April 15th, 2017 was the first time I visited one of New Orleans’ most famous venues, Tipitina’s. Opened in the mid-’70’s ostensibly as a place for Professor Longhair to play regular gigs, the 501 Club (as it was first known) is a medium-sized bar with a wrap-around balcony located a stone’s-throw from the most ostentatious curve of the Mississippi River in all of Crescent City.
This places it a fair piece from the French Quarter in one direction and about the same unwalkable distance from my favourite local dive (The Maple Leaf Bar, of course) in the other, with not much else of interest in the vicinity. Basically what I’m saying is that Tipitina’s is not a walk-up place – it’s a destination bar – but it seems they book enough irresistible music into the place to pull regular crowds away from the rest of an entertainment-drenched city.
M’lady and I were there to see the Drive-By Truckers. A streetcar and a bus got us within walking distance and when we arrived outside of Tip’s we quickly found ourselves locked in pleasant conversation with a recently retired couple from Toronto who had booked a condo near our hotel for a few months.
Once we heard the opening act booming from inside the four of us headed in and found a good spot near the middle of the balcony, where we let Hiss Golden Messenger’s rootsy set serve as background to getting to know each other over a few beers. The sound was great and there was an amply-pouring bar just feet away from our perch above the professional stage and the packed dancefloor. With its walls lined with gig posters going back decades and wooden floors worn dark and smooth from a thousand spills and almost as many mop-ups, Tipitina’s bleeds an authentic, music-loving, unpretentious NOLA vibe through-and-through, and I loved it.
Once the Truckers came on we put away our niceties, grabbed another round and concentrated on the band. They pulled out Ronnie and Neil early in their set – a crunchy singalong about the relationship between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant* that I used to cover with my buddy Doug – and even that couldn’t help me take my eyes off of the band’s new (can I still call him new?) bass player. The guy’s clear and obvious adulation for playing simple, solid whole notes on electric bass guitar brings him so much ecstasy that I find him utterly impossible to not watch. It may be related to a long, strange evening m’lady and I shared with him the last time we saw the Trucker’s in this town, but I don’t think so. I mean, the lanky moptop gets so much joy from plucking his E string that he’s actually giggling in sheer delight at least half the time. It’s like watching a heavily nipped-up kitten play with a ball of string, and we all know how popular cat videos are.
Anyway, the show was great and we had made new friends. If I remember correctly Gord and Debbi initially suggested we share a cab after the show but they ended up going home a little before we were ready to leave, but not before arranging to meet us a few nights later to see The Honey Island Swamp Band, a group they really liked that we had never heard of. In an odd coincidence we ended up taking the same cab home anyway – if one fare apart – despite the fact that m’lady and I had walked almost a mile from the venue in hopes of catching a cheap streetcar. We ended up flagging down said cabbie, who told us he had just picked up a pair of Canadians at Tipitina’s and dropped them in the same area that we were staying.
*I just now found out that it’s spelt “Zant” and not “Zandt”. That eliminates a lot of nagging speculation I’ve had about any relationship between the former lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Little guitar phenom from Springsteen’s E Street Band.