The sun sets, and finally the sizzling sidewalks and streets start to cool after another hot and humid Monday in the port city. The shadows fade to black under the massive old live oaks that shelter 70-year-old two-story houses. On the nearby main road, a commercial strip is hopping. Under the vapor glow of the street lamps, there's a historic R&B radio station, a hip-hop/reggae club, a soul food cafeteria, an African art gallery and a coffee shop, in front of which twentysomething African American men and women lounge on the sidewalk in the hot sweat of the night on stylish vintage furniture. And just down the street, there's a booming nightclub.
Even before you walk in the door, you can hear the DJ DJ Blaknificent spinning a mix of old-school New Orleans bounce hits by the likes of Webbie, Lil' Boosie and Lil' Wayne cut with staples from the city's harder-edged brass bands. From time to time, an MC hollers into a microphone over the music, saying things like "Come get your free red beans and rice!" (a Monday night tradition in New Orleans) and "We got the sexiest barmaids in the world servin' them $5 hurricanes!"
There are also martinis (probably the most popular cocktail here) and other libations touted in gilt-framed tabletop placards, like the Leg Spreader (two kinds of standard rum plus 151, grenadine and assorted fruit juices) and the Bourbon Street Blow Job (Kahlúa, Baileys Irish Cream, whipped cream and, well, you get the picture). Often as not, the rappers raise the salacious stakes one song's refrain runs like this: "I've got an erection and a pocket full of protection."
Soul Rebels Brass Band
In one corner of the bar, two drums and three horns await their players the Soul Rebels Brass Band, the stars of Red Beans and Blue Jeans, the new Monday club night at newish club Libra Lounge. Soon enough, the band picks them up and booms and blasts through the Crescent City classics, as a crowd of dancers one of them rhythmically thrusting a red embroidered umbrella in the air second-lines like there's no tomorrow, taking care to avoid the piston-like slides of the band's twin trombone players. Meanwhile, the rhythm section, led by Soul Rebels leader Lumar LeBlanc on snare drum, snap and thud loud as the Fourth of July. LeBlanc's snare rolls are so fast they sound like nothing so much as a pissed-off rattlesnake, his cymbal crashes like the roaring breath of God.
"We got drugs and prostitution / people will die," band and crowd roar in unison as the Soul Rebels take on the Lil' Rascals' recent classic "Knock with Me Rock with Me." "Mama don't cry! Roooock with me! Roooolll with me!"
"I feel like I'm right back in New Orleans at the Maple Leaf," says Gary Edwards, a Katrina exile who runs the trad jazz/gospel/R&B record label Sounds of New Orleans. But he's not. He's in Houston at the Libra Lounge, a hot spot of the post-Katrina diaspora and at the very heart of the urban renaissance that is happening on Almeda, the once-ramshackle street that is rapidly becoming something like the Montrose Boulevard of black Houston. (Actually, these days Almeda is more like Montrose than Montrose, but that's another story.) It's hard to believe you're a block or so away from Spanish Village and its lethally delicious margaritas.
"The only difference between this and one of our New Orleans shows is that people can't take their drinks outside during the breaks," says LeBlanc, the day after the band's second performance there. "Energywise it was pretty similar. Two weeks ago was our first week and we were rained out last week, but this week I think we were able to prime it pretty good. The people were more ready for it last night and they knew to get involved and everything."
Back in October, I wrote about how LeBlanc had decided to make Houston his permanent home after Katrina, while continuing to play weekly gigs in New Orleans. The trouble was, he didn't yet have a full band here to play with. He does now his Houston band consists of bass drummer Terrence (who goes by first name only), tuba player Damion Francois, trombonist and original member of the Rebirth Brass Band Reginald Stewart and brothers Marcus and Malcolm Hubbard on trumpet and trombone, respectively. (LeBlanc is seeking regular gigs on Sundays and Tuesdays now, too.)
LeBlanc believes that the best brass bands can carry the audience away to New Orleans. "What brass bands try to do is forge our vibe and telepathy on wherever we play, get the audience to feel and imagine what is going on in New Orleans," he says. "So that's one aspect brass bands have audiences want to see and feel what the band feels and sees in New Orleans, so they're more inclined to follow along with you. People want to feel the New Orleans experience."
The same goes for Libra Lounge principal owner and New Orleans native/long-term Houstonian Coye Devrouax, who is also the sole owner of the adjacent delicatessen Culinary Kreations. Yvette Foy, the Libra Lounge's bar manager and a post-Katrina émigré to Houston, says that Devrouax wanted to inject some New Orleans flavor on to Almeda, at both the deli (where you can get several varieties of New Orleans po' boy, including the hard-to-find hot sausage style) and the bar. "He wants the Libra Lounge to feel just like a New Orleans hole-in-the-wall," she says. While much of the clientele are New Orleans natives who moved here either before or after Katrina, others are Houston natives with limited if any exposure to brass-band music. "Our regulars like it a lot," Foy says. "It's a good alternative to just a DJ or just a straight jazz band."
DJ Blaknificent, who spins at the lounge Thursdays through Mondays, says he tries to create a different vibe each night, ranging from old-school funk through classic hip-hop to neo-soul to bounce, which he only plays on brass band nights. "We want you to get a taste of something different every time you come to Libra Lounge," he says.
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And you can find a lot of different stuff along this stretch of Almeda, from historic KCOH to vintage Tex-Mex cuisine to Ashanti woodwork to incense, clothing and Jamaican grooves at Reggae Bodega to unique sandwiches at Culinary Kreations (our favorite: the "Callitwhatchawant": roast beef, guacamole, Swiss cheese, Dijon mustard, onion and green peppers on a French loaf).
It's a far cry from yesteryear. LeBlanc is a graduate of Texas Southern, and he remembers the strip in its oil bust nadir. "Oh Lord, back in the late '80s this looked like a dying strip," he says. "It was a rough part of town. We only used to go there, like you said, to get liquor" LeBlanc and I discovered that when I was in high school and he was in college, we frequented the same "don't ask, don't tell" bottle shop there on Almeda "and something like that. It wasn't nowhere near the kind of vibrance it has now."
And a big part of that vibrance, for me, at least, is that the Soul Rebels Brass Band has found a home away from home.
Red Beans and Blue Jeans with the Soul Rebels Brass Band is held every Monday night at the Libra Lounge, 4830 Almeda, Suite B, 713-520-1691.