Kermit Ruffins stepped down from his massive black pickup truck at the corner of A.P. Tureaud Avenue and North Dorgenois Street, ready to restore live music at one bar even as it disappeared from his own.
Earlier Tuesday, city officials closed Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge for the second time in six months for allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions.
Maybe, Ruffins conceded, customers in his lounge’s adjacent courtyard had been partying past 11 p.m., the city’s mandated last-call. Or maybe officials wanted to deter the throngs of Sunday revelers who have resumed congregating near the lounge under the North Claiborne Avenue overpass.
Owner concedes business might have been selling alcohol after mandatory 11 p.m. cutoff
Whatever the problem, Ruffins won’t be playing at the Mother-in-Law Lounge until his attorney sorts things out.
Meanwhile, he’s back in rotation at Bullet’s Sports Bar.
For more than a decade, the trumpeter presided over a popular weekly gig on Tuesdays at the tidy, neon-lit, 7th Ward neighborhood bar near St. Augustine High School. He gave up the gig well before the pandemic, as his increasingly busy schedule led to frequent absences.
But proprietor Rollin “Bullet” Garcia asked Ruffins to return and jumpstart live music after the city moved into Phase 3 of its reopening last weekend and loosened restrictions on indoor entertainment.
As patrons sat at socially distanced tables, Ruffins hoisted his horn at 6:42 p.m. Tuesday — only 42 minutes behind schedule — and eased into “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”
“Good evening, everybody!” he enthused. “New Orleans, we’re live at Bullet’s!”
Ruffins, his drummer and keyboardist then paused so their late-arriving bassist could set up. When he was ready, the musicians — all except Ruffins wore facemasks — swung out on a spry instrumental.
With that, a bit of pre-pandemic New Orleans came back to life while, blocks away, Ruffins’ own place was dark once again.
That progression — one step forward, two steps back — is likely how the local live music revival will play out in the coming weeks.
In-person audiences have not been entirely extinct during the pandemic. The Broadside, the 150-capacity outdoor venue next to the Broad Theater, has presented local bands since the fall.
The first night of Phase 3’s eased restrictions finds music limited and a last call (!) for alcohol
But other than webcasts and livestreams without audiences, the major music clubs, as well as neighborhood joints like Bullet’s, have been silent.
That is changing. On March 12, the first night of Phase 3, the Frenchmen Street club Favela Chic hosted two young, street corner-style jazz bands indoors. Temperatures were taken at the door; no dancing was allowed.
This weekend, two of the city’s most prominent music clubs, Tipitina’s and the Howlin’ Wolf, open to the public for the first time in a year.
Tipitina’s has keyboardist and singer Ivan Neville playing two limited-capacity, seated-only “Piano Session” shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday. With attendance capped at a city-mandated 75, both shows sold out soon after tickets went on sale Monday.
Also on Friday, the Rebirth Brass Band will reopen the Howlin’ Wolf, which has been used as a food distribution hub throughout the pandemic. After a 9:30 p.m. show sold out, a 7 p.m. performance was added. Tickets are $30 and must be purchased in groups of two or four, to facilitate seating in socially distanced “pods.”
The music continues at the Howlin’ Wolf with the Hot 8 Brass Band at 7 p.m. Sunday; tickets are $25 and must also be purchased in blocks.
Rebirth and Hot 8 are booked most Friday and Sunday nights, respectively, at the Wolf through May. Additionally, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, the funk band fronted by trombonist “Big” Sam Williams, is headed to the Wolf on April 3 for two shows.
Based on the success of the Broadside and the quick sell-outs for this weekend’s shows, fans are hungry for live music.
“We’re about to see how much pent-up demand there is,” Howlin’ Wolf owner Howie Kaplan said.
Monday’s announcement and on-sale was exactly a year after the Wolf’s last show before the pandemic shutdown: the Hot 8 Brass Band on Sunday, March 15, 2020. The venue had sold 138 tickets in advance, but with fear of the novel coronavirus spreading, only two people showed up. “No one asked for a refund,” Kaplan noted.
He doesn’t expect his venue, with a normal capacity of 1,000, to turn much of a profit by selling food and drink to only 75 patrons.
“We really only make money on the big shows, which we can’t do right now,” Kaplan said. “This is to get the bands working again.
“You have to start somewhere. This is a good first step. I’m cautiously optimistic about moving forward.”
So, too, is Rollin “Bullet” Garcia. He plans to host the Original Pinettes Brass Band at his intimate barroom Friday while trying to adhere to the city’s extensive regulations: “I believe in doing the right thing, what the mayor says.”
The Samantha Fish Cigar Box Guitar Festival is going virtual this weekend, even as its namesake has gone back on the road.
Coronavirus protocols will also be strictly adhered to at Tipitina’s, general manager Brian “Tank” Greenberg said. Seeing a show now “is not going to be what people are used to.”
Normally 700 or more fans can squeeze into Tipitina’s; on Friday, only 75 will be allowed. They’ll sit either at tables on the first floor or stools along the railing of the balcony.
They must wear masks when entering, leaving and moving about the venue. Dancing and congregating at the bar or near the stage is not allowed. Servers will take drink orders at the tables.
Between shows, Tipitina’s will be sanitized. The late show will conclude by 11 p.m., the time headliners typically started their sets pre-pandemic.
Ivan Neville is a fitting choice for Tipitina’s grand reopening: he’s a COVID-19 survivor. In March 2020, he endured a harrowing ordeal of high fevers and low blood-oxygen levels before recovering.
With Neville onstage Friday, music fans will again be able to pass the bronze Professor Longhair bust near the door and listen to live music inside.
“If anyone had asked me if the city could do a year without music at venues like Tipitina’s, I would have said, ‘Impossible,’” Greenberg said.
Friday’s shows “won’t necessarily be a moneymaker; hopefully, we won’t lose money. But we wanted to do something that put out a positive vibe and allowed people to enjoy Tipitina’s again. It’s been too long.”
For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic commenced a year ago, Tipitina’s and the Howlin’ Wolf plan to open to the public.