Outside of New York, San Francisco and maybe Miami, New Orleans has never had any serious competition for the title of America’s most exotic city. Since its founding in 1718, the combustible gumbo of cultures embedded in the city’s DNA has produced a lengthy list of flamboyant personalities who have left their mark on the Crescent City – pirates, poets, immigrants, thieves, politicians, voodoo priestesses, sugar barons, strippers, pimps, madams and, well, musicians. New Orleans may be known as the Birthplace of Jazz, but its players have left an equally lasting imprint on the fields of rhythm and blues (especially), rock and roll, funk, and rap. In turn, all that music has created a mystique that often leaves less imaginative minds in the rest of America a little suspicious and envious, not least the many Houstonians who sigh that the Bayou City will never be quite as cool. (Hey, at least we’re trying.) Luckily, New Orleans is easily accessible by car or plane, or, if you’re just looking to take a little trip inside your head this Mardi Gras weekend, these artists' music will take you there even quicker than that.
THE BALFA BROTHERS, “La Danse de Mardi Gras”
Mardi Gras is not just beads and parades; the tradition also runs deep in rural Louisiana, where “runners” travel around their village imploring their neighbors to pony up enough ingredients to make a proper gumbo. This haunting ballad, based on a Breton melody dating back centuries, tells the story. The definitive version of the song probably belongs to the late Cajun-music patriarch Dewey Balfa, whose Balfa Brothers recorded it in 1965 for Swallow Records. Steve Riley of the Mamou Playboys does a fine, more modern take as well.
DR. JOHN, Gris-Gris
Before Dr. John became one of New Orleans’s highest-profile musical ambassadors came this 1968 debut, which twisted his background as an apprentice with Big Easy R&B masters like Professor Longhair into a hazy, potent batch of Marie Laveau-style hoodoo. Songs like “Croker Courtbullion” and “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” are more ritual than rock and roll; even for the height of the late ’60s, this is trippy stuff. The good doctor would return to bathe in his hometown’s musical cross-currents often — most comprehensively on 1992’s Going Back to New Orleans — but this album is where "The Night Tripper" was born.
EARL KING, Street Parade
Left-handed guitarist and singer Earl King co-wrote the Mardi Gras standard “Big Chief,” first recorded by Professor Longhair in 1964, and remained one of New Orleans’s best-kept musical secrets until his death in 2003. His double-length album Street Parade, recorded in 1972 but unreleased for another nine years, is classic NOLA R&B through and through.
PROFESSOR LONGHAIR, Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo
It’s likely there would be no Mardi Gras without Professor Longhair, at least not as we know it. Born Roy Byrd, the man the world came to know as “Fess” infused Cuban styles such as rumba and mambo into his boogie-woogie piano lines shortly after WWII, forever altering the course of New Orleans — and American — music. Rock ’N’ Roll Gumbo, recorded in 1974, also features the late, great jazz/R&B guitarist and fiddler Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, making it all the more valuable. Besides two of his three and a half songs that have become synonymous with Mardi Gras itself, “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” and “Tipitina” — the other is “Go to the Mardi Gras," plus he co-wrote "Big Chief" with Earl King — this album also includes Fess’s distinctive take on Hank Williams Sr.’s “Jambalaya,” Huey P. Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Junco Partner,” a popular New Orleans blues song from the ’50s later covered by The Clash on Sandinista!.
THE METERS, Fire On the Bayou
Any Meters album would be lovely on a Mardi Gras day, but if the choice is there, go with this 1975 classic. Easily one of the tightest bands in history, the quartet was in their prime here; with Allen Toussaint in the producer's chair, Fire On the Bayou shimmies and struts. The band was more eclectic than people may remember, unafraid to cover David Crosby’s “Liar” or take an eight-minute diversion into smooth jazz called “Middle of the Road,” but that’s only because the funk is so sticky elsewhere, and the songs that draw deepest on the Meters' hometown traditions — the title track, “They All Asked For You,” “Talkin’ ’Bout New Orleans” — are the most fun. That includes “Mardi Gras Mambo,” an update of a song by Art Neville’s high-school band the Hawketts, which quickly became just as necessary for any proper Mardi Gras celebration.
THE NEVILLE BROTHERS, Fiyo On the Bayou
A more phonetic quasi-sequel to Fire On the Bayou, 1981’s Fiyo On the Bayou features some of the same personnel (brothers Art and Cyril) and a rousing reprise of "Fire On the Bayou," continuing the Mardi Gras festivities with a percolating “Iko Iko/Brother John” to go with rockin' opener "Hey Pocky Way" and the spinning disco ball that is “Sweet Honey Dripper.” Although a gorgeous version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” nearly steals the show, the ace in the hole here is brother Aaron, whose celestial tenor caresses “Ten Commandments of Love” and Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” — dedicated to Bette Midler, who, believe it or not, helped the group get a record deal.
ALLEN TOUSSAINT AND ELVIS COSTELLO, The River In Reverse
The shadow of Hurricane Katrina looms over this 2006 collaboration between the sharp-witted British gadfly and legendary Crescent City pianist/producer/arranger Toussaint, who passed away on tour in 2015. The River In Reverse stands as a celebration of music’s healing properties rather than a means of assigning blame, though its creators don’t shy away from that either. Pairing six new songs with seven vintage Toussaint numbers — and you'd never know the difference, except for the lyrics — Costello dials back the sarcasm to tap into the same R&B sweet spot he found on 1980’s Get Happy!!, while Toussaint’s steady-rollin’ piano and horn arrangements steer the music to place after place that celebrates the very same city a nation was prematurely mourning.
DASH RIP ROCK, “Please Come to the Mardi Gras”
This sober and sentimental acoustic number from 2008’s Country Girlfriend, almost a lullaby, is a complete about-face from the cheeky, fun-loving cowpunk normally put forth by Bill Davis’s long-running trio of roots-rock hooligans. That you can find in plenty of other spots on this album and many others like it; here, try “Beertown USA,” “Bourbon Street Cowboy” or “New Orleans Needs Stronger Dikes,” Davis’s oddly touching tribute to his post-Katrina hometown.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Ultimate Mardi Gras
This 2008 compilation offers Earl King and Professor Longhair's "Big Chief" and several latter-day interpretations of the traditional Mardi Gras canon, which has apparently grown to include Afroman’s “Because I Got High.” Lively interpretations by the likes of Big Chief, Big Al Carson, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and Lil’ Nathan make this one a winner, even the intriguing Tejano spin on “Mardi Gras Mambo” by Fredy Omar Con Su Banda. Available on iTunes; give it a whirl.
Just because popular Houston-based cover band KISS ALIKE is headlining Mardi Gras Galveston Saturday night, and you can listen to all of the painted warriors’ 1976 classic-rock omnibus on the drive down there (unless you live in Texas City). Shout it out loud!