In New Orleans, the great majority of live music performance is either club or festival-based. There’s very little in-between particularly when it comes to actual concert presentations. In DC one is accustomed to the equation being either concert or club, with not early as much festival action; the major exception being the ongoing development of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival (www.dejazzfest.org). Landing here in NOLA last Fall we were told by many and it became quickly apparent that the local club and bar scene was bread & butter for music performances of a sometimes staggering variety. And it also became clear that rarely was that a matter of joints that one might characterize as actual listening rooms, or places where the music performance was the primary action. Outside of the French Quarter and it’s adjacent cousin The Marigny and vibrant Frenchman Street (home to NOLA’s most consistent modern jazz venue, Snug Harbor, and such other big-fun rooms as Ray’s Boom Boom Room), the town boasts all manner of music rooms that in some other parlance might simply be labeled "neighborhood joints".
A nice taste of this New Orleans vibe last was served up last Tuesday. Crossing Claiborne Avenue on St. Bernard we turned right onto A.P. Tureaud St. and smack dab in the midst of an otherwise residential boulevard (with a green grass dividing strip which in other locales might be a mere median strip but which in NOLA parlance is dubbed a neutral ground) sat a corner joint called Bullets Sports Bar. Though there were ample pick-ups and SUVs parked on the neutral ground, we were a bit parking shy, having been stung by a few $20 parking tickets (as they say in DC, the most (only?) efficient department of city government is parking enforcement, I’m here to report likewise about New Orleans), so we chose a side street and parked across from the all-too-typical storm-wrecked structure pile (mind you we’re approaching the 3 year anniversary of Katrina).
It was time for Game 6 of the NBA Finals and I’d been assured that Bullets was a sports bar suitable for getting my NBA on. Indeed the walls and over the bar were festooned with no less than 3 big screens showing the game, but that need was quickly allayed by other attractions. The bar and tables alongside one wall and to the back of the bar area were jammed with folks from this and some other neighborhoods; translation: these were just plain folks, black & white, out for a good time and a few brews; check your pretense at the door. Oh, and did I mention the barbecue smoker at the side of the building where one could grab some sizzle-to-go? As a friend once remarked, you don’t go anywhere in the Crescent City of an arts & culture, entertainment, reception, meeting, informal gathering, etc. nature and there be no food.
The game was purely secondary, occasional eye candy to the funk that Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers were laying down at the front of the joint; no stage, just a simple amplification hook-up and they were on! Kermit Ruffins is a true heir to the New Orleans trumpet tradition, more from the good-time and entertainment side of that equation than the high-artistic pursuit side. He blows a roof-rocking horn and sings in a wry, raspy manner also befitting his place in that lineage. Buoyed by his discographical efforts on NOLA’s most viable imprint, Basin Street Records (www.basinstreetrecords.com), Ruffins has also become a New Orleans musical ambassador of sorts and a bit of a celebrity around town. Name me another jazz-based musician who gets recognized on the Jumbotron to significant applause at his or her local NBA games.
A modern-day NOLA brass band musician, Kermit evolved from the Rebirth Brass Band as one of those "colorful" character players steeped in marching band music, traditional New Orleans songs, all things Pops, and a hustler’s mentality that finds him working somewhere in town several days a week. He’s as conversant with "The Big Butter and Egg Man", "Struttin’ With Some Barbecue" and "Besame Mucho" as he is with James Brown, George Clinton and "Hide The Reefer". Beers festooning every table, sometimes in prodigious numbers — Bullets offers them by the bucketful if you’re really in the mood for some brews — this was a good-times scene in every sense.
Ruffins and his skilled, streamlined quartet blew a set that journeyed from a raucous "Little Liza Jane" to one of Rebirth’s signatures "I Feel Like Funkin’ It Up", to permutations of Ray Charles and Sly Stone, to full-out funk. So when you come to NOLA look for Kermit Ruffins, and look beyond the WWOZ Live Wire reports on who’s playing in town because chances are neighborhood joints like Bullets Sports Bar won’t be reporting, but you can bet they’ll be jammed with good-timers and unpretentious surroundings.