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Impermanence of music

Written: August 16, 2016, in New Orleans, LA

About: New Orleans, LA

There is a certain bar in New Orleans. It is a hole-in-the-wall with a short bar, a few small tables, and a band crammed into a corner. In this respect, it is like many other bars in town. This one just happens to be among the best.

Yeah.

So come here. Squeeze onto a bar stool, or screw yourself into one of the diminutive tables. Order cheap drinks. Watch Frenchmen Street flow in and out of the bar. Listen to some of the best electric blues you will hear anywhere. And remember – you cannot take any of it with you.

Even though the guys playing this spot have been doing it for years, they do not really seem to think of themselves as a band. They do not have a stack of CDs out front. No Bandcamp or iTunes pages. The outfit that has got your heart and your throat in its cool hands does not even really tour outside these stained and peeling walls.

You can never listen to this music again, take it apart phrase by phrase and bar by bar, loop it over and over on your commute, or thrust the earbuds at your friends – “Take a listen to this!” The only way to share this music is to drag your friends to New Orleans, find this spot, and be there on the right night and at the right time.

Once the strings and drum skins are still, their music is gone forever.

Then again, maybe this music’s impermanence and immediacy are part of its power.

There is no divorcing yourself from the moment. If you miss a note, there is no chance of coming back for it. You have to be there, plugged into every instant. You cannot be listening to it with half an ear. This music will not compete for your attention with the glowing screen of your smartphone. No, you have to be right here, right now, so shake off your drunken haze. I know this whole place got your head spinning with a deluge of lights, alcohol, and music, a carnival of wide-grinning inebriated strangers looking for an experience.

So settle down. You have found the experience.

The man on the other side of the night

Written: March 23, 2014

About: Charlottesville, VA

It is just past 4am. We are driving back from a late night dance. It has not actually stopped, so somewhere behind us the blues still draws and growls and bumps. Out here, the streets are dark and empty and silent. My girlfriend is asleep in the passenger seat but I am stark awake. Awake and alone.

I have been here countless times. Though this street is not always in Charlottesville, it is not always blues that warms me from a distance, and I am not always driving. Yet time and again I find myself alone with the night’s quiet, in the innumerably late hour. I drift past the inky side alleys, through the hazy spots of street lights, glance at an occasional insomniac neon sign. The street is slick, vast, and perfect.

Why am I here? Why am I here again?

Why push on through exhaustion. Why pour beer and whiskey into the night without a second thought. Why mock and dare the sunrise. Why forget food and sleep. Why measure out mile after mile of these deserted streets. Why peer into the dim, dissolving distance.

What am I looking for?

Driving along the night-time Charlottesville, it suddenly becomes clear. On the streets utterly devoid of people I am looking for a person. I am looking for a better me – the man on the other side of the night.

On the other side of the night, this man walks along with subtle and effortless swagger. He is confident in his plans, assured in situations that are uncharted. He is flawed in all the right and beautiful ways. Though he is not always right, he can find his way without hesitation or panic.

The man on the other side of the night has learned to let go of all the anxieties that I carry with me every day.

That is why I am out here once again. I am driven by the indelible belief that if I cruise through just enough nights, if I subject myself to just enough abandon, if I wade through just enough late-night strangeness I will finally cross the night and make it to the other side.

We pull up to a red light. The engine idles with a gentle purr. Pelican City, barely audible, moody, plays on the stereo. I look left, through the side window, with my ghostly reflection superimposed over a dark storefront. Same glasses, same haircut, it looks calmly from the sidewalk into the car. We sit there a second, the light turns green, and I pull away.

Of course the man on the other side of the night is a fantasy, a fevered dream of myself. The quest is pointless. The streets are as empty as they seem. The other side of the night is the immaculate fix.

But then, it is 4am, my brain is crackling, and the world is as illusory as I want it to be. The other side of the night is just around the corner somewhere.

The drunk and brotherly Berlin Christmas

About: Berlin, December 2005

Written: in Gaithersburg, MD

The beginning of the Christmas evening was picture-book perfect, could have printed it on a postcard. We had gathered in an old apartment in East Berlin, a place belonging to one of my brother’s friends. These old buildings are wonderful – spacious rooms, tall ceilings, delightfully creaky floors. Everyone was prim and polite, nice shirts for the parents.

The company had the following composition. Our mother was there, and the host’s mother. They were the adults. Everyone else was my brother’s age, thereabouts, or younger. Also, most of them were artists and musicians of various stripes, most certainly more comfortable sucking cigarettes and beer at a bar. However, Christmas is a family holiday, so here we were – tables covered with an army of plates and polite conversations about jobs and vacation plans.

The dinner table, however, was just the façade. The kitchen housed a growing array of empty vodka bottles, even though only wine was served at the dinner. The younger people were serving dinner, and almost every trip to the kitchen was accompanied by a round of shots. As the evening wore on, the matrons grew content and sleepy. The youngsters grew their grins.

Eventually the dinner wrapped up, and we were dismissed like so many schoolchildren. The adults went to bed, and we practically ran out into the frosty air. The plan was simple – hit an immigrant bar with a live band and continue drinking on the way. Intoxication was our propellant.

Berlin is dotted with tiny stores that seem to be open at all odd hours. They are stocked with the goods you need at the odd hours – cheap liquor, cigarettes, and junk food. The store owner spoke neither Russian nor English, and I only speak a few broken words of German, yet we somehow got conversational. Seasonal greetings. My brother lives in Berlin and I love him. A bottle of vodka and a pack of smokes. It’s a cross-cultural kind of sentiment that anyone can relate to.

When booze enters the brain, it gets behind the emotional steering wheel and steps on the gas. Whichever way you were pointing before, that’s where you’re going. Alcohol does not decide on euphoria or loathing. It amplifies whatever you’ve got in you. Alcohol is not a steady driver, and if your mood swings, it swings all the way. Drinking a bottle of vodka is like climbing into a cannon and lighting a fuse. You really have no idea where you’ll end up. You could find yourself surveying a glorious and proud morning, or sniveling in tears on the floor of a stranger’s kitchen. The best protection is surrounding yourself with a group of happy people. Of course, artists are exactly the kind of people who are happy with a little swerving in their heads. Here, we hit paydirt.

There is no ban on open containers in Berlin. I chugged from my bottle an then waived it at a police cruiser. The officer did not care. He looked bored, and probably wrote me off as another dumb tourist.

The bar was housed underneath a raised highway. It was crammed with people speaking a slew of languages with a heavy Russian accent. The place seemed more like a subverted house or office than a club. One room was the bar. Another room kept a band playing covers of song from Russian movies – upbeat rock-n-roll and pop. A couple more rooms filled with couches, abandoned coats, and people whose minds have wandered off and gotten lost in the soft shadows.

As soon as we had walked in, my brother disappeared. One of his friends took me under his wing, taking responsibility for the little brother. He pulled me toward the bar for a drink. You stick to whatever is working, so it was vodka shots. There was a two-for-one special, and that was alright with us. The shot glasses were doubles. So four shots each to get us started.

Electric alcohol filled our veins. Food, company, music, brisk winter air – all these staved off the most disorienting stages of intoxication. Time, as is its habits in the protracted infinite midnight hours of revelry and drink, curled up on the soft edges of things. Alcohol compresses and intensifies every experience. Lag may accumulate in your mind, perceptions becoming less precise, yet the sense of connected grows. Eventually, however, everything tips over into a vortex.

The vortex bars perception of time and space. Vertigo may occur with disastrous consequences. Yet even in the vortex it is possible to hold. The swirling reality is a fantastic adventure if you can keep your feet. It is like falling down an infinite tunnel. If you can keep clear of the walls, it is an exhilarating trip and the walls rushing by present a fascinating, if senseless picture. Though should you catch a wall, or encounter a particularly mean-spirited gust of wind, the flight turns into a terrifying and painful tumble.

The vortex found me when I took four consecutive shots of whiskey. I set down the shotglass and felt its instant pull. There was no resisting it. The world began to dissolve, and time became disordered. My memory became a chaotic mesh of images and perceptions steeped in a soup of music and smoke. Everything is anchored at a singular point – my forehead touching the cool tiled wall above a urinal. The rest of the club is a spectacular, spinning flourish.

Miraculously, the vortex deposited everyone gently in street. The feeling of that moment can be described thus – coats carelessly flung open. Everyone carried the heat of the club and the booze. As the large group debated what to do about breakfast, smaller groups separated and went off.  A guy from our group left with a girl who was decided not his girlfriend. The vortex must have tripped him up after all. His actual girlfriend was still with us but too drunk to notice.

This late in the night, there is a point where everyone needs to sit down for a bit, try to slow down and recapture their spinning reality. It’s not just a matter of making the walls stop their dance – the thoughts and emotions are doing the same thing. Yet as everyone who’s been through a trip like this know, there is an opportunity for a moment of spellbinding clarity here.

Soon we settled around someone’s apartment. A dozen people or so arranged themselves into the crooks and nannies of arm chairs and sofas. Conversations turned to arguing about music and movies. Memories of the past few hours formed a tinkling mess, like a heap of Christmas lights, and everyone sunk into the camaraderie afterglow that descends at the far end of an adventure, when you’ve reached the safe harbor.

I was in the kitchen with some bearded hippie. We were making pelmeni (Russian dumplings that are boiled). I was tending the pot while he was wrestling with another frozen package and eyeing me with suspicion – I lived in the States and therefore would not be qualified for this job. I returned his gaze and said my mother is from Siberia and I’ve been making these as long as I remember. He nodded sagely, and all was copacetic again.

Drunks don’t realize they are hungry until they are presented with food, at which point they become positively ravenous. Benders come with deep stomach pits. They devoured everything the hippie and I made. We probably stopped eating when we stopped cooking.

Somewhere in the back of the mind there is an awareness that you must get home. Though you may be in the cozy center of the universe, your own bed has a sweet magnetic raw on you. My brother and I walked out into the light grey morning and headed home.

We were the only ones in the street car, gently rocking along a similarly empty street. There was no more talking. It is the quietest stretch of time of the whole night. We simply shared the silence, the calm scenery quietly drifting by, the soft illumination of a clouded sky. The city was snug under the low cloud covers. My brother and I watched it dream. And that was all there was left. To be carried home by the momentum of the night.

Unknown bands and unknown people

Written: October 5, 2013, Gaithersburg, MD

About: live music on H street

Last night I went to see a friend’s band play at the grungy Rock n Roll Hotel on H Street in DC. My friend’s band was playing, along with two more that I have never seen before. Between the black walls and under the struggling speakers, they tore the air apart. No one does the jubilant, mad wall of sound quite like punks and gypsies mixed on the same stage.

The Unknown Bands rock the stage, their fame emblazoned on bathroom walls and small-run posters that will disappear before the next sun is out, a carnival of outfits and unrelenting commitment to outlandish antics. Their brilliant voices bust the speakers, and their instruments pound the amps, hanging on by the last strand of exposed wire. There is a throng of them up in the holy altar, wringing every last drop of sweat and wine out of the night.

The Unknown People fill the hall as a tumultuous sea. The waves of humanity crash about in reckless, beautiful dance, leaning toward the lights and the musicians, no longer tired, no longer poor, no longer alone. The crowd boils and steams and breathes fumes of fuel into the bands, jumping, dancing, hands stretched high, voices hoarse and unified.

For these hours, no longer Unknown, they are Royalty, come to pray in the Hall Most Hallowed.

The Black Keys at Merriweather

Date: May 18, 2012
About: Merriweather Post Pavilion, near Baltimore, MD

From the moment They came on the stage and touched those holy string and drum skins, no one sat down in the whole place. Everyone was up on the feet, their very toes, reaching for the roof and the skies. The music performed a miracle. It made the seats disappear.

They played a few songs where it was just the two of them, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Just two guys set against a huge stage, a wild array of lights, and a mad crowd squeezed into every inch of the place. Yet in this picture of fame and rock glory they still seemed like two guys playing a tiny stage in a no-name bar back in Akron. It must take a mile of humility to maintain such a delicate balance of presence. On the one hand, it is just two dorky guys doing what they do because they love it, come fame or mortal obscurity. On the other hand, it is such fire, such intensity that it blows you right down like a hurricane.

They came up to every single one of us, opened our chests, and politely rifled through our hearts until they found that string, that memory, that feeling that rang true. Then they plucked it and let it sing the whole night. What happened on that stage was the raw sound of love.

Steel City Blues 2012

Written: April 2, 2012, in DC

About: Pittsburgh, March 2012

I have recently taken an extended break from blues dancing. It was not for the lack of love for the dance, or an injury. In months prior, I have found myself drifting along a bland trajectory through the dances, often feeling powerless to change my direction. This experience was even more frustrating because I had been feeling more connected to the art and the music. Yet the dancing itself seemed to be slipping away.

I had also wanted to get to know the people with whom I had been spending all this time. In the midst of a dance party, when the music flows thick and loud until you are too tired to stay on your feet, it is all too easy to just slip from dance to dance. You get to know the beautiful intricacies of someone’s body, but hardly see the elegant folds of their mind.

I dubbed it my blues fast and intentionally went to dance events and did not dance. It was excruciating at first. I did not realize just how ingrained this routine has become. Sitting at home on a Thursday night as the clock ticked past the hours of Backroom Blues felt surreal. Then came the meditative acceptance. I would sip whiskey at the bar and chat with the dancers taking a short break. The last couple weeks were filled with practically childish excitement.

I decide I should come back with an overload, and so I decided to return to blues at the Steel City blues exchange. Two days of practically nothing but dancing, drinking, and friends, all else optional.

And Blues, she took me back without a moment’s thought. The draw was instantaneous. When I got to the first dance, the air was already thick and heavy. The walls were dripping with music and low lighting. I went up to the bar and asked for a shot of vodka. The old man on the other side looked around, picked up a wine glass and filled it half-full. She must have missed me, she really did.

I closed my eyes for a dance and the swirling time took me into the late midnight hours. It was all rhythm rhythm sway. It seemed like all it took to get through the evening dance was a single breath and a single pull on that vodka. Then it was off for the blues late night.

The place was pulsing. It was hot and sweaty and alive as hell in there, and no one would stop. Everyone was submerged in the music and the dancing even when they were not on the dance floor. The blues pooled and coiled on the floor, drawing everyone into the deep end. You could sit on a sofa with your feet drawn up, but the blues would snake up the furniture legs, wrap around your waist and shoulders and pull you back in, pull your head under into the sweet dream.

I switched to the whiskey flask in my back pocket. Beads of sweat roll over my eyes and my lips. I lean out the window and timidly kiss the dark beyond. She is cool and coy and lovely. Runs her fingers up my spine and through my hair. Before I can blurt out something about love and immortality, she silences me with a single finger tip on my lips and then slowly, deliberately, pushes me back on the dance floor, pushes me back under the swelling tide of blues.

Blues, that sweet junk, it flows into a familiar vein freely and easily. It never left. All along, I have been right here, in this embrace, on this breath, on this beat.

The heat and fire of the dance floor are hard to bear and I escape into the soft blanket of the deep night to cool off. We sit on the sidewalk and blissfully talk for what seems like hours. Or maybe just a few minutes. It is hard to tell the time. The mind wanders off in the company of someone close. Another dancer comes out of the building and starts playing a harmonica while meandering about place, between cars and people. Everything is framed by flashing marquee lights.

I have rearranged the time.

The trip does not end on the drive home. It does not end on the sweet goodbyes, or the midnight kiss, or the dinosaur Mr. Rogers. The breakfast of Elvis and pancakes is not the finale. Neither are the arresting Catholic cathedrals. These are all at the center of what happened. Warm layers wrapped tightly around the core, where all is good and peaceful and I am not alone.

I rearrange the time so that everything ends with me taking a rest on a shaded lawn on a clear afternoon. The grass is soft and cool and a perfect compliment to the flawless blue sky. A gentle conversation floats over us like a lazy balloon. The sun is enjoying its afternoon stroll through the clouds as much as anyone. We lay and we talk.

And then I am home.

The awkward bard

Written: September 28, 2011, in DC

About: Baltimore, Summer 2011

I have been dreamily obsessed with Jason Webley’s music for several years now. Jason Webley himself is also worth obsessing over, but that’s a different story. He has played in Tucson twice while I had lived there, and I missed both times. One of those times, I found out the day of the concert, and I was in Orlando. Curse you, mocking fate.

Shortly after I moved to DC, I looked up his touring schedule and realized he is set to play in the area. Obviously, everything else had to be set aside so that I could finally leave behind records and YouTube videos and take in the real thing. I got in the car and drove to Baltimore.

Baltimore is a pretty gritty place, and this wasn’t its most glamorous block. Zero glitz in this venue. He played at a community book store. It was the kind of place that decorates its walls with provocative political posters and stocks obscure literature as a matter of principle. There was no stage, just a cleared area presented with a few rows of haphazardly arranged folding chairs. You could get cans of beer and mugs of hot water with tea bags. There was no admission charge, only a tip jar. It was more of a venue than someone’s living room, but not by much.

I rushed in late, and nearly ran past the table where Jason Webley was politely looking over the tip jar. My eyes recognized him instantly, but the brain took a while to accept this fact. Once it did, my heart promptly lodged in my throat. He was neat and quiet as I was tripping over my apologies. For some reason I thought he’d be tall, but he is actually rather short. Words aimlessly tumbled out of my head, so I stuffed some money in the jar and found a chair.

I have been in anticipation of seeing him live for at least two years. I have listened to his records, talked about him, and build myself up for this concert in every way. All too often such intense anticipation never pays off, yet Jason’s presence consumed me whole. I had lost all sense of time until, suddenly, the show was over.

Jason Webley is awkward and humble. In retrospect, that is not that surprising – many of my performer friends are the same way. The brilliant charisma seen on the stage is genuine – it politely steps aside during the more private moments. Give them a stage and a chance to perform with honesty and passion, and theirs is a torrent of the incredible and the magnificent.

Watching him perform was almost like watching two completely different people. He frequently talked between the songs, addressing the crowd or telling stories from his life and from the road. This person seemed wracked with self-doubt and insecurity. He didn’t know what to do with his suddenly giant and conspicuous arms. He was listless and uncomfortable. Then, as he fingered the guitar strings or the accordion keys, in a single breath he would transform into a commanding creature of fierce stature. This tiny man grew many feet and his thunderous, beautiful voice filled every crevice and heart in the place. His movements became precise and confident. It is difficult to imagine that a sole person could handle such an outpouring of energy, yet there it was.

First dance

Written: May 7, 2011, in DC

About: blues dancing

Just as there is only one first kiss, there is only one first dance you have with someone. Sometimes that’s an instantly meaningful experience – when you simply know that the person is special, and you feel anxious about the approaching song’s end. Then sometimes it’s just another dance in a long line of dances.

Blues can be an especially intimate first dance. Not much structure in blues, at least compared to lindy or bal. It is much more about the musicality and the physical connection. The connection… There are two basic stances. The first is essentially a lindy position. The lead cradles the follow’s back as she lets him have her weight so the dancers counter-balance each other.

The close position is an embrace. The connection point starts at the hip and runs along the bodies all the way to the shoulders. Whereas in the open position the dancers essentially hang back from each other, here they lean in. The tiniest, most nuanced movements are transferred instantly between the dancers. The details that could easily be overlooked before – the position of the hand, the angle of the bodies, the tilt of the head – become meaningful. It’s not about the patterns anymore, it’s about moving precisely and together.

Of course, plunging into something of the sort with a stranger is not always easy. A gentlemanly lead lets the follow stay where she is most comfortable, and so the first dance will almost always start out in the open position. Though if the music is right, if it’s quite the vibe that both people are looking for, the comfort seeps in slowly, stepping closer with every chord and bar.

It is possible to slowly slide from one position into another. So upon a mutual but unspoken agreement, the follow will begin to drift closer. Her hand slowly walks up the lead’s shoulder. His hand comes to rest in the middle of her back, gently drawing her in. The bodies twist around each other slightly. The movements slow down as the conversation turns more private. Tension and apprehension of the first dance melt away. The follow’s head rests tenderly against the lead’s shoulder.

Of course, that is when blues really begins. When you both breathe out at ease, and just dance.


Kleine Arizona

Jan 1, 2011

Grünow, Germany

The scene was improbable, if not entirely absurd. In the midst of the frozen German country side, in a tiny village of Ollendorf, I was sitting in a cowboy-styled saloon, drinking Jim Beam, and listening to My Achy Breaky Heart. A bit earlier, a drummer and a guitar player took the stage, playing a few American classics, including putting out a very zealous Knocking on Heaven’s Door. The guitarist, who did all the singing, spot on, in English, did not actually speak English.

Yet, however unlikely, the place is real. It is called Ollendorf Saloon, and a guy named Hajo runs the joint. (He is also the drummer mentioned above; together with the guitarist and a couple of other people they make up a country rock band called Purple Boots.) It is not a gig from a cross-cultural comedic movie. It is simply there, making the world a slightly better place because of its genuine zest (and a little bit of absurdity).

We shared the table with a German couple. We mended a conversation out of bits of Russian, German, and English. Mostly we agreed that beer is good. So is vodka. Whiskey was up to some debate. The conversation was punctuated by smoking, orders for more alcohol, and dancing.

The saloon itself was a fairly small place. The space was only large enough for about four tables with a few chairs about. One side of the room was the stage, permanently adorned with a drum set bearing the Purple Boots logo and stacks of amps. Hajo takes music seriously. The other end is a small bar. Mostly it’s stocked with beer (on average, far superior to any actual saloon in the States) and wine, as well as a lone bottle of whiskey. Behind the bar are the bathrooms (also far superior to any actual saloon in the States).

Another note on the music. Most of the night, the choice was techno. That is not unusual for a German setting, but downright bizarre for an actual saloon (unless the jukebox somehow finds Rednex, the Swedish country / techno band). Many of the techno tracks sampled over actual country songs. I’m not sure whether that made the scene more or less strange. Eventually, Hajo did switch to a more traditional American bar fare (including a live recording of Achy Breaky Heart). This portion of the night also included Wonderful Tonight, a rare song by Eric Clapton I actually like. It made me miss my blues-dancing friends terribly. There is something to be said about the luxury of almost always having dancer friends around. You don’t appreciate it until a good song comes on, and they’re thousands of miles away.

The customers were enthusiastic, but drunk people are usually are, especially on New Year’s Eve. I don’t think they were enthusiastic specifically for the saloon setting. However, on this account, Hajo himself made up in spades. He was positively brimming with pride in the establishment. His daughter appeared to generally share in his love of the cowboy culture – she actually learned decent two-step swing.

How the saloon came into existence is a gem in itself. Hajo, apparently, has long loved the American South-West, specifically Arizona, and the cowboy culture. However, he was never able to afford to go there. So he decided to do the next best thing – build a Western saloon. This action itself is so undeniably romantic and beautiful, I actually feel better about the human race because of it. It’s a great thing that people like Hajo still exist.

New Orleans, Frenchmen St.

Dec 24, 2010

Over the Atlantic

This was my third time in New Orleans, and though I liked the city well enough the first two times, this is when I really fell in love with it. The first visits were confined to Bourbon street, which is a fairly terrible place. I like terrible places, so it worked out. But it just never felt quite real. Kind of like Disney World without the Disney – fake toy houses filled with vicious drunks and naked girl with daddy issues. A compacted, storied Vegas without the excessive blinking lights everywhere.

It’s not too bad for my scene, actually, and the music is good. I appreciate any place where people feel free; and here they are free in base and awful ways. Drinks are expensive, but you can hear what you’d normally only hear on records. Solid jazz and smiling musicians. But the Disney park feeling creeps even into this. The music is exactly what you’d hear on the records. The Preservation Hall – reputedly one the best spots for jazz – is a goddam museum. Everything is covered in plexiglass, and it’s not even dusted that often. Old musicians hunched over their instruments, belting out St. James’ Infirmary for the millionth time to a crowd wearing shorts and flipflops, accompanied by glossy maps of the French Quarter advertising the best spots for po boys and gumbo. It’s a TV special – none of it is real. It’s got all the grit and zeal of a Civil War re-enactment. It’s as authentic as Williamsburg.

Frenchmen Street was different. The crowd packed the place – the Spotted Cat – wall to wall while a lone aging woman working the bar was slinging drinks all over the place. The crowd was mostly local – no obnoxious tourist t-shirts and flip-flops in this joint. There wasn’t really anywhere to sit, either. Chairs were an afterthought. And why would you want to sit? The band is right there. The dancers are coming. This isn’t something to watch half-mindedly while trading tips about hotel chain reward programs. This is a show to watch.

The musicians were different, too. All smiles and handshakes, weaving through the crowd before the show. There were no entrances. They simply took the stage and played. Their music leaned on the crowd, and the crowd drank it up. There was a bar filled with whiskey, wine, beer, and gin, but it was the band that got everyone high.

What made it even better was that the same thing was happening in another bar across the street. And another bar down the block. Abundance of good music – and the even more powerful vibes that carried it – was astounding. The whole place fucking vibrated. I drank my share of whiskey, and the place made it burn in a joyous hum.

You slide into a good dance. Rhythm, beat, connection, bounce – these are all the right things you want, but in a good dance, you simply get them. They are right here, manifested as your partner, and you take it all in your arms. A good dance takes no effort at all, even if it is fast and leaves you gasping for air on the last note. All you do is close your eyes, smile, and carry through.

I walked to the Spotted Cat from my hotel, which was on the corner of Canal and Bourbon. So to get to Frenchmen, I had to walk the entire length of Bourbon. Which was a bit like walking through some sort of trials. I had to go past all those awful bars that smell of vomit and cheap drinks, past the “Tits and whiskey” sign outside of the some strange sex show joint.

Side story – a couple years back, my roommate and I happened to be here as well, similarly driving cross-country from Florida to Arizona. We went to Bourbon Street for dinner, and camped out at a table on one of those famed balconies, eating and watching the depraved mess below. We just happened to be right across from one of those sex show bars, with a hype man outside howling at the crowd, trying to get people in. Most people come here to get a story about someone else (same as Vegas), so they limit themselves to merely getting embarrassingly drunk. Most tourists would never step inside a sex show joint, but some still do. Anyway, in the span of an hour, a handful people actually walked in. Inevitably, within minutes they stormed out of the place, past the ineffable hype man, and angrily left the scene. At one point, someone – I must assume, a performer – walked up to the door where I could see them. The woman – I’m fairly certain – was wearing something sparkling, and obscenely revealing. However, she inspired morbid curiosity rather than any kind of lust in me. I still have no idea what was going on inside, but I am decidedly curious. I need to figure out which spot that was.

Back on track. I had to walk the length of Bourbon Street until it lost all pretense of trying to look nice for the guests. I got to the part dominated by sleazy drink specials and bar flies. No jazz in this part, just obscene club music, something ridiculous that belongs in a cheap strip club. It smelled of piss and spilled drinks. It was an ugly scene. It was a party’s last desperate stand. Everyone who is left standing in the early hours of the morning is surveying the empty bottles and other similarly desperate rejects, deciding whether to attempt to mate or simply vomit and pass out.

Then there was the part that didn’t even have bars or stores or anything open to the public. People lived here. A few drunks stumbled past me, and some people who actually had to be somewhere – people who didn’t seem twisted. I was finally free of the fake Disney makeup; I was in the part of New Orleans that could pass for something like a real city where people merely lived. No one can live on Bourbon street. The madness would drive them to suicide sooner or later. This part also smelled a lot better.

Frenchmen street came up like a beacon. I could hear it before I could see it. The bars here weren’t as obnoxiously lit. Music and alcohol poured out into the streets. The first crowd I got to was definitely meaner by the look of it. Guys who were drunk and rough, swaying with cheap liquor in their veins, ready to defend something imagined but crucial against all comers. Now, this place had a ring of truth to it.

In a Jack on the rocks, the band was on. The dancers came through, and fairly quickly the cramped space before the stage was alive with lindy, blues, bal, and charleston. I love dancers. They’re always a refuge. As long as there is a modicum of space and some good music, a complete stranger will be genuinely kind to you. In no time at all, I’ve met at least some people, and was happily bouncing along to the thick jazz. Hundreds of miles of the road, lack of sleep, short scratch in the pocket – none of it really mattered in those minutes on the floor, and the minutes were strung together pretty tightly. I was inside a vortex. Time stretched out. The night flickered.

The place was so packed with the crowd and the dancers that moving on the floor became an intense exercise in traffic management. On swing-outs, the follows would be flying mere inches away from those watching. Spins had to be ever tighter and more controlled. No wide, broad moves. They had to be traded in for subtle, intimate weight shifts. I can’t help but think that this is how blues and swing are meant to be – no endless, bright-lit ballroom floors.

Dancing like this also leaves me wondering. What do the non-dancers think of people swaying slowly to blues? The close, tight connection of the dance is what makes it such a brilliant experience, but it can only be appreciated by those in the embrace. Everyone can appreciate a great swing-out, spin, or drop by merely seeing it. The blues is felt. This thought never stays long, however. After all, your partner and the music aside, the rest of the universe is utterly irrelevant when dancing the blues.

PS Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns – Lucky Devil.