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Disconcerting Trends 

Three years after Hurricane Katrina forced every New Orleans venue to rebuild from scratch their purged live music calendars, one aspect of the city's nightlife has yet to approach pre-storm levels: national touring acts.

In fact, it may be getting worse.

"It's ironic," says Scott Simoneaux, head of Infectious Publicity and the talent buyer for Republic New Orleans. "There are less bands inclined to come to the city now than there were in the first 12 to 18 months after the storm. The bottom line is that you're not going to have the same turnout as before the hurricane."

Simoneaux is referring to the charitable period from early 2006 to mid-2007, when many national artists, large and small, made a point of including a New Orleans gig on their itineraries as a show of support for Gulf Coast recovery. With progress updates taking a backseat to presidential primary coverage on the national news, that window has long since closed. Disregarding festivals, New Orleans' biggest concert stories in 2008 have both come courtesy of the Nickelodeon set: Hannah Montana's 'Best of Both Worlds" tour stop at the New Orleans Arena in January and the Wiggles' visit to the newly reopened UNO Lakefront Arena in July.

Ticket sales from those two events have totaled in the tens of thousands. Meanwhile, club venues " from Republic to One Eyed Jacks to even the corporate-sponsored House of Blues " play attendance roulette with their shows every week. A rock concert by the Canadian sister act Tegan and Sara drew several hundred fans to the House of Blues in peak-season November; a midsummer Saturday-night visit to One Eyed Jacks in June by rising Scottish band Frightened Rabbit scared up barely a dozen.

"Turnout is definitely down," says Simoneaux, who previously acted as talent buyer for the Howlin' Wolf and now-defunct TwiRoPa. 'Republic wasn't around before the hurricane, but as far as artists that we might have done at TwiRoPa, some of them have done better because [the band's] on an upward trajectory, and some have done less than they might have done three years ago."

One problem, notes Sarah Mroue of the national booking agency Ground Control Touring, lies in the proximity of New Orleans to Baton Rouge. "It's considered [one market]," Mroue explains. "You'd want somebody from New Orleans to drive to Baton Rouge to see a show, so they do compete a little bit. [U.K. rock band] British Sea Power actually played in Baton Rouge [at the Spanish Moon] and in New Orleans [at One Eyed Jacks], and neither show did particularly well. The Baton Rouge show did a little better."

"Before, smaller bands might play both markets," adds Simoneaux. 'But few national bands — one or two out of 10 — would play Baton Rouge instead of New Orleans. There've been three or four [recent Baton Rouge] shows that I would've liked to see come to New Orleans: Band of Horses, the Hold Steady. [The Spanish Moon is] just doing a good job."

Which is not to say that Simoneaux and co. aren't. Infectious recently teamed with the Los Angeles-based music blog Aquarium Drunkard (www.aquariumdrunkard.com) to promote a series of concerts at Republic, securing Athens, Ga., rockers the Whigs (Aug. 22) and Austin based Okkervil River (Sept. 30). The House of Blues and One Eyed Jacks continue to provide a weekly mix of quality national and local content, and even micro venues like the Circle Bar and Hi-Ho Lounge usually land at least one national tour every month.

But they need steady attendance in order to keep up the bookings.

"If the band's going to stop and pay for a hotel, they've got to make sure they're going to make enough money," Mroue says. "We get the final numbers from all of our shows; in 2008, we've had Tilly and the Wall, British Sea Power, Tim Easton and David Dondero. Super Furry Animals had a show scheduled, but it was canceled. The attendance is just way lower there than in comparable markets."

"I would say it can only get better," offers Simoneaux. "Not because shows are terrible, but because they're down from where they were. But not having the [shuttered] State Palace and Saenger [theaters], there's a sizable amount [of tours that aren't coming to New Orleans]. Now, it's like, you can play a club or you can play an arena. But there's a huge void in between for bands that could draw 3,000 people to the Saenger. The more these [booking] agents do business with New Orleans in general, the more it begets business."

click to enlarge Death Cab for Cutie plays at Republic New Orleans. - CHRIS BROWN/PLAINE STUDIOS
  • Chris Brown/Plaine Studios
  • Death Cab for Cutie plays at Republic New Orleans.
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