This weekend was one of the largest free music festivals in the nation: French Quarter Fest.
Everywhere, in the music and on the streets, the themes of sin and redemption were on display. The best jazz musicians in New Orleans played in small music halls, on the sidewalk, and at several main stages while the colorful cast of characters that make "Nawlins" what it is danced and imbibed freely among the decaying colonial-era buildings of the quarter. Catholicism runs deep in the city, but it's a kind that's a world away from the Vatican brand.
I traveled down to New Orleans on Thursday and the first stop was Preservation Hall. It seats about 40, is a building so old it feels full of ghosts, and musicians have to stand when they sing or solo so the people can see.
In the early 18th century, the French founded Nouvelle-Orleans as a trading post and was a place where the French, slaves, and traders mingled. The early governors' letters are full of complaints about the riffraff in the city.
"We have to see Glen David Andrews," said my sister, who lives there. "He'll be on Frenchman street later. He just got out of rehab."
We walked down to Frenchmen's that night, talking loudly, sun burnt, and full of daiquiris. The street was packed with color: crusters playing banjos or selling art, tourists bewildered by the novelty, and revelers of all kinds. David Andrews was standing outside talking to a woman.
Inside the club, David Andrews got up on stage and began to play the trombone with only the piano player keeping him company. He occasionally stepped back from the microphone to tuck in his shirt or take a sip of hot water. David Andrews took out the lemon from his mug and popped it in his mouth, sucked out the juices with a slight grimace and pulled the rind from his mouth. From outside, the other band members began filtering in. The drummer joined, and then the saxophonist, and then the bass player who tuned up while the band was playing, and then an older man with a mini-trumpet who stood to the side with one foot on the stage and they all went on seamlessly from one song to the next.
For many of the locals, it was good to see David Andrews back on stage. He'd finally put criminal charges behind him, stemming from a domestic violence dispute last year. "That's part of the deal. I have to get paid and get out of there," David Andrews told Off Beat. "I [used to] have to use $100 worth of heroin just to get up in the morning.... After [some shows now I feel] sad about all the times I had played...and wasted that chance for happiness then.... But I have an opportunity to move forward now."
During his set on Frenchmen street, two guys walk in and stand by the door. One of them is Trombone Shorty, a famous local musician and David Andrews' cousin, and the other is wearing an Eagles cap and a cut off jean jacket. "Come on up here," David Andrews says to him. The kid in the Eagles cap gets up and says, "I'll take it from the second verse," and then proceeds to let loose a sound that would fill a cathedral.
The next hour is organized chaos. Most everyone is up dancing, the solos get wilder and wilder, and at times David Andrews reaches one hand around to the front of his trombone and uses it like one would a plunger to mute the sound slightly or give it a certain vibrato. Towards the end of the show, he steps into the crowd and sings without the microphone, moving wildly among the patrons. "Will Trombone Shorty, play when I die?" he calls out, throwing his head back and arms to the side. "Will the preservation jazz band, play when I die?!"
Everyone at the point was at a fevered pitch, and as the band continued to play, David Andrews turned and walked out into the night. Slowly each musician packed up and followed, as did the patrons, until the bar was nearly empty. We walked to the streetcar, passing by wedding parties and all the other types of tourists. Everyone would be seeking solace in another kind of bottle in the morning. A bottle of Tylenol.