NEW ORLEANS — Frenchman Street. How did it take me so long to discover what our friend Brett Milano calls “a musical theme park.” At least half a dozen clubs within a couple of blocks, all with their own particular thing, but mostly leaning the jazz way. At the Three Muses, we had dandy cocktails and fine snacks (oh — duck! duck! duck! On pizza! With an egg! And rabbit boudin!) while the house act, Miss Sophie Lee, sang old-time blues and jazz standards from a small stage in the storefront window. Mirrors over the bar instead of widescreen TVs (no more fucking NFL draft, thank you, just Abita Seasonal!). Quiet, stylish, funky. We like.
Formerly I knew Frenchman Street only as the home of Snug Harbor, the New Orleans modern-jazz mecca where you went to see Terence Blanchard and Ellis Marsalis and McCoy Tyner. Who, fine as they all are, are NOT the reason I come to New Orleans. I can see all these fine gentlemen in Boston. No, I come to New Orleans to hear people and bands who rarely if ever travel north of I-10 – Mardi Gras Indians, Frankie Ford, Ed Volker, Meschiya Lake, Tim Laughlin, Tuba Skinny, Natalie Mae and Her Unturned Tricks. Those last two acts I had never seen before this year, but I’ll look for them again next year and forever more.
But yes, Frenchman Street now extends far beyond Snug Harbor. Friday night my wife and I ventured out there for the first time — around the bend of Decatur, past Checkpoint Charlie’s — to see singer John Boutte at d.b.a. You may know Boutte as the vocalist for the title song of the HBO hit Treme, but in New Orleans he’s a long well-respected artist. Brett told us that Boutte is usually far too big a deal these days for d.b.a., but this was Jazz Fest week, where the big names invade the smaller clubs. And besides, Boutte had a gig coming up at the Fest’s second weekend — his band needed to play. It was a superb, generous band, with trombone, trumpet, and alto sax, guitar, bass, and drums. Introducing the esteemed trumpeter Wendell Brunious, Bouttee said, “You’re getting your $20 worth.”
He wasn’t kidding. The band played inventive arrangements for nearly two hours without a break. And Boutte proved himself a remarkable vocalist. You could complain that any number of his tunes were too familiar by half, especially on the New Orleans tourist circuit — “Basin Street Blues,” “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans).” But it was the aggregate force of his song selection, and his honest, often stunning delivery, that made Boutte’s set special. Yes, there was “La Vie En Rose,” but it was as good as his delivery of “Lush Life,” which was to die for. Boutte has a light tenor with an appealing burr in its grain. His phrasing is masterful, pushing his breath control to the limit, and he sings so you hear every word. It’s not just in his diction, but in that phrasing. I can’t remember the last time I noticed that the answer to the central question of “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” is “the ones I care for.” In Boutte’s personal rendering, the singular becomes plural.
Boutte sang Allen Toussaint’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette),” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” By time he finished a stunning version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” he would have been justified in saying, “Okay, I’m done.” But he went on — with a bolero he recored with the band Cubanismo, and, yes, “Treme,” and more. The finale was an a cappella rendering of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” “I dreamed I was flying,” Boutte sang. It was no dream. He had been.