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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2008/05/23
by David Steinberg

To Miss New Orleans

Due to going on tour and my general wanderlust, I have been to 98 of the 100 largest cities in the country [1]. In 97 of them, I dont believe in ghosts. And then there’s New Orleans. The entire philosophy of New Orleans is to invite the attention of gods and spirits and ghosts. It’s a town that wants weirdness and mystery, but it either doesn’t grasp or doesn’t care about the most salient fact about gods. By definition, they are more powerful than you and they don’t share our morality. Read any tale about alleged encounters and you see the same thing. Trickster gods decide to teach us what’s important by taking away what we cared about. Ghosts normally have their own agenda that is supposed to supersede our plans for the day. Sure, without the voodoo and the Dionysian revels, New Orleans might be just another Houston, but the results of the call to weirdness is that this is a city on the itinerary of any entity that wants to wreak havoc on the mortal sphere.
That, at least is how things were before Katrina. I attended Jazz Fest in 2002 and a large part of what struck me was the sense of danger. However, that came in part out of the desperation of the 9th Ward. While the relocation of the worst off residents could only help the city (and hopefully them), the city had a definite energy that was irreplaceable. As this would be Melissa’s first trip to the Big Easy, I was scared that it would be a Disneyfied version of itself, with the bars and strip clubs still running but the actual weirdness gone.
It only took an hour of walking around to find that fear unfounded. Sure there was still obvious damage in the quarter (including blown over street signs)

but there were also stores selling robots made out of found art and buskers everywhere. Moreover, as we walked around St. Louis Cathedral looking for a spot to take a good photograph, I got the ultimate piece of evidence that the city was not defeated by the hurricane. A man came up to me and bet me a dollar that he could tell me where I got my shoes. Oh beloved scam, how I missed you so. Crescent City here I am!

The first night was just spent exploring the Quarter, and some things jumped out at me that I hadn’t previously noticed. One thing that is obvious as soon as you notice its absence is megachains. Sure there are a couple of Walgreens, a House of Blues, a W Hotel, and a few of the strip clubs are part of chains, but it’s very refreshing to see a dining and shopping tourist attraction that’s not all Hard Rock Cafnd Niketown; yes Westlake Center [2], I’m looking at you. That adds to the energy to a region that doesn’t need it per se. That’s why Bourbon Street is so important.
The rest of the Quarter is bizarre. Doorways lead into mysterious looking courtyards. The voodoo shops make you believe that their concoctions actually work, as opposed to the t-shirt and voodoo tourist traps on Bourbon. What Bourbon Street does with its strip clubs and bars is channel that energy into something more understandable. The region is fairly primal – free advice, don’t rely on a trickster god for protection in this area, as they’re liable to be more interested in the chaos than in your needs – and the powers that be need some way of controlling it. Drunken louts ogling boobs is annoying, but it leads to reasonably predictable behavior. People come in with money and walk out with vague memories and an STD or two.
While exploring New Orleans is always fascinating, the purpose of this trip was to see music. Thursday started out with a walk to Canal Street to catch the Zydeco Express and revel in 19th century technology. Seattle is currently building a light rail system from downtown to the airport. The cars are going to be climate controlled and computerized and have all sorts of fancy features. Despite that, the streetcar we rode will be more interesting. Why? Because you can actually see how it works. For example, the line doesn’t have any sort of loop at the end for the car to turn around. If the car can’t make a U-turn, they do the next best thing; there is a drivers’ seat in both the front and back of the car. The seats are benches that are reversible. When the driver gets to the end of the line, he flips the seats as he walks to the back of the train. Lo and behold, he’s now at the front. There’s no way anyone would ever create a new system that low tech, but it works just fine.
The ride was our first full exposure to the damage Katrina did, well outside of the t-shirts that mock FEMA. The trip takes you past the ironically named Joy Theatre, now boarded up. There is now an extensive tent city under the I-10 overpass. If you just stay in the quarter and uptown, it’s easy to pretend that nothing ever happened, but Canal Street allows no illusions.

The area closer to the fairgrounds is closer to its 2002 self. There were broccoli cheese pies to be consumed [3], parades to stumble across, and music to see. After a check of the gospel tent, it was time to see the artist that represents New Orleans to anyone lucky enough to attend a Jam Cruise. It was George Porter Jr. time!

There had been rumors of Page sitting in with PBS (making it PBS&M, which sounds like a George Washington Carver fanfic), and fortunately they came true. Sit ins are the nature of the Jazz Fest beast. While I don’t remember much about this set musically, the expression of sheer joy on Page’s face stuck with me. You can take the boy off of Phish tour, but you can’t take the Phish tour out of the boy; seeing members of Phish having fun while playing music is always going to be a great thing.
Later that afternoon came Widespread Panic. New Orleans is south of my Panic Line [4], so we went to the back of the venue and stretched out. The show started out extremely strong. The cover of ‘Fixin’ to Die’ was a standout, with some very impressive keyboard work. As the song ended, I was leaning over to Mel to say how good the keys were when JB announced, ‘Page McConnell.’ No wonder I enjoyed the song so much. Sometimes it’s fun to be where you can’t see the stage.
While I missed out on Page, the other guest that night would be impossible to ignore. The Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian group came on stage and sang the New Orleans standard, ‘Big Chief.’ If you’re a music lover and are wondering if you want to go to New Orleans or not, here’s a good rule for you. If a city has its own set of standard songs and a style of music that only really exists in town, maybe you should venture there before you (or it) die.
We arrived back at our hotel around 7 PM. What do you do after seeing 8 hours of music in New Orleans? Go out to a club of course! The Howlin’ Wolf is a new club for New Orleans, but it’s hard to beat the vibe there. It’s well ventilated – exceedingly important for a state without a smoking ban – and gives the illusion of being out on a street in the Quarter; the sides of the stage are made out to be the facade of buildings.
We had bought tickets to this show on the rumor that ‘Russell Batiste and Phriends’ would have a Page appearance. The urgency there was reduced having seen him twice at the fairgrounds, but it still was great to see him come out and play at the club.
While Page’s appearance was widely rumored, a different guest wasn’t. About 3/4 of the way through the set, Mike Gordon also joined the stage. Mike and Page stood a few inches from each other, talking and playing. While the music itself – while quite good – wasn’t earth shattering, it was worth the $30 to have that moment of watching two old band mates play together.
Phish – well half Phish – wasn’t the only reunion we’d see that night. Vida Blue might not have been the most popular Phish side project, but I’ve always been partial to them. Seeing a reunited band play, ‘Most Events Aren’t Planned,’ was the highlight of the day for me. They rocked it out the ending harder than most Vida Blue versions I have heard. It was the perfect symmetry of history and performance. Moments like this are why venturing to New Orleans is so rarely a mistake.
Our hotel was only a few blocks away from the venue, so we weren’t too worried about walking back. We headed out of the venue and immediately set out the wrong way. Back in 2002 I accidentally walked the wrong way after a show and walked a mile into sketchier and sketchier territory. A policeman informed me that I was lucky to have survived that. Four years can make a lot of difference though. As soon as I suspected we were heading the wrong way, I grabbed my iPhone and hit the magic, ‘Show me where I am’ button. Technology has its uses. We only went a half block before turning around. Sure I missed out on the repeat of a great adventure, but you only survive that so many times.
Friday brought with it the threat of rain, so we stayed away from the swamp that the fairgrounds had become. There still would be plenty of music, starting with the Creole Queen Riverboat. Unfortunately, the Mississippi being at flood stage prevented the boat from leaving dock (although another boat did pass us a couple of times, leaving to chants of, ‘Fuck the Natchez!’), but the music was still good. The Forgotten Souls Brass Band opened with a short but interesting set. They were all dressed in Harlem Globetrotters outfits and opened with ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ They were having fun and dancing with the audience. As Melissa put it, ‘Normally I hate it when there’s an opening band but in New Orleans that’s usually someone good.’

The Greyboy Allstars show was one of the highlights of the week. The first set took some time to build, but by the closing tribute to Burt Bacharach [5], the band had jelled. They carried it the energy through the second set, which was one of the better Greyboy sets I’ve seen. What this also was is the second best show we saw that night.
Sometimes it pays to listen to the rumor mill. Sure, you have to wade your way through a lot of false stories made up by bored people, but every now and then there’s a nugget of truth buried within. There had been a theory that Mike would be playing at the Maple Leaf for the show billed as, ‘ Johnny V, Matt Chamberlain, Marco Benevento, and guests.’ We now knew that he was in town so it seemed worth the gamble of a cab fare.
We arrived in time for Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes. This band has been talked up on the Jam Cruise message board which has had the ironic effect of making me less interested in seeing them due to the hype. However, that was just short changing myself, as they were quite enjoyable.
Eventually they left the stage. So there we were at the Maple Leaf, a tiny venue that was about a quarter full at 3 AM. Roadies were moving equipment on stage, people were milling about, and then, sure enough, Mike walked through the crowd and onto the stage. This set was largely a jam session with the occasional song creeping in. While Johnny Vidacovich’s lyrics occasionally were suboptimal [6], this was the perfect mixture of great music, a wonderful environment – both in terms of the venue and the attentive crowd – and seeing one of our favorite musicians playing a cool looking bass.

If there’s one problem with Jazz Fest, it’s that it’s easy to just kill yourself. Between the temptations of the city and the endless music options, it’s possible to get yourself to the point where you’re so tired that you don’t even enjoy the music anymore. That’s why we took a nap before Saturday’s late night show. Unfortunately, the hotel completely spaced on giving us our 12:30 AM wake up call and we missed the show. While it was somewhat frustrating sacrificing a day of Jazz Fest by not seeing any music, it turned out to be a good thing. Sunday was going to be a long day and we needed to be rested.
The difference between Thursday at the Fairgrounds and Sunday there was roughly equivalent to the difference between Big Cypress and Coventry. The former was a pleasant experience with perfect weather whereas the latter was a mud filled exercise in frustration. The return of the Neville Brothers to Jazz Fest drew tremendous crowds making it difficult to get near any stage. Between the crowds and the mud, it was difficult to actually appreciate the music.
That’s not to say that there weren’t good moments. Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet were a standout; how many bands play both bluegrass and Chinese folk songs? Both Santana and the Neville Brothers had some strong moments and the Gospel Tent was rewarding as always.
After a rather interesting cab ride back to the hotel through all sorts of fascinating back roads, it was time for one last show. We couldn’t leave New Orleans without one more dosage of George Porter Jr. It’s a good thing that we went to see PBS because even with the sit ins we had witnessed, one thing was missing – a Warren Haynes appearance. The exceedingly strong set was the perfect way to wind down the week; PBS’s music seemed to be much stronger in the smaller venue of the Howlin’ Wolf.

New Orleans has a way of letting you know it’s time to go home. Your bank account is drained, you’re exhausted, and you’re craving some food that isn’t deep-fried. As sad as we were to see our vacation coming to an end, we were pretty much ready to leave on Monday. Despite that, the city wasn’t quite ready to bid us farewell.
Due to some thunderstorms in Houston, there were delays at our gate. The flight before ours was well over an hour late. Normally that would be cause for complaining and grumbling, but we were still in New Orleans. Sitting at the gate was Colin Lake winner of Relix’s Jamoff! competition. He pulled out his lap steel and proceeded to play a set for people in the waiting room. People started migrating to our gate and gave a rousing ovation after every song. That is what Jazz Fest is like. It’s a festival where you can’t even get on a plane without hearing a great set of music. Hopefully it won’t be another four years before we make it back down there. Keep those Broccoli Cheese Pies ready, ok?
[1] Since I know you’re curious – Fort Wayne, IN and Grand Rapids, MI
[2] Westlake Center is just east of Pike Place Market. It’s a mall surrounded by chain stores. This is where the WTO protestors concentrated their destructive efforts. I can’t say that I don’t understand their point.
[3] Note to Mrs. Wheat’s Foods: I don’t care if a hurricane hit your city. There is no excuse for selling out of broccoli cheese pies before Sunday. How can just one day of pies satisfy the craving?
[4] As explained earlier, I decided that Panic is best seen north of a line stretching from San Francisco to Baltimore.
[5] ‘Walk on By’ interspersed with the Mary Tyler Moore theme for some reason.
[6] ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know,’ being a prime example.
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
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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