THE GIG: Stooges Brass Band, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.
THE VENUE: Hi-Ho Lounge, 2239 St. Claude Ave.
THE SCENE: Total New Orleans cross-section, with everyone ready to party
THE DRINKS: Good cheap beer and well drinks; friendly bartenders
New Orleans culture’s equitable embrace of life and death is a bountiful feast for scholars and armchair commentators, but one of my favorite delights at that table is the simple birthday pin. Nowhere else in America can you announce the annual celebration of your existence so plainly; nowhere else can in America can you get birthday wishes and dollar bills from strangers simply by walking down the street wearing a safety pin with a dollar on it.
New Orleans knows how to do birthdays, and just as the birthday pin invites everyone you pass to join your celebration in some small way, some New Orleanians go even further and tie their birthday parties into a gig or event.
Such was the case when I visited the Hi-Ho Lounge to see the Stooges Brass Band’s weekly Thursday night gig. When my friends and I rolled up, we found a barbecue pit smoking on the sidewalk. It was tended by a man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “MORE MEAT FOR YOUR MOUTH.” Loud R&B blasted from inside the bar, and several people milled around on the sidewalk, wearing all white. A look at the chalkboard sign near the door explained the dress code: It was “Sporty’s All-White Birthday Party,” and we were now invited.
The bar filled up quickly over the next half-hour, with the birthday boy receiving well-wishes from friends and strangers. A quartet of sassy young ladies wore matching white jersey dresses, all embroidered with the same insignia. The band slowly arrived, set up, and emerged from backstage wearing all white themselves, save the rhythm section, which remained in black.
The band left through the front entrance, and, just after 10:30 p.m., struck up a second line beat. Sporty, it seemed, wanted to start the show with a bit of good old-fashioned fanfare. He and some select buddies second-lined into the bar and showed off their fancy footwork as the Stooges followed them in and took the stage. The audience, a strong mix of black and white locals plus some bewildered tourists, immediately joined the fray and boogied.
After the first number, the band went into a familiar Mardi Gras Indian beat and, sure enough, a Mardi Gras Indian in full emerald green regalia paraded into the bar, his wide feathered form creating a circle of respect on the dance floor. Sporty gave the Indian his time to shine, then joined right in and took advantage of the small performance space afforded by the circle. Perhaps carried away by birthday mania, he took the Indian’s headdress, which the Indian had removed moments before, and hoisted it onto his own head. The Stooges played “Hu-Ta-Nay,” and in that moment Sporty became the ballsiest birthday boy in town.
It was such a bombastic start to the show that the Stooges — along with myself and the audience — rode the momentum without stopping for more than an hour. When the band stopped for their set break, we joined the ranks of sweat-drenched partiers trying to catch a breeze from the passing traffic on St. Claude Avenue.
Now that is how to spend a birthday, New Orleans-style.