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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2002/05/22
by David Steinberg

...and headed down to New Orleans…

"Where are you from originally?"
‘New Orleans.’
‘Ok. Your accent sounded Canadian.’
‘Well that’s why they call New Orleans, ‘Little Canada.’‘
-an exchange at the Howlin’ Wolf
At the end of his life, my father was close to being homeless due to
his inability to pay his rent. He had few possessions; the one thing
that he wanted to give to us was a desk. This is why it was a
complete surprise when it turned out he had money in a bank account.
It wasn’t a lot of money mind you, but my brother, sister, and I were
getting about $500 each as a result. If this money had come from
anyone else, I just would have added it to my house fund. My father
and I didn’t exactly have a real relationship, so this money was kind
of tainted. I decided that the only thing to do with it was to blow
it on something fun. Sure he wouldn’t have wanted me to do it, but
going off and having a blast on this windfall would be a first step to
coming to terms with his memory. I had some money. I had a pile of
vacation time and no Phish tour in my immediate future. There was
only one thing to do with this combination. It was time to go to my
first Jazz Fest.
There are times when it comes in handy having friends spread out
across the country. My plan was to stay for the vast majority of
Jazz Fest and even with the windfall, I wouldn’t have been able to
afford it without Henry and the Multipurpose Goddess [1]. Not only
did they give me a free place to stay, not only did they give me many
memories of driving around New Orleans with the windows down and 80’s
pop music blaring, but they were directly responsible for letting me
see one of the weird policies inside the theatres of New Orleans. Any
venue is likely to be strict about people going down to the floor
without a ticket. The Saenger and the Orpheum also don’t let people
with floor tickets go up to the balcony. That’s a policy that I’ve
never seen before. I had to get a balcony ticket thrown down to me in
order to sit with my friends, and even still the usher said that if
people started to show up, I would be removed.
The New Deal are perhaps perfect for the role of opening act. They
were really fun for the hour that they played, but I was already
getting the sense that they only had the one trick and it would get
old over a longer period. The Vida set had a surprising amount of
covers. Only about half of the originals from the New Years show were
played. My disappointment of missing out on some of the Vida songs
that I enjoyed them was alleviated by closing with some Phish songs.
Magilla closed the first encore and then we got a second encore of
Cars Trucks Buses. Sure, it wasn’t as cool as seeing 3/4 of Phish
playing ‘Light Up or Leave Me Alone,’ but I’m at a point where seeing
any member of Phish playing Phish songs makes me happy.
I spent a lot of Sunday pondering the Mystery Door. In the
computer room of Henry and Tamara’s house, there is a door about 10
feet up on the wall. What is behind it? Treasure Chests? Some sort
of booby trap to kill the unwary? A secret passage to another
dimension? I wanted to get a ladder and find out. Sure the landlord
had a prosaic solution about it being filled with insulation, but that
was just because he was too lazy to go up there himself.
The night show was String Cheese Incident. I used to tour with them;
I had to see them if I was in the same town as them. The crowd made a
bad first impression. Outside the venue, some people were arguing
with the employees at the Popeye’s next to the Saenger about their
prices and bathroom policies. Inside, I quickly scored three points
on my ‘Am I a Dealer Game,’ [2] including the guy who said that my new
Starman outfit was a walking advertisement for LSD. Not only does
that show an appalling lack of imagination – not all creativity is
about drug use – and provide a classic example of the person whose big
insight on LSD is, ‘D00D! Take more LSD,’ but it’s also pretty
stupid. Let’s think about this. If I’m going to deal drugs in the
south in a venue with dozens of policemen in it, I’m going to wear
something slightly more inconspicuous than a glittery superhero
outfit. Right after that encounter, there was a loud knock on the
outside door of the Saenger. Apparently gate crashing is the new rage
on SCI tour; people wanted the door to be opened for them. If you’re
ever going to gate crash, the Saenger is not the venue to do so. When
you present your ticket, you’re given either a wristband or a
handstamp. To go inside the seating area, you need to show the
wristband. To go up the stairs to the balcony, you need to show the
handstamp. Gatecrashers would be left out in the halls where you
really can’t hear.
While the initial impression was bad, things soon calmed down after
that. Once the show started, the crowd wasn’t interested in doing
anything other than seeing the music and dancing. That’s how it
should be. At the setbreak, I asked one of the many cops what he
thought of the crowd, and he said that he had no problems with anyone.
Yes the scene is spiraling downward and getting sketchy, but it’s far
from being horrible. There’s still plenty of time to reverse these trends,
and there are a lot of intelligent, loving people who are trying to do
just that.
My first real Jazz Fest moment happened when I left the show. One of
those minivan cabs was sitting outside the theatre, asking if anyone
needed a ride uptown. I was staying uptown – about a mile from
Tipitina’s Uptown – so I got in. The cab was stopping at Tips first
to drop off some of the other people. These riders were extremely
enthusiastic about the late night SKB show. I hadn’t even heard about
that show. Despite their enthusiasm, I still wasn’t planning on going
to it. As we pulled up to the venue, they were playing one of my
favorite melodies [3]. The door opened to let people out and I called
out ‘Are there any tickets left?’ ‘Plenty!’ Well how could I resist?
Sometimes you choose the shows at Jazz Fest, sometimes the shows
choose you. The set closing ‘Cole’s Law’ was one of the
musical highlights of the week for me.
Between sets, there was a large crowd hanging out in the Professor
Longhair Square. This is located right outside of Tips. The sidewalk
has words from some of his songs carved into it, including the TAB
cover ‘In the Wee Wee Hours.’ A quirk about New Orleans is that
people are really into the idea of having casual conversations with
strangers. As I was walking by them, some girls informed me that they
knew voodoo. Apparently if you bury someone’s socks in a yard, it
will curse them. We continued to talk, and I got to hear about
Paige’s woes. Apparently she had met an amazing boy a few nights ago,
but she wrote down the wrong phone number. He was at this show but he
was kissing another girl. Finally she confronted him. His excuse
was, ‘Well I couldn’t find YOU so I had to settle for someone else.’
Free hint guys: that line doesn’t work.
Monday brought on the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. While they were ok – albeit a little too prone to the one trick syndrome – the opening
act was amazing. Miss Pussycat is a local performance artist. She
put on a puppet show – Mystery at Squirrel Ranch. It was about a
ranch hand – a female squirrel – who was raising some magical,
miniature horses that had the power to fly into orbit. Alas
Death showed up and stole one while she was away. She sent one of her
loyal employees – a man with a balloon for a head – out to protect the
other one. Death popped the balloon to kill him and stole the other
horse. Fortunately her Indian friend knew the secret way of summoning
Death and forcing a duel. The ranch hand chose her weapons – guitars.
To be honest, I thought that Death had the better solo, but our
squirrelly friend was declared the winner. Death, well, died,
inspiring some second thoughts. ‘Hey he was kind of cute.’ Death
came back, this time with a smiley face, and they made out for a
while. The End.
After the puppet show, her husband Mr. Quinton came out. He played
keyboards and the drum buddy [4] while she sang backup and played some
puppethead maracas. They had a Devo-esque act going, singing songs
about underwater dance clubs and the like. The whole thing went on
for an hour or so and was amazing. They’d be a wonderful late night
addition to Bonnaroo.
The following day was Theory of Everything at the House of Rules [5].
Three songs into it, they announced a special guest – Jessica Lurie
from the Living Daylights. I immediately left my friends and went to
rail surf so she would see a friendly face. Jess was on fire this
night. It was amazing to see Michael Kang reign himself in so Jess
could get more solos. This night was the highlight of Jazz Fest for
me. The ‘Celtic Tune -> Inner City -> Celtic -> Fool in the Rain’ was
just amazing. Of all of the shows I saw at Jazz Fest, this is the one
that I really want to get on tape.
Wednesday was tourist day. We went to the French Quarter where we
saw a museum that explained just how bad France was at colonization. New
Orleans was a huge money suck for them. Cafe Du Monde was pointed out
to me. ‘You can’t leave New Orleans without getting beignets there
at 3 AM.’ We went back to get some dinner and then it was time for
Dark Star Orchestra. Even going into the show I got the impression
that DSO was a bad call; seeing them play reaffirmed that. What’s
the point of seeing a cover band at Jazz Fest. There’s no chance that
you can miss anything if you blow it off, especially when the song
selection made it obvious that they were doing a mid-80’s show. I
waited for the set break – amusingly enough their set closed with a
‘Promised Land’ to get the New Orleans line in – and then did the
long walk to the far side of the French Quarter to Cafe Brazil for the
Living Daylights/Fareed Haque Group show.
Cafe Brazil is located in a more neighborhoody section of New Orleans.
Many people didn’t bother to buy a ticket for the show; they just
stood outside and listened there. The show was pretty good, but
around 4 AM I started to fall asleep. I decided to take Tamara’s
advice and walk to Cafe Du Monde.
I have a good sense of direction. If I didn’t have a good sense of
direction, none of this would have happened. Half asleep, I
remembered vaguely coming in from the right, so I walked that way. If
I had been walking the correct way, Bourbon Street should have soon
been visible to my right. Instead I was seeing train tracks. That
worried me some, because the train tracks ran by the river, and the
river was to the south. [5] I ignored that fact and kept walking.
The area I was walking through was definitely starting to look less
touristy and more industrial. I pushed those fears aside and kept
walking. After all, the moon was straight ahead, and at 4:30 it
should be setting. That meant that I was walking west, right? After
20 minutes of walking, I was definitely sure that I was going the
wrong way, but I didn’t want to stop. It sure would suck if I were
almost there but gave up at the last second. Just when it seemed like
I would walk forever, I finally remembered that the moon rises at
completely random times. A few minutes later, I saw someone on
the street. I asked the ultimate New Orleans tourist question,
‘Ummmmmmmmm, which way is the French Quarter?’ He pointed me back the
way I came. Apparently I had wandered into a really bad neighborhood
without really noticing it. Thankfully I decided against being
Starman that night. In fact it was that moment that led me to
retiring Starman for the rest of Jazz Fest.
I got back to the Cafe Brazil around 5. The band was still going
strong. I told everyone what I did and got pointed in the right
direction. Maybe five minutes later, I was in the heart of the
quarter. Instead of walking three blocks, I walked about twenty. I
got my beignets – which were in fact extremely good – and took a cab
home. This is the night where Jazz Fest started to beat me.
I was warned by everyone not to go both weekends of Jazz Fest. I
couldn’t figure out why that would be a huge deal. Not sleeping for a
week in a row starts to add up. Once again I was in the beautiful
Saenger Theatre, a place that’s like a cross between the Fabulous Fox
in Atlanta and the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara; I still want to
know how they do the cool cloud effects on the ceiling. However, I
was getting tired and spent a lot of the Galactic set napping. This
was the night of the late night show dilemma. First I had a ticket to
KDTU. I sold that for a Robert Walter’s 20th Congress ticket. Then I
couldn’t find anyone to share a cab with, so I sold that ticket and
walked to the House of Blues to try to get back into KDTU. The
net result to all of this is that I was stuck outside with no ticket
at all. I spent the night people watching in the French Quarter. As
tourist areas go, this one is quite interesting. More than anything,
the Quarter sells the air of mystery, the sense that anything can
happen. Walk into the wrong door and you could be off on an
incredible adventure or an incredible disaster. The place is
well patrolled, but the weird sense remains. With the possible
exception of being propositioned by a one armed prostitute, nothing
particularly odd did happen that night, but the potential kept me up
until dawn.
Friday was my first trip to the Fairgrounds. The people I went with
were annoying me. It was the road trip rule in action. For every
person you add to your trip, the time to get ready doubles. We
started to get ready at 11 AM. We didn’t actually make it to the
Fairgrounds until 4. Despite the horror stories I’ve heard about the
crowds, everything was calm. I got a snowball and – in a tribute to
Keller Williams – veggie Red Beans and Rice, and wandered a bit.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was on, but a zydeco version of ‘Hey Joe’
grabbed my attention as I walked by the Fais Do-Do Stage. That forced
me to listen to Jude Taylor and His Burning Flames at least for a
song or two. I was there to see Karl Denson though, making up for
blowing off the late night. As he played, I found myself once again
drifting in and out of a pleasant sleep. If you do it right, you can
catch up on your sleep and still enjoy the music. I woke up refreshed
and wrote the following poem:
Ode To The Power Nap
The music is playing.
The sun beats down.
Beats down on me
As I quietly sleep.
Last night ended at dawn.
Tonight will do so again
But the fairground grass is soft
For the lullaby of groove.
Can energy be transferred?
The power of the jam
Refreshes my body
In world record time.
The music is playing.
The sun is beating down
And in my dreams
I am dancing.
The plan for the night was to go see Yonder Mountain String Band on
the Cajun Queen. That plan was successful and it made for a relaxing
evening. The late night plan was to see the Living Daylights at the
Funky Butt. On my walk to there, I saw a girl sitting in a parking
garage right off of Bourbon, looking really upset. I asked her what
was wrong. She went to Jazz Fest with her ‘kind of boyfriend’s best
friend.’ KoBBF ditched her once it became obvious that she wouldn’t
sleep with him. He ducked into the Penthouse Club, taking the parking
ticket for the car with him. She couldn’t get to the car to get her
id and return plane ticket. They wouldn’t even tell her if the car
was still there; it was four hours after he ditched her. Instead of
seeing music, I sat there and helped her brainstorm ways of getting
back to California. ‘Go to the airport really early, tell them that
your ticket and id were stolen… and the person who stole it will be
on the flight with you….’ I might have missed the best Daylights
show of the week – apparently they went on until 7 AM – but at least I
was able to help someone.
New Orleans is home to some very pretty venues. The Orpheum and
Saegner are both amazing theatres. The Riverboat is fun. Most of the
clubs are nice. How did they get away with it? They exported all of
their badness to one room – the Municipal Auditorium. It might call
itself a multipurpose facility, but that mainly means that it doesn’t
work well for any purpose. The hockey team played there, but the
stands are way too high for good views of that and they have decorative
lights on the ceiling. They hold concerts there, but the acoustics
are miserable and there are seats that literally don’t let you see any
part of the stage. It tried to do many things, but didn’t quite get
the pieces assembled correctly. In that sense, it might have been the
perfect venue for Phil and Friends to play in.
I have to give Phil credit. It would have been easy for him to become
another Dark Star Orchestra. He has resisted that temptation, writing
new songs, and trying to rearrange the Dead tunes he does play.
However, the lesson that he hasn’t learned is that while ‘The Wheel’
is a great song and while space jams are a great thing, it doesn’t
mean that ‘The Wheel’ would be improved if there are space jams in the
middle of it. The Dead were a perfect balance between order and
chaos with Jerry the glue that held them together. When Jerry died,
all of the chaos went to Phil and the order went to Bobby. I don’t
know if the bonds can be recreated once broken, but I’m still hoping.
After Phil, I had a ticket to the North Mississippi All Stars, but it
got blown off. I hadn’t really slept in an entire week. The power
naps were amusing for a while, but it had reached the point where I
was missing major parts of a show. It was best to actually sleep for
a night and enjoy the Sunday shows.
Sunday was the fairgrounds again. I discovered the best thing ever
there. New Orleans food tends to be a tad on the unhealthy side. I
was joking about setting up a stand next year to sell deep fried
breaded lard with whipped cream. I figured that would just get to the
roots of New Orleans cuisine; the only thing it is missing is booze.
However, there is an amazing food item to be had. Oddly enough the
‘Meat Pie’ stand has a vegetarian option. They sell these broccoli
cheese pies that are just amazing. If I return in 2003, I’m going to
have to set aside a lot of money for the pies.
The big plan for the fairgrounds was the Ratdog/Phish pairing. Ratdog
started off with ‘Eyes of the World’. It was pretty good actually,
even if it did make me notice the big Jerry sized hole on the stage. The
set was pleasant enough. The only problem was the really drunk person
who stumbled across 20 people to tell me that God told him to talk to
me. Geez, what did I ever do to God to deserve such a thing. The
pleasantness ended alas when he decided to do ‘Standing on the Moon.’
I just didn’t understand why no one made him stop. Hey God, if you’re
going to send random drunks over to slur and spit at me, can you also
prevent Bobby from destroying an innocent little song?
A few songs into the Phil set, Bob Weir came out. Things suddenly
became better in two ways. First, they weren’t going to play any of
Phil’s new songs. You don’t bring out Bobby to play ‘Night of a
Thousand Stars’ after all. Secondly though, Bobby had a job with the
Dead. His role was to cut Jerry off. If he could do that with Jerry,
he sure wouldn’t have a problem stopping Warren. The jams were a lot
shorter with Bobby on stage and a lot more focused. Was it basically
a nostalgia act? Yeah. Was it fun? That also gets a yeah.
After one last Living Daylights set, I headed over to sleep in the
airport and reflect. I don’t know if I’ll go to Jazz Fest again in
2003, but if I do, I learned the rules of the game:
(1) When in doubt, go for the band that you don’t know. Sure see your
favorite band if they’re playing, but in general try to see stuff you
can’t see elsewhere. My favorite shows were all bands I didn’t know
about, didn’t expect to see, or people I stumbled across while
wandering around the fairgrounds. The most extreme example of this
was the guy I saw at the House of Blues.
‘I’d like a ticket to a show.’
‘We have three bands tonight. Which one do you want?’
‘Ummmmm I dunno… whoever plays at 10 I guess.’
(2) Remember this one rule – New Orleans is a machine designed to suck
away all of your money. No matter how much you bring, you’ll return
broke. Plan your finances accordingly. I didn’t even buy anything –
I just returned with a pile of beads and 20 Superfly promotional cds [7].
(3) Yes it is going to be hot. The one thing that I never really got
used to was leaving a hot club, going outside, and having it be even
hotter. Hydration is your friend. Despite drinking tons of water, I
lost close to four pounds solely because of water loss.
(4) Music is everywhere. I ran into the bassist for Jacob Fred Jazz
Odyssey just while getting lunch one day after all. If you don’t like
the show you are seeing, feel free to leave. There’s probably
something better going on down the street.
Most important is this rule though.
(5) If you’re wandering around and really think you’re going the wrong
[1] Aka Tamara
[2] I get one point every time someone asks me for drugs, 2 points if
they ask me during a set. My personal best score was the 1992 Jones
Beach HORDE show where I scored well over 30 points. My scores were
highest when I was in college – despite the fact that I used to wear a
‘Don’t Ask Me For Drugs’ button. This was the first time I scored any
points at a SCI show.
[3] The main lick of Why Can’t We All Just Samba?
[4] Imagine a rotating coffee can with holes punched in it. There’s a
light in the center of it, which can be seen through the holes. There
are some sensors next to the can at varying heights. Whenever one of
them senses light, it makes a sound; each one makes a different sound.
[5] Aka the House of Blues. They earned their nickname by requiring
people to go through a metal detector to enter the club. Then they
harassed Kyle as he was a little show to pull out his laminate. Then
they got on our case for trying to move a stool a few feet to a better
viewing angle. House of Rules indeed.
[6] Yes to the south. The bend in the Mississippi is why New Orleans
is called The Crescent City.
[7] The 2 cd set is really good. Standout tracks are from Vida Blue,
Particle (recorded solely for this cd), Yonder Mountain, Bela Fleck,
and Robert Randolph. It inspired me to buy two cds (YMSB and Robert
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at and he was the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion.

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