New Orleans is known for being a good time and a great place to party. There may be no bigger party in the nation then the marathon of Mardi Gras – especially when we are taking a “break” from Carnival in the middle to have a week of Super Bowl festivities! That said, the only topper would be to celebrate your birthday during this party-palooza. A friend of mine did just that last weekend and it was as good as it gets.
With a VooDoo theme and a parade backdrop, we started the weekend off with my first trip to a riverboat, the Steamboat Natchez. A band played as we boarded and made new friends while eating trays of fabulous finger food. There were tarot readers and a photo booth and old-fashioned shadow-profile portraits being made on the spot. Each hand rolled cigar bore the emblem of the party – a golden “60” with a fleur de lis inside the “0.”
Supper was prepared by Chef Donald Link and included a seafood bar with raw oysters and shrimp and crab dishes. At some point, I noticed a song I love from Glen David Andrews. I made my way to the stage at the front of the boat and there he was – Glen David Andrews in the flesh. And there I was – getting a private concert while eating great food and making new friends.
The next day, we ate the breakfast buffet at M Bistro – a simple affair with made-to-order omelets and great fruit and cheese spreads. There were many excursions offered to the party guests, most of whom were from out of town. Most offered glimpses into the history and culture of our city with perfectly selected hosts to guide the way. One excursion took walkers through the French Quarter to the sites where authors like Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner lived and wrote with the authors played by my Django Unchained co-star Dane Rhodes. Another featured Mad Men‘s Bryan Batt showing off artwork and antiquities and private reserve collections.
We opted instead for a day of rest and visited the Spa at the Ritz Carlton. Though I am usually a customer of Belladonna, I enjoyed the fanciness of it all and let myself relax into the luxury they were so keen to supply. Next time, I might have to turn it into the girl-day I saw so many enjoying complete with meals served while still in your robe. I met a woman while waiting and found out that she was part of the secret musical surprises I would be treated to later.
One of the excursions we had passed on was the Make It Right tour of the areas decimated by the Storm and the rebuilding that’s been done. When we host guests here, they often want us to take them to see all of that and so I felt fine about forgoing it until I found out the host would be Kimberly Roberts. Her Oscar nominated film, Trouble the Water, is a startling truth of the story of Katrina and its aftermath. It’s also where I discovered her powerful song Amazing. To hear this hard core nakedly autobiographical glimpse into the strength of this woman, CLICK HERE (explicit lyrics). As luck would have it, as we were leaving the hotel she was outside and I got to give her a thank you hug for all the inspiration, tears, joy and insight she has given me.
Next up was cocktails and a dinner at the beautifully appointed Elms Mansion. Built in 1869 by a wine and tobacco merchant, the lavish decor includes 24-karat gold sconces, stained glass windows and elaborately carved woodwork just about everywhere. Even just the ceilings and doorframes were enought to make your jaw drop at the amount of laborious detail that went into every single inch of this place. CLICK HERE for a virtual tour (and tilt up to see ceilings and moldings – especially in the Louis XVI Room).
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band played as we ate morsels from trays and took in the beauty of the venue, but I have to confess that the NOLA gal in me really wanted to be out on St. Charles catching beads from the Knights of Sparta parade passing by. I mostly resisted, watching from the yard and feeling a little like I did the night I went to a Django Unchained party at a local club and felt strange standing behind the velvet rope separating us from our community. Then came something I’ve never seen.
At the end of the parade was a rolling band who stopped in front of our spot and got the whole crowd singing Happy Birthday (okay, I’ll admit I was out in the neutral ground wearing flats I’d carried in my purse by this point). The last float of the parade was crowned with a golden 60 and stopped to throw right to us. Yay! I only took one strand as I didn’t want to fool with a weighted neck all night, but I was satisfied – and I’d never seen anything like it before.
Dinner was served in a tent they’d constructed on the grounds with giant Mardi Gras bead-like balls hanging from the ceiling and beautiful table settings. The band followed us in as we were treated to a great meal by Chef Emeril Lagasse. At the head of our table sat General Honore, the man who brought New Orleans back from the brink after the storm and created order in the chaos.
While playing the standard, When the Saints Come Marching In, in a room filled with non-New Orleanians and a bunch of Seattle Seahawk fans, the band broke into a round of Who Dats! We, General Honore and the staff chanted loud and proud. Is it wrong that we all did it again after the next chorus? No, it’s just a taste of our culture like the excursions and chefs.
Next up was a concert at the House of Blues. Like the riverboat, the place had been refurnished and had fun side notes like an arcade with Pac Man and a photo booth that makes flip books out of 7 seconds of video (very fun if you haven’t seen it). The concert asked, “Are you experienced?” and answered it with performances by some of the best rock acts of the ages backed up by an amazing “house” band. The woman from the spa turned out to be Mindi Abair, a jazz saxaphonist who’s played with everyone from the Backstreet Boys to Adam Sandler. I remember her from American Idol where Steven Tyler liked her more than the contestants she was backing up.
First up was NOLA native Dr. John followed by more NOLA treasures, Harry Shearer and voice-of-a-nightingale wife Judith Owen. Then Pretenders’ rock-goddess Chrissie Hynde took the stage and put on a hell of a show playing favorites as well as a song composed by our birthday boy. Next up was Gregg Allman. As he launched into Midnight Rider sending me into a happiness frenzy, General Honore shouted it best, “This is the SHIT!” After several more amazing songs, the Eagles’ Joe Walsh took the stage and sang another favorite, Life’s Been Good. Indeed it has. The concert ended with the guest of honor on guitar with the stage full of luminaries for some Purple Haze and other great songs while cannons shot gold confetti.
The last day of festivities started with breakfast at Brennan’s, a family-operated tradition since 1946. I special ordered a combination of dishes and ended up with more perfectly plucked lump crabmeat than I’ve ever seen atop spinach and artichoke hearts. Yummy.
We took a brief break from the party to attend the Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade, a procession of dogs and brass bands, then headed to Republic for the last evening of music, food and friendship. Again we were treated to trays of magnificent morsels, this time from Chef John Besh. There was a crab salad with a beluga-like cous cous that was to die for. A 40’s band played as we settled in for another night of surprises starting with magician Jason Latimer.
Another band was formed and more guests were invited to play including Dan Aykroyd, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Living Color’s Vernon Reid. Best of all, the birthday boy played forever and looked to be having the time of his life.
I love sharing my city but this weekend-long party was so well produced that I felt like it shared my city with me as well. Bravo to Jessie Karlin of Bounce AEG and all the people who obviously worked so hard to make New Orleans a magical host to this beyond belief birthday.