The Big Ones -- There are certain places that even the slackest of live music students must know. Tipitina's (501 Napoleon Ave., 895-8477; www.tipitinas.com) is a New Orleans institution named for the Professor Longhair hit, and a bust of "Fess" just inside the door serves as constant reminder of the club's R&B roots. Tip's has become the New Orleans home for local and national bands that explore the permutations of blues, jazz, soul, rock and funk, which makes it one of the prime venues in town for jam bands. The Sunday afternoon fais do do is a great place to see and try Cajun dancing, with the balcony providing an overhead view of this Louisiana tradition.
New Orleans is also home to House of Blues (225 Decatur St., 529-BLUE; www.hob.com), the national live music chain. This French Quarter nightclub simulates a roadhouse's atmosphere, but it's also the premier venue for national touring acts in almost every genre, blues being only a small part of that mix. The Parish next door is its more intimate venue, often featuring local rock and emerging touring acts.
In the last year, TwiRoPa (1544 Tchoupitoulas St., 587-3777; www.twiropa.com) has emerged as the leading club for local and national indie rock, filling a void left by the sad demise of the Mermaid Lounge. This converted warehouse on -- say it with me -- "Chop-ih-TOO-luss" has two rooms, the Live Room, which hosts larger shows such as Interpol and Corrosion of Conformity, and the Tchop Room, a smaller room more suitable for emerging bands.
There's nothing physically prepossessing about the Maple Leaf Bar (8316 Oak St., 866-9359). It's just two narrow rooms with a patio out back, but the Maple Leaf hosts some of the city's most popular standing gigs. When Papa Grows Funk isn't on the road, it plays the funkiest jams Monday nights have to offer, and it seems like Rebirth Brass Band has been playing on Tuesday nights since the Truman presidency. Thursday nights, Astral Project drummer Johnny Vidacovich and Meters bassist George Porter Jr. team with a rotating cast of guests as the Trio to jam into the night.
While jamming and jazz-soul-funk combos dominate New Orleans' musical landscape these days, the Howlin' Wolf (828 S. Peters St., 529-5844; www.howlin-wolf.com) fights the good fight for loud guitars and bad attitudes. The once-humble Warehouse District club is now the home for local and national alternative rock in town.
Frenchmen Street -- Those who consider themselves aficionados of live music need to check out the venues that present local music in bars that reflect the city's character. For years, the area now dubbed the Frenchmen Street Arts and Culture District has been a bohemian outpost just beyond the French Quarter on the Esplanade side. It's roughly three blocks of intimate music clubs. In the case of the Dragon's Den (435 Esplanade Ave., 949-1750), located upstairs from Siam Cafe, the room looks like what you'd expect an opium den to look like -- skeletal, with cushions to sit on, ample floor space, and a handful of tables and chairs. The music in d.b.a. (616 Frenchmen St., 942-3731; www.drinkgoodstuff.com) ranges from singer-songwriters to jazz-funk jams, and it's wedged into the back corner of this upscale saloon. Across the street is the Spotted Cat (623 Frenchmen St., 943-3887), where local neo-traditional jazz artists play just inside the front window.
There's a lot of good jazz in these clubs -- and certainly in Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen St., 949-0696), which specializes in contemporary jazz -- but there are a lot of interesting small, progressive combos in other genres to be found as well. Latin and world music dominate Cafe Brasil (2100 Chartres St.) and the Blue Nile (534 Frenchmen St., 948-2583), for instance. With small covers or tip jars in most of the clubs, it's easy to hear a lot of music and do a lot of hanging out for a reasonable price.
Frequenting those venues will give music fans much of what they need to know, but those places hardly tell the whole story. There's a lot going on out there at night, and those fancy themselves "in the know" need to widen their field of study. The Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl (4133 S. Carrollton Ave., 482-3133; www.rockandbowl.com), for example, is a bowling alley and a music club. The Rock 'n' Bowl usually presents dance music of one kind or another, with Thursday night its long-standing zydeco night.
The Circle Bar (1032 St. Charles Ave., 588-2616) is too small for live music and dancing, but that hasn't stopped the bar on Lee Circle from presenting live music most nights and DJed mod dance parties on Saturday nights. This may be the most intimate venue in town, and it is blessed with arguably the best jukebox.
On the Rampart Street side of the French Quarter is Donna's (800 N. Rampart St., 596-6914) an unpretentious outpost for New Orleans jazz that leans toward the traditional. A block away on North Rampart is the Funky Butt (714 N. Rampart St., 558-0872), owned by Sammie Williams of Big Sam's Funky Nation and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. It features contemporary funky, jazzy soul (or is it funky, soulful jazz?).
In the French Quarter, One Eyed Jacks (615 Toulouse St., 569-8361; www.oneeyedjacks.net) is the French Quarter hipsters' hangout. Behind the padded doors is the showroom, renovated since its days as the Shim Sham Club to make it a more comfortable place to sit and hang out. It's the home of burlesque in New Orleans, and on weekends the bigger names in punk and underground rock 'n' roll grace its curtained stage.
In the Riverbend area, Carrollton Station (8140 Willow St., 895-9190) once again has live music on the weekends. Local rock and pop bands frequent its stage, and management is game for special project residencies such as the three-guitar band Twangorama performing with guests on Thursdays or Susan Cowsill covering classic albums in their entirety on the first Saturday of each month.
In Mid-City, the Dixie Taverne (3340 Canal St., 822-8268) has been the home for New Orleans' antisocial music. The room is a generic bar with neon beer signs in the windows, but it's also a clubhouse for the musicians in New Orleans' influential punk-metal scene, so it seems like a former member of Eyehategod, Hawgjaw or Soilent Green appears on its stage nightly.
WHAT YOU'LL BE TESTED ON
One of the basic principles of live music is that the social scene that surrounds it is as important as the music itself. Trumpet player Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers play regularly all over town, but the way to see him is at Vaughan's Lounge (800 Lesseps St., 947-5562). His casual shows at this Bywater neighborhood watering hole have become so popular that all walks of life seem to meet here.
At some point, dedicated students have to get up early and make the pilgrimage to Mamou to Fred's Lounge (420 6th St., Mamou, 337-468-5411). Like Vaughan's, it's as much a scene as a musical event. The club is only open Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a performance by an area zydeco band that is broadcast live on KVPI-AM in Ville Platte. Liking zydeco helps, but early-morning beers and boudin in the heart of Cajun country with people from all over the world must be experienced at least once.