20 Feb 2012: Tipitina's New Orleans, LA
After 6:30 a.m., morning light colors Uptown a faded blue. Smoke from grills fills the air. Early risers secure patches of neutral ground. They sip Abitas, tend to their grills and settle into folding chairs.
Zulu is coming.
People walk, some stumbling, to Jackson Avenue and Saint Charles, where the Zulu floats will take a sharp right and head towards downtown.
On the corner outside of Igor’s Pub, a legion of dazed, costumed people support each other, red-eyed underneath false eyelashes, masks, face paint and wigs. They look like they got hit by a Mardi Gras freight train. It’s impressive that they are still standing. Some are even singing.
It’s clear where this motley crowd and their swollen ankles have been: Galactic’s famous Lundi Gras show at Tipitina’s.
Tipitina’s is one of New Orleans’ most famous music venues. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much—like most of New Orleans’ most famous music venues. The two-story yellow house stands on the lakeside, downtown corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. In other cities, this might be described as the northwest or southeast corner of an intersection, but here in New Orleans we don’t believe in cardinal directions—which explains why the West Bank is on the east side of the Mississippi River. A large sign advertising DIXIE BEER in green letters hangs from the building’s corner. If you didn’t know it was Tip’s, you might think it was a house for Dixie Beer Company.
Every Lundi Gras, Galactic plays at Tip’s until sunrise on Mardi Gras morning. It’s the show to go to—people bribe the doormen to get inside and tickets sell out months in advance. After the show, when sunlight streams through Tip’s windows, the crowd moves to the parade route.
Since 1993, Galactic has reigned as New Orleans’ number one jam/funk band, a distinctive honor in a town with as many bands as there are bars. While each member of the band has other projects and is well-respected for his talent, there’s something magical that happens when Ben Ellman, Robert Mercurio, Stanton Moore, Jeff Raines and Rich Vogel play together. Galactic tours nationally, selling out venues for headline tours and standing out at the biggest summer music festivals.
This year’s album, Carnivale Electricos, is Galactic’s first Mardi Gras themed record. Musical elements from New Orleans and Brazil meld together throughout the album. There’s call and response, samba and even a high school marching band. Local artists, such as Mystikal, Mannie Fresh, David Shaw of the Revivalists, and Big Chief Juan Pardo, lend their talents to the tracks. This Lundi Gras Galactic show will be the first that doubles as a launch party.
It’s around midnight at Tip’s and the crowd looks wild. They are as prepared as you can be for six hours of funk and jamming, which is immediately followed by hours of parades and post-parade parties. Every other girl is wearing a neon wig—short pink bobs, lavender ringlets, the occasional turquoise mullet. Several people dressed as Mardi Gras Indians, with colorful feathers and tall head-dresses. One girl, sporting a glittery, purple and gold fleur-de-leis painted on her right cheek, pauses in front of the bronze bust of Fess (more formerly known as Professor Longhair). The recently departed Coco Robicheaux created the bust, which has a prominent spot in Tip’s—Fess is the first thing you see when you walk in. She pats his head for good luck, removes a bead from her own neck and hangs it over the Professor’s metal one. Then she snakes her way into the crowd, brushing by a six-foot tall lizard, Mother Earth and a man in a miniskirt.
Onstage, Ben Ellman, Stanton Moore, Rob Mercurio, Rich Vogel and Jeff Raines open the first set with “Magalengha (casa samba),” a Brazilian-infused song from Carnivale Electros. Harry Connick Jr,, dressed in a black t-shirt and sporting a five o’clock shadow, hangs in the dark pit by the front of the stage. He steps onstage for “Carnival Time,” along with Ivan Neville and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. A sexy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” follows. Corey Glover from Living Glover, who frequently stands in as Galactic’s vocalist, knocks out “Going Down Slowly” and the Galactic original “Heart of Steel” with his incredible range.
The Tip’s stage is like the house on the block where everyone walks in without calling first. One second, there’s Harry Connick, Jr. behind the keyboards, the next minute Ivan Neville is moseying onstage, then Al “Carnival Time” Johnson leads a call-and-response in his feathered Indian finery. And that’s just the first set.
The highlights from the new album were “Hey Na Na” and “Ash Wednesday”, “Hey Na Na” featured vocals from Shreveport singer-songwriter Maggie Koerner and David Shaw from the Revivalists. This song represents the darker, sexier side of Mardi Gras season. It’s not the one you see on Bourbon Street (tourists, tits, store-bought beads) or along the Uptown parade route (children on ladders, beer, parades), but the one you see dancing on Frenchmen street or drinking at Molly’s and the Dragon Den.
“The phrase to describe this is ‘The inmates have taken over the asylum’,” comments one of the Revivalists during Galactic’s second set, when Glen David Andrews appears.
That phrase not only fits this current Lundi Gras performance, but every facet of this city’s history, culture and society. For instance, our musicians are insane geniuses, from Buddy Bolden to Lil Wayne, who might have some personal and mental issues but who reign supreme when it comes to style and talent. The phrase could be applied to New Orleans’ corrupt police system, where our officers frequently sit in the defendant’s chair. It’s applicable to the inception of this city, when pirates, prostitutes and ex-cons from France set up a camp near Esplanade Street that grew into this city.
The craziest inmate of all seizes the mike during the second set—Glen David Andrews. Andrews, a member of the gifted Andrews family, always crowd surfs. Andrews got his start in gospel and as a result, he sings so hard you’re a little worried he’ll explode over the stage. You kind of wish he would because he’s the guy who always crowd-surfs. There he goes, his rubber soles facing the stage as the obedient crowd passes him away.
Each Galactic member takes a step back from the limelight at some point in the night: keyboardist Vogel steps aside for Harry Connick Jr. Ellman puts down his saxophone and watches the Naughty Professor blow the crowd away. Later, Ellman plays his saxophone so hard that his entire scalp sweats, which he wipes off during a break. Stanton Moore sits back while the New York Maracatu Drummers took over for “Hook and Sling”. Once he starts playing again, he reminds the crowd why he’s New Orleans’ best drummer—he’s an animal behind the drums, in terms of passion and technique. He’s able to play complicated rhythms at superhuman speed, such as at the end of “Hook and Line”.
The beautiful, bittersweet “Ash Wednesday,” forms the perfect bridge from this crazy Lundi Gras night to the last morning of Carnival. The audience is now parade-goers. The majority of the audience treks to the parade route. The weak first slump on the sidewalk, then make for the neutral ground of Napoleon Avenue for a little breather. The benches fill up. Several pick-up trucks in the Rouse’s parking lot double as watering holes, with six-packs saved for the pre-parade pre-game. The smell of beer hangs in the air, mixing with the scent of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers.
The strongest dance their way out of Tipitina’s and, without a hesitation, dance their way to the intersection of Jackson Avenue and Saint Charles Avenue. At that corner, tired but still standing, they wait. Tired eyes light up when the first notes from the parades’ marching bands reverberate through the air. Here comes the Zulu king.