Have you ever experienced the New Orleans music scene? You can hear the magic in the streets, even after Mardi Gras is over…
New Orleans gets its name as “the birthplace of jazz” for a reason. It’s vibrant, eclectic and oozing in style. One of the musical hotspots of the world.
With each twist and turn of the renowned French Quarter either bringing forward a beautiful homage to the late greats like Louis Armstrong, Irma Thomas, and Ernie K-Doe, or a new genre of music flooding your ears after every ornate block of eighteenth-century buildings you pass by – ones you wouldn’t even imagine could exist.
That’s without even bringing up what the Big Easy is infamous for: Mardi Gras.
“Laissez les bon temps rouler!”
It’s a musician’s dream.
To play the music that sets the tone for vivacious parades, fantastical costumes and crowds of people from all over the world wanting to dance the night away.
The magic of the Mardi Gras green, gold and purple gives New Orleans the blueprint for what music could and should achieve all-year round.
It sets the stage for the melting pot of music that NOLA represents. With sounds from all over the continental U.S., that will completely stop your own little world just to fill it up again with a smooth blend and burst of every dance and song under the sun.
The leaders of the New Orleans music scene
So who are the people that keep and care for this reputation New Orleans has?
I talked with three different New Orleans-based bands and artists – all from different walks of musical life – to get a feel for what the paved streets, and balconied pastel clubs and bars really have to offer.
From jazz and blues aficionado Marty Peters and his band ‘Marty Peters and the Party Meters,’ to the all-encompassing sound of ‘The Phunky Monkeys,’ and apocalyptic rock artist Steve Mignano and his band ‘Drab.’
These polar opposites of musical style and performance are just steps away from each other on Bourbon Street, allowing the jungle of sound that New Orleans is infamous for to live up to its reputation.
The musical mavericks themselves
‘Marty Peters and the Party Meters’
The five-piece band aims to be “heavy hitting, high energy and engaging,” Peters said.
The frontman of the traditional jazz band utilized his initial vocal training in the Episcopal Church choir and formal education in modern jazz at SUNY Purchase, as a real launchpad to become the musician he is today.
They are a band with unidentifiably individual voices and sounds, chiselling out quintessential jazz songs through deep tones and jokey ad-libs to heighten everything they originally stood for.
With a wish to “have [their] own sound while paying respect to the tradition and to the music of the city,” Peters also said that the key to their artistry is “immersing [themselves] in the material.”
Brass, strings, and percussion from ‘Marty Peters and the Party Meters’ all come together in a drowsy haze that gets everyone up on their feet and leaves them there.
“The magic was in the record itself,” frontman Michael Taylor said about the cover band’s philosophy on performance and putting the audience first.
A focus on the classics gives ‘The Phunky Monkeys’ the chance to re-energize previous hits, and breathe a whole new life into the core songs that founded the classic NOLA sound – they are an emblem of the mixed music palette that New Orleans is all about.
Covering artists all the way from John Mellencamp to Doja Cat to Tina Turner, with over 1100 songs in their repertoire, the NOLA music scene is anything but one-dimensional. “There’s a lot of different subcultures that all take precedence […] and they all have space to live and breathe in New Orleans” Taylor said.
Taylor is a second generation musician and New Orleans native who always looks for the next opportunity for the 12-piece band to make it big.
“Some people only subscribe to doing the one thing and doing it really well, but we just try to do everything well,” Taylor said. “If we’re playing a rap song, we’re trying to make it sound like a rap song […] if we’re playing a country song, we’re trying to make it sound like a country song.”
This “we want to play what they want to hear” mantra that Taylor discussed, sets the band apart from the run-of-the mill cover acts and tribute bands. ‘The Phunky Monkeys’ tailor their music so by the end of the night the voices of the crowd are singing the songs for them.
“I don’t love New Orleans, I’m in love with New Orleans. It’s like this passionate affair” the 12-year New Orleans local, Mignano said.
His self-acclaimed “apocalyptic rock” and “neo-grunge” sound certainly lives up to expectation, with a hellish tinge of lyric and style taking hold of any stage or record that ‘Drab’ makes their mark on. Taking clear inspiration from rock legends “Nirvana and Soundgarden,” according to Mignano.
Between knife-edge vocals and killer guitar licks, this trio are no strangers to hard work and are pioneering the up-and-coming underground rock scene in NOLA, alongside bands like ‘Silver Dose’ and ‘She Might Be a Beast’.
The band arose out of the COVID-19 pandemic and have went from strength to strength since. Building on their 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Bourbon street gigs to the release of their January 2022 self-titled album – garnering the band over 3200 monthly listeners on Spotify.
Migano commented on the “vibe of hopelessness and paranoia” of the album as almost a mirror image to the chaos and instability of the pandemic that it was recorded during.
Put some respect on the New Orleans music scene
This birthplace of jazz gives the modern-day musicians of the New Orleans music scene some pretty big shoes to fill. With a pressure to stay true to the musical tradition by paying homage to the trailblazers – for giving NOLA the chance to become the thriving music scene it is today.
We must “pay homage to this music […] take care of this music” and “play good music with the respect that it deserves” Peters said. With some of the bands having “direct lineage to the real roots of the music of this city,” like Charlie Gabriel and his performances at Preservation Hall.
Gabriel is a New Orleans local who has performed traditional jazz for over 70 years, with mesmerizing accolades like joining the Lionel Hampton band at age 16 and performing in Aretha Franklin’s Orchestra.
Maintaining a standard is especially key as “oftentimes [for visitors to New Orleans] this is the first experience people have with traditional jazz,” the ‘Marty Peters and the Party Meters’ frontman remarked.
With such golden history books behind NOLA’s music scene, there’s no doubt artists have to (and do) live up to an expectation of bringing it every night they hit the stage.
The strife and struggle of the New Orleans music scene
“New Orleans has a musical community that’s unlike any I have ever experienced” Peters said.
Each of these artists can attest to the beauty that the NOLA community has to offer, especially through the recent hardships it’s faced that’ve taken a real toll on the lively Louisiana city.
COVID-19 left the streets of New Orleans soundless as the virus threatened lives and forced people into their homes.
Whilst the nine-day August to September stretch of Hurricane Ida further ravaged the city with severe flooding and wreckage. Ida’s 150mph winds left NOLA powerless as local lives hung in the balance.
Though these disasters only strengthened the celebrated community spirit that New Orleans is renowned for. The locals and their unbreakable spirit is “just like a big hug,” Peters said.
Other infamous music scenes like NYC (where Peters grew up) can be less accommodating, especially to new musicians on the block, with an almost “cutthroat” feel to it Peters said.
The level of welcome you instantly feel in New Orleans is second-to-none.
These support networks are upheld by the distinct diversity of the city, in both the wider community and the musicians communities too: “there’s space for everybody, of all genres of all skill levels of all types of bands,” Taylor said.
“It’s just how it is in New Orleans. It’s like this incestuous group of musicians that all play with each other,” Mignano said in light of the community-feel the city exudes.
The highlights and the road ahead
But for all three musicians, and the scene at large, the road ahead is bright.
With stellar past achievements like ‘The Phunkey Monkey’s’ playing halftime for The Pelicans, and for The Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV party in Miami in 2010. A “huge huge moment” for Taylor as a lifelong Saints fan.
To Peters’ playing at the Brooklyn ‘House of Yes’ and coordinating his Southern drawls with the burlesque dancers song requests – playing songs that were “so dirty motel funky that the ‘M’ on the sign flickered off and it’s just ‘OTEL’ funky.”
Even to Mignano playing at Millennium Park in Chicago and opening for his heroes like Luther Dickinson and North Mississippi, which was “worth more than a million bucks” for the lead ‘Drab’ vocalist.
With dreams like touring the EU, White House gigs, and playing at big Louisiana festivals on the horizon, there’s no telling how far the artists in New Orleans can go.
“We really enjoy what we do […] Not a lot of people can say that they’re truly happy in their job” Taylor said, which perfectly sums up the spirit of the Big Easy.
Unified. Innovative. Caring.