As we speed away from New Orleans via what is signposted as a 'hurricane escape route' and look across the calm Gulf of Mexico, it is very hard to imagine the chaos that hit the area exactly nine years ago today. Many parts of the south coast of North America were affected by Katrina as it struck in the summer of 2005, but it was New Orleans that suffered the most loss and devastation as the storm made landfall on the 29th August, and despite its awesome and legendary history, the town was dramatically redefined forever. The past is embedded in everything and everybody you see in New Orleans, but a sense of pride, community and togetherness runs deep in the town more than we've seen anywhere else on our journey so far, and not least through music. It is an incredible thing to witness and even be welcomed into as we were lucky enough to find during our stay.
Four days ago, it was the morning after our night of bar/gig hopping on the main strip in Nashville. For the first time on the holiday, Iain and I awoke after Seb. When we did he was nowhere to be seen. He had in fact gone down to get a hotel breakfast which he charged to Iain's card.
We forced ourselves back on the road as soon as we could find the energy. We had our next big destination to conquer - Memphis, Tennessee. One of the easiest drives yet, it was just a short three hours and we pulled into Graceland in time for the last tour of the day. With no one else around, we wandered freely from room to room of Elvis' house, around his garden, his racquetball court, his aeroplanes and car collection. I'm a fairly big elvis fan but have only become so in recent years and so have a lot to catch up on. The information and memorabilia were endless and we could have taken 6 hours to read and look at everything around the place, but we were the only ones left there and the bloke with the keys to the place wanted to lock up and go home so we did it in about half that time. I had no idea that Elvis and a lot of his family are buried there, so stumbling across his grave at the end of it all in an empty garden, standing there as the sun began to set was a moment that felt pretty darn special y'all.
With Seb hungry again and Iain all shook up, we parked up at our hotel in the centre of Memphis and met up with an old friend of mine and Seb's, James Kelleway. Seb and I used to be in a ska band called Cisco in the Aquarium; we started when I was 12 and James, a man now living out in Mississippi with his lovely American wife Nikki, was our 18 year old frontman. It was a time of being dealt bleeding bum wedgies at band practice and being snuck into 18+ gigs in bass drum cases. We had a great time catching up in some cool bars that night, mostly managing to keep away from the tourist traps. We had good local knowledge to go on from James and as ever waitresses that Iain and I charmed the pants off with phrases like 'Oh, exccuuuuuuse me there, where might I find the local liiibrary?' in the broadest bloody British bloomin' accent we could muster. We'll keep using this tactic over the coming weeks. Current odds are 3/1 that Iain will tie the knot in Vegas next week and 10/1 that I don't return home at all, disappearing somewhere into the depths of Alabama marrying into a family of dairy farmers. I'm trying anyway.
Seb's consistently over ordering on the food front. In Memphis, he went for the full rack of ribs that came with fries and slaw, basically all the sides he could need but then added a side of chilli cheese fries that two people would struggle to finish and a bowl of greens. The chilli cheese fries left the table 45 minutes later untouched. For the first time we were able to watch the Emmys going out live without staying up 'til the early hours of the morning in the UK. Breaking Bad only bloody did it. It's certainly renewed our excitement for the Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque we will be enjoying about a week from now.
The next morning we had our first swim of the holiday in the hotel roof pool. We popped into the Stax museum, built on the original site of Stax Studios. The amount of huge songs recorded in that one room is incredible; endless hits by Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and James Brown amongst others and so many of them used the Memphis Horns for the recordings. Iain bought some beer cups in the souvenir shop. Luckily they stack otherwise he would have had to complain.
Seb's shoulder started hurting which was clearly from playing frisbee in the pool that morning though he preferred to blame it on the idea that a spider must have laid eggs in him in a lake we swam in later that afternoon. I'm looking forward to seeing the little guys hatch all over his next waffle syrup pork chop omelette fruit salad. The lake James took us to was in the woodland grounds of a house that was all very Steven King and I'm positive was haunted. James and Nikki often just hang out there to house and dog sit as the owners are away a lot. Needless to say it made for an incredible afternoon and gave us our first chance to just stop and do nothing for a few hours.
The holiday had been so hectic until that point and once we fell/jumped/dived in to the water that was as hot as a cup of tea, we didn't get out until the sun disappeared a few hours later. James and Nikki's friends Ben and Molly turned up too and Seb and Iain floated on noodle floats sipping cans of cold Modelo and, having no idea what else was in that water, they yelped whenever there feet touched each other. I tried my hand at fishing and the time just flew by. A few little nibbles on the line but I couldn't hook 'em.
We were in James' home town of Oxford, Mississippi now and it has a vibe very similar to the big square from Back to the Future. After a big dinner with everyone, we grabbed a few drinks in a bar full of the cast of College Girls Gone Wild 47 which was great and blokes who were dressed for golf with back to front caps on which was not. They all blindly chanted some stuff about the south rising again to the tune of 'Glory, Glory Hallelujah' so that's ruined that song for us. With the drinking age being 21, these 18 year olds probably haven't been let out much before. It was an odd sight seeing grown men running around shouting 'oh my god man I'm so drunk' like you see from 15 year olds in the UK.
A big breakfast next morning to say a huge thank you and farewell to our hosts James and Nikki and then we powered on down to New Orleans via the Mississippi Delta. The drive was a big 8 hour one but we made it to our hotel by about 9pm, pleasantly surprised that Iain had accidentally booked us a whole apartment at the top of a cool little hotel in the French Quarter, roof terrace and everything. It made a nice change after all the motels we've passed through for only 8 hours at a time. We had two nights ahead of us here and we got straight out there in amongst it all.
Music was everywhere. We spent most of the first night on Frenchmen Street. Everyone was dancing to the jazz bands, guys spinning girls around, no one has any inhibitions in New Orleans. Nothing like London.
The next day we went walking around the city; Basin Street, Treme and Louis Armstrong Park. So much of this was damaged and flooded in the hurricane and all the small but individually stunning houses seemed so familiar from the news reports we all saw nine years ago. We stumbled across a small bar in the middle of the quiet neighbourhood of Treme that was owned by Kermit Ruffins. The door was locked but we got buzzed in. I looked into a dark room in the middle of one of the most dodgy parts of the city. It had a pole in the middle and I thought we'd made a huge mistake, but we'd been buzzed in... we had to go in now. Setting foot in there, we confidently ordered three beers and were instantly welcomed by the three local drinkers and barmaid. We got talking about music and brass players we all knew of, the English and Scottish accents are definitely making strangers keen to talk to us more regularly the more South we get. We were told we'd just missed Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins in there and that the guy quietly sweeping the floor in the corner is a Grammy winning trumpeter in the famous Rebirth Brass Band. 'Grammy winners man, they Grammy winners!' they kept proudly saying to us.
Not even five minutes later and we were ushered into a car with the sweeper we'd just met and headed over to the backstage area of the Superdome in time to see them rouse the crowds before the big New Orleans Saints vs. Baltimore Ravens NFL pre-season friendly. Following our noses had led to something brilliant and unexpected. We got hold of some tickets for the match, met Wendell Pierce, an actor who had been popping into my head all day anyway prior to this due to his role as a trombonist in the TV show, Treme and last week when we were in Baltimore due to his performance in The Wire. He was so nice to us and gave us good tips for going out that evening.
We spent three hours at the huge spectacle that was the American football match. New Orleans' sense of community really shows itself here too. I'm not the biggest follower of sport back home but we could see how if you lived in a town who has a team like the Saints, it's impossible not to get involved and excited. With every pause of the match stopwatch (every ten seconds) another award was presented on the field to 'Teacher of the Week' or 'Junior Tee Collector'. The cheerleaders there are as much a part of the game, soldiers and flag wavers parade around the field and fireworks explode sporadically as often as the adverts for local small businesses and dancing fans in the crowd play out on the big screens around the stadium.
While roaming Frenchmen Street later for the second night at the advice of a certain Mr Wendell Pierce, we met Jessie, Lois and Alex, three Brits who are on a similar road trip to us. We spent the evening with them, bar hopping and watching more incredible musicians. We've not really met anyone else from the UK for almost two weeks so it was a really refreshing evening discovering New Orleans' quirky nooks and crannies together with another circle of friends who were equally as clueless as us. The Spotted Cat is an awesome venue; packed with dancing music lovers and faster service with their one barmaid than most places with ten. Seb ate jerk chicken on the street and then Iain saw a women jerk her boyfriends chicken on the street. Some acts worth checking out online or better still live if you're ever in town include New Breed Brass Band, Dysfunktional Bone and Antoine Diel and Misfit Power.
...and breathe. Sorry for the long blog, we got a bit behind there.