Tipitina’s Turns The Big Three-Oh!
When I approach the Claiborne Ave. exit off of I-10, the Superdome takes up the entire rearview mirror. When the massive shipping cranes that line the Mississippi River come into sight line in front of me, I get warm and fuzzy. I dont have a thing for massive shipping cranes which stretch the vertical horizon, however, I get excited in knowing that the terra firma colored cranes stand within dancing distance from Tipitinas Uptown, the yellow building with the Dixie Beer sign which greets the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas (Chop-pi-tool-us) Aves.: The junction of kindred souls.
The building is more than a haven for the good timers of the world, where senators daughters, Dead Heads, Super Bowl bound quarterbacks and good old fashioned freaks have been getting it on side by side since day one. Its been a beacon of hope and light in a time of darkness and upheaval that surrounds the city in which it lies. Before the floods, the soul of the club was internationally renowned, after the floods, it became much more than that, it became a life line for locals and non locals alike, the place where the heart of New Orleans culture is still felt in its original form.
There are stories along every inch of crumbling asphalt in the Crescent City and within the history covered walls of Tipitinas, the fading and nicotine stained gig posters speak for themselves. Local legends such as Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, James Booker, The Meters, The Neville Brothers and The Radiators have and some still it call home. Bands like Janes Addiction, Widespread Panic, Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, Wilco and My Morning Jacket cut their touring teeth here. A neighborhood bar where bands like The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Galactic, Trombone Shorty and the Orleans Ave got their start. I could fill a 3,000 word article just with the names of the acts that have played here.
In a city that considers live music a religion, Tips is the Vatican, the baubles and Jesus paintings replaced by beads and a mural above the stage of clubs patron saint Professor (Fess) Longhair. Tips standing power alone as an independent club in an age of corporate conglomerate concert venues is enough to celebrate. But now theres reason for a big ass King Cake: this month Tips turns 30.
Started by fourteen somewhat na and bohemian students from nearby Tulane University, Tips was a juice bar (hence the banana logo) by day and a live music venue at night, a place where the Fabulous Fo Teen as they are known, could book their favorite acts, like Professor Longhair whose tune, Tipitina the club was named after. Knowing a lot about partying and not much else, they were forced hold their first benefit a month after their opening to pay their bills. Like New Orleans neighborhood social clubs before them who help those who cant make their ends meet, a precedent had been set. If you were a local musician in trouble you could turn to Tips, because you were there for them and vice versa, its a simple philosophy that has endured.
The business model at Tipitinas is not one you would expect. Its being run as a non-profit club with the benefactors being the Tipitinas Foundation. As a way to combat the deep pockets of a national chain like the House of Blues, Tips offers more than a show date in New Orleans. It offers a chance for the artists to give back to a community who still needs it, and its still a local business that features New Orleans artists on the regular. The Foundation which was started before Katrina has provided instruments for school marching bands, money for the Mardi Gras Indians for their festive feathers that adorn their hand sewn costumes, built a co-op for musicians where legal and housing help is at their disposal. It provides a work/tutorial space for those who want to chase big or little dreams in the music business. After the storm, the Tips Foundation stepped up and in to help and accommodate thousands. In the process of it all, when doors were being slammed the club and the community has came away with something truly special.
The Foundation allowed us not only to survive Katrina, but to strengthen our overall organization during the aftermath of the storm, by using the mission of the club to provide world class music and feature New Orleans finest with the Foundations mission to save the musical culture of New Orleans in mind, said Tipitinas Director Bill Taylor. Weve been able to join the two to develop an innovative concept to have a club functioning as a non-profit. The co-op became more useful than ever after the storm, as the local musicians needed the resources we were providing more than ever.
Whenever a New Orleans musician is in need we pride ourselves in stepping up and doing what we can using this building as a vehicle to provide help, says Taylor.
David Kunian is a New Orleans based writer and documentarian and has seen his share of history happen at Tips. He has also seen the acts of altruism firsthand as he usually serves as master of ceremonies for many of the benefits at Tips, including the Jazz Fest staple, Instruments A Comin. These days its incredibly important because everybody is in more dire straits than they had been. We could do one benefit a month for people who are having housing or health issues, especially the health issues, says Kunian.
Being a musician in New Orleans is never a particularly a healthy thing to do and now with everybody dealing with the added amount of stress of just living in New Orleans, it takes a lot out of people. The Tips Foundation has helped a lot of people get back to their knees, which you have to do before you get back on your feet. Having a base and all the stuff you have to deal with without having a roof over your head is important. A roof is not a trailer, Kunian says point blank.
In September 2006, Bill Taylor decided to make 2007 the year of the Fat Man. It was his vision to re-introduce Fats Domino to the world via a tribute album to him to benefit the Tipitinas Foundation. The last the world had seen of Antoine Domino was permanently etched in the American psyche, Coast Guard boats rescuing the venerable and now vulnerable to the world, 77 year old architect of rock n roll from his flood ravaged Lower Ninth Ward home. With the hard work of Taylor and others, including former long time Tips booking agent Adam Shipley and this very author, a 30 song double CD, entitled Goin Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino was released in September of 2007.
It was no rush job, but rather a miracle. Artists like Paul McCartney (I Want to Walk You Home with local and international legend Allen Toussaint), Neil Young (Walkin to New Orleans) Robert Plant (Valley of Tears and Its Been Rainin) Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (Im Walkin) Elton John (Blueberry Hill) and heavy nods from NOLA innovators George Porter Jr., (Im Gonna Be A Wheel Some Day with Herbie Hancock) Art Neville (Baby Please Dont Go) and current NOLA stalwarts like Ivan Nevilles Dumpstaphunk (on the title track Goin Home with B.B. King) and Galactic (Goin to the River with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Robbie Robertson) also being represented.
Goin Home earned raves from USA Today, Rolling Stone and NPR and has brought the much needed spotlight back on the daily struggles still being faced by every day New Orleanians as well as the affected musicians. Goin Home has also put Tips in a great position for another 30 years of groundbreaking and booty shaking music to come. A passed note on a cocktail napkin told me of a major show announcement about a birthday party for the Fat Man in the up coming weeks. Wilco is returning in March for two nights. Things are looking up at Tips.
Given how many high profile artists are on the record, Goin Home has raised the level of the Tipitinas brand and the work of the Foundation, says Taylor. Now more than ever we are able to reach out to artists who have played Tipitinas in a long time or have never played here. A band like Wilco for example, understands Tipitinas role in the efforts to bring back music to New Orleans, and reasons bigger than a paycheck.
So, it was more than fitting that smack dab in the middle of the birthday celebration was a benefit for local drummer and rhythm devil Johnny Vidacovich. Teacher of Galactics Stanton Moore and street sensei to countless others Johnny V., the beat behind the masterful jazz fusion trio the Astral Project, a man who has helped more than a couple people in New Orleans and in countless far flung destinations needed help. His arthritis is getting worse and renovations are needed to keep a roof over him and his family. But he never asked for anything nor spoke of it. When Stanton Moore heard of it, he did what he was taught. Organize and give back. Hundreds came out to the club that has done so much, for a man who has done has done so much for so many people. What he can do to and does for people is nothing short of inspirational. I know Ive seen it with my own eyes.
On a miserably hot Sunday afternoon last July, Johnny V. and his old buddy George Porter were giving local kids music lessons at the Tipitinas Sunday Music Workshop. All summer I poked my head into the lessons given my various artists from all over the globe. Every Sunday in his Sundays best this African-American kid with severe facial deformities would wait his turn behind the drum kit. You could tell he waited and prayed all week for this. I bore witness to his improvements over the summer from a fumbling, unsure kid into a kid who was now living and breathing it, but still a lil ways off. That is until Johnny V. sat in with him.
Awright, ya ready now? Johnny V asked in his super thick NAwlins accent. Standing behind the kid behind the kit, who nodded as a response. With his hands on top of the kids, he showed him the fills and the gaps, to let the beat breathe. The kid tried it on his own and missed. He tried again and missed. Then Johnny V. said to him, Dont think. Just hit it, man. Just hit it right there. Now there we go. Awright. Go with it, he said.
The kid got it. The bass player joined in, then the horns, then the guitar and finally the keyboards to The Meters Cissy Strut. The kid was driving the band with his hands, feet and smile. His band mates began to smile and began to groove. I began to cry along with every other adult who saw and felt what Johnny V just did for this hardworking kid, whose life has been turned upside since Katrina. The effect on the children of New Orleans has been was profound and surreal. I saw another New Orleans drummer born that Sunday afternoon. A kid that will maybe grow up one day to be man who falls in line with the spirit and soul of the great New Orleans keepers of the beat like Johnny V.
When one enters Tipitinas past the kindest and the most unassuming door staff in the history of live music venues, you see a mantle holding the bust of Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair. Upon entering you must rub Fess head for good times ahead. I rub the head every time I walk into the building whether its show day or not. Its a reaction, like genuflecting in a house of worship, well because it is.
All over the country, places like Tipitinas are falling to the wayside (think CBGBs, The Bottom Line) and a piece of American soul and ingenuity dies every time an independent music club shuts its door. But when you look at the bronze head on the bust of Fess it is impossible not to notice that the patina has worn off from all the rubbin a great sign that the like minded, kindred souls wont let Tips be a memory, but rather a living, breathing music museum, where its okay if you spill your beer on the floor. All they ask is not to let anyone fall. You can always dance around it the spill, like theyve been doing for thirty years.
_To donate to the Tipitinas Foundation, visit Tipitinasfoundation.org.