets with pot holes the size of tactical bomb craters?” And then…miraculously…we arrived! I survived..my bladder survived…as did the faux plastic seats.
Dimwitted and hazy…I was worried I’d had too much to drink. Which, of course, I had. Fortunately there were so many Stompers on the floor at Rock ‘n Bowl it was nearly impossible for me to fall over…but I was sure if Gustav didn’t get something into his stomach right away to soak up the predominately Sapphire gin and cucumber toxin rumbling around in there…dizzying trouble would soon ensue. Luckily, the Bowl has terrific, inexpensive NOLA style food. Which means lots of greasy deep fried chicken-of-the-sea. Which did not sound good. At all. So I ordered a giant cheeseburger and fries for ten bucks…found a wall to lean against…and slammed that baby down as fast as I could.
Ah. I felt better. I thought. Walked over to a trash can to toss the burger tray away…and, NOPE. Didn’t feel any better. Only felt like there’d be more to lose if my stomach rolled snake eyes. So back over to the food line I moved…this time for a big basket of thin, delicious, deep fried, crispy hot potato chips. Splashed lots of ketchup all over ’em…found another spot to lean against…and rejoiced in this simple pleasure of starchy relief. It worked. Half a pound of potatoes and a cup of salt later…I was good again. Well, good enough to exist, anyway…and without the nitwit worry of having to wonder how Sonja would ship my body bag home to Arizona from Louisiana. Lucky guy, I had dodged a nasty one.
Good fortune continued for me as I had recovered just in the nick of time to see Augie Meyers roll out some classic Sir Douglas Quintet material. Down to earth Augie was keyboardist on memorable Doug Sahm tunes like Mendocino, and She’s About a Mover. His Texas Tornados are legendary. Augie is loads of fun…and his unique keyboard sound brought back great memories of my days hanging out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and enjoying weekend afternoons in chilly yet sunny Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Ever young, 76 year old Rudy Tee Gonzalez and band mates like Little Henry Lee and Rudy Palacious blew out tasty lick after lick of horn infused San Antonio soul during their West Side Soul Review set. These guys were hot. Lots of brass on stage and not a single flat note during their time in front of the appreciative crowd.
As good as the rest of the Stomp lineup was that night, the highlight of my evening…aside from not dying in NOLA, of course…was the midnight performance by Irma Thomas. The legendary “Soul Queen of New Orleans”, Irma’s been on one recording label or another since she was about 13 years old. Her still silky smooth delivery is timeless…and her mellow, easy performance of Time Is On My My Side that night was prefaced by…“I did this song before those other guys did it.”…a gentle, good natured little dig at Jagger and friends.
We hung around long enough to catch Roy Head’s routine. Roy’s act is getting a little stale I’m sorry to report. Besides running through a manic version of his greatest hit, Treat Her Right, to open…he seemed more than content to run through a few of his other, less well known tunes…some of which he had recorded in prehistoric times with his band the Traits. Short on hits, and forgetting lyrics to some of his numbers, Roy did attempt some style points…thinking he’d impress the late night/early morning crowd with fake enthusiasm, lots of sweat and Roger Daltrey-style microphone swings. This night he did succeed in whacking himself squarely in the middle of his Roy ForeHead…but at least avoided the embarrassment of having the mike disengage from it’s cord base and wind up in the audience. Rumor has it Head now duct tapes the mike body to it’s wire base. Not long ago the heavy metal flew out of his control and Roy Head-smacked some middle aged gal sitting out in the pricey seats up front. In any event, unlike past Stomp acts who have passed on to more heavenly musical stages, Gustav believes Roy shouldn’t wait until he’s dead to quit performing. The take here is that he oughta go gently into the night while he can avoid further lawsuits and oxygen tanks.
Deciding to leave the Bowl before the rockabilly acts swamped the stage, we Ubered back over to Pal’s for a nightcap while we could still stay awake. My earlier misery was but a dim memory. Unbelievable. Who said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Albert Einstein? Oh, never mind.
Around 3:00 am, we gathered the strength to walk the mile or so back to our home base…and crashed until late the next morning. After a terrific late brunch at the Santa Fe Cafe on The Esplanade, we spent most of our Sunday afternoon imitating couch potatoes while watching football. And waiting in breathless anticipation for our 7:00 pm dinner reservation to arrive at the classic New Orleans steak house, Crescent City Steaks. Tim G. scoped this place out one evening seven years ago. Five or six of us were jammed into the cab of a tiny pickup truck. We had just left the nearby JazzFest fairgrounds after a full day of music. We were hungry and looking for a place to eat. “That looks like a cool place”, he said…or something similar. A quick pull into the parking lot and we unloaded. A bright, multi-colored “Crescent City Steaks” neon sign over the sidewalk promised more than just plain old meat and potatoes lay beyond this portal! Turns out the steaks we enjoyed that evening back in 2008…were not just any steaks. They were steaks to die for. And we all decided then and there that that would not be our last meal ever at Crescent City.
Another walk to Pal’s for a few pre-dinner cocktails…after all, how else would I become Nick Nolte….and we were warmed up and ready for the short stroll to the Crescent City Broad Street location. Nearly drowned by Katrina’s death grip floods in ’05, Crescent City was rebuilt in it’s traditional style and re-opened after a time. Thank God. A hearty American meal provided by those prime culprits of climate change, big fat corn fed steer awaited. Mmmm. Doesn’t that just whet the palate?
We arrived to a near empty dining room…an anomaly for a Sunday evening…but after a bit we figured the usual end-of-the-weekend NOLA dinner crowd was boozing it up in front of LED screens around town to watch the Cowboys-Saints game at the Superdome.
Not messing around, I quickly ordered a glass of Malbec…and then focused in on my dinner choice. After drooling over the tasty descriptions of entrees and sides displayed within the funky, 1930’s era style menu, I decided on the hand cut 12 oz. ribeye, sauteed spinach in garlicky olive oil and a Caesar dinner salad starter.
Soon my sizzling plate was delivered…the pan fried slab of hunky beef cooked to medium rare perfection, centered exquisitely on a traditional steakhouse platter…and merrily floating in a cup or so of hot, hot melted butter. It was a feast for sore eyes; eyes burning from five days and nights of unbridled, ridiculous entertainment and food…and certain to either help me continue to have fun….or kill me trying.
The hot and deliciously tender, blanched sauteed spinach was drenched in enough oily garlic to slay most of the vampires remaining in Transylvania…and to keep my mouth feeling for days like I’d just swallowed most of Gilroy’s latest Garlic Festival crop.
Eating at Crescent City Steaks that last night with good friends was the perfect exclamation point to a terrific time in New Orleans with great friends Tim, Catie, Ed, Les and Bob.
After the extreme quantities of food, wine, spirits, tall tales and song I subjected my body and mind to last week…I’ll be eternally grateful that my wonderful meal at Crescent City Steaks was not my Last Supper.
Let’s do it again!