The Rebirth Brass Band’s regular Tuesday night gig
8316 Oak Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
Open Daily 3pm-3am
Sardines in the can have more elbowroom than I have pushing my way into the Maple Leaf’s music room adjacent to the bar. “Hey, Pops!” I’m merrily greeted by the guy at the door collecting cover dough. The average age of these sardines is about twenty-five.
The rhythmic organic swaying to the beat is the same as Bullet’s minus the dancing. Trumpeters hit impossibly high and sustained notes that stoke the writhing beast of a crowd, then trombones fire away, the whole sound underpinned with tuba and drums.
The music pins my ears back. I don’t know if the silly grin on my face is due to the fabulous music or that the tiny bones in my eardrums just broke and my sense of hearing will never be the same. I should care about this. I don’t.
One of the last songs they play before the break has words. Everyone in the room knows them. They go something like this (you add the appropriate rhythm cadence here...) "If you... don’t fuck with me ...I won’t fuck with you.... and that's the truth..." The lyrics here on the page look stark, perhaps foreboding. When uttered with the music, they're sort of an urban version of the Golden Rule, sung with a smile, not a frown.
Kermit Ruffins just played a version of this at Bullet’s Sports Bar without the words. I’ve been humming it for several days. I have to be careful where I am when I add the lyrics. People in the aisle of Stop and Shop might take it as hostility if I happily sing the verse in the frozen food aisle.Midnight, Break time.
A wave of sweaty people empties onto Oak Street. Another anomaly around here is that street vendors are sort of like camp followers. They set up shop outside places like Bullet’s and the Maple Leaf, a symbiotic relationship with a Louisiana flavor. The Grill Guy has his huge black smoker running full tilt. He stands on the sidewalk taking orders while his assistant keeps loading burgers, sausages, and chicken onto the red-hot charcoal. The motto on back of his T-shirt: Hot Meat For Your Mouth - With All the Juices.
Another vendor named Gary is sautéing “gourmet bacon dogs” his specialty laden with onions, peppers, garlic mayonnaise, jalapeno peppers, pickles, or okra, take your pick. If you survive that impressive assault on your stomach, he sells generously sized home made triple chocolate whiskey caramel brownies and sour cream chocolate chip banana bread. He’s known as The New Orleans Chocolate Devil for a reason. Each one priced at $5.
“What’s with the camera and notepad?” he asks.
“I’m a retired teacher. This is what I do,” I answer. Turns out Gary has friends in Brookline, MA, where I taught for 34 years. He chills. I’m not from the Board of Health and we have something in common.This feels like a street fair under the stars on a sultry Louisiana night. A hundred people sitting on benches, smoking, drinking from plastic cups, eating, and talking up a blue streak or standing in a daze produced by the tiny bones in your inner ear being temporarily shattered or the Bud Light having hit bottom.
Maple Leaf Bar owner Hank Staples not only tolerates the vendors here but also sees the advantage of their presence. He lets Gary run an electric line inside for his bacon frying pan.
“Lots of these people stay here for hours. If they have food, they’ll stick around longer and go back inside for the next set, and drink more. The staff comes out here for food, too,” Gary says. The New Orleans Chocolate Devil sets up here every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Everybody’s happy.
I'm living a dream. Happy doesn't even begin to describe this.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.
Break time - most of the crowd is outside