In an early issue of Gambit (July 25, 1981), publisher Gary Esolen penned a feature about the Neville Brothers' then-new album Fiyo on the Bayou. He opened by mentioning that Bunny Matthews offered to douse his cassette recorder in Tabasco and eat it if the album went anywhere.
The album was reviewed favorably in national publications including Billboard and The New York Times, and it increased the Nevilles' national stature. When the band returned home from tour in August, Sesame Street's Big Bird and local fans met the Nevilles at the airport.
But not a drop of Tabasco was spilled or bit of cassette recorder consumed. The album never charted with Billboard.
"Oh, of course, it didn't," Matthews says. He's still proud of his willingness to voice his opinion about local arts and entertainment. "I was flying with the band to Houston to record," he explains. "I was arguing with Aaron Neville — he was saying that professional wrestling was real and I was trying to tell him it was more like theater. Anyway, in all of that, they called me 'Hatchetman.' They said you should never criticize anything local. And I said I should be the first to criticize something local. And the nickname 'Hatchetman' stuck for a while."
That was before Matthews joined Gambit, where he was best known for his long-running cartoon Vic and Nat'ly. But Gambit's arts and entertainment pages were full of strong and colorful opinions and insightful coverage from the get go. Looking back at three decades of coverage including features, reviews and listings, Gambit's pages have kept tabs on a host of familiar names and faces, many of whom have become local institutions. In those years, the city's cultural scene has blossomed on many fronts besides music.
The Neville Brothers were well established 30 years ago, and in the intervening decades they became the iconic final act at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, taking over the mantle of closing the festival from Professor Longhair, who died in 1980. Aaron Neville just marked his 50th year recording music with a new gospel album, I Know I've Been Changed, and the family legacy has been taken up by a new generation, including Ivan, Ian and Jason Neville.
Many of New Orleans' musical families have passed the torch. Most notably, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis went on to become the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and when New Orleans was recovering from Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, he became an early champion of the city, serving on the Bring New Orleans Back commission, and he debuted the suite Congo Square in its namesake location in spring 2006. Marsalis told Gambit that not just jazz, but and all genres of American popular music using a bass and drum owed a great debt to Congo Square.
A host of bands that used to make the rounds of popular clubs have become ambassadors for the city's music scene. In early issues of Gambit, listings often included multiple weekly shows by the Radiators and Leigh "Li'l Queenie" Harris and the Percolators. They circulated from longtime Willow Street clubs Jed's and Jimmy's to the Maple Leaf Bar, Tipitina's and the Dream Palace on Frenchmen Street. The Radiators are retiring at the end of 2010, and Li'l Queenie's popular tune "My Darlin' New Orleans" resurfaced on HBO's Treme soundtrack. Other still-familiar names in the listings that first year included James Rivers, Deacon John, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and original Meter George Porter Jr.'s many projects, like Joyride.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has grown quite a bit in 30 years. Gambit's first preview of the festival lamented that 1980's event would be remembered as "The Year of Relentless Mud." Instead, it has become one of many memorable mudslide years. In 1981, the festival featured four days of music at the Fair Grounds, and most of the stages were numbered instead of named or sponsored. The entire schedule filled just two pages in Gambit. And though no less memorable, it was a far cry in size from the current festival, which in the last decade has grown to include new genres — from jam bands to rap — and stadium-filling rock acts like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Bon Jovi.
Some once popular institutions faded or were lost over the years. In the early 1980s, New Orleanians headed to Pontchartrain Beach to ride the Zephyr and Ragin' Cajun. The New Orleans Saints were coached by Bum Phillips and had yet to post a winning record. Gambit columnist Buddy Diliberto regularly lamented their loses and looked to the following year. (The first winning season came under Jim Mora in the strike-shortened 1987 campaign.) The riverboat President was a popular concert venue, and in 1980 it booked shows by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and The Pointer Sisters. In Avondale, Ole Man River was a busy outpost for touring bands. Former local rock favorites The Cold opened for the Go-Gos there in September 1981.
In its first year, Gambit writers worried about the lack of an upscale local jazz club and paucity of professional theater venues. Former favorites Rosy's, Lu and Charlie's and LeClub had closed. When the Gallery Circle Theatre shut down, there were a handful of theaters, including the stalwart community playhouse Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, then run by the local legend Stocker Fontelieu. The biggest destination for theater was the Beverly Dinner Theater on Airline Highway, where many actors earned Actors Equity credit. In September 1981, the risque musical revue Nighttime Naughties featured the work of a soon-to-be prolific trio of entertainers: Becky Allen, musical director Fred Palmisano and Ricky Graham.
"That was the show that got me back to New Orleans," Graham says. "For me, that was a seminal experience. It was a big deal. ... We had a budget for costumes. It was the first time I got to work with in Broadway-level professional theater."
Many of the Beverly's shows featured TV actors in touring productions. Weeks after Nighttime Naughties, it hosted M*A*S*H's Gary Burghoff (Radar O'Reilly) in A Good Look at Boney Kern. Graham and Allen took their talents downtown, to Bourbon Street and the Moulin Rouge, and later The Mint on the corner of Decatur and Esplanade. The Beverly closed, but the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (founded in 1978) grew steadily and operates theaters on both banks and is overseeing construction of a new performing arts center.
Many big changes were on the horizon at the beginning of the 1980s. The Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) celebrated its fifth anniversary in 1981. It was the first seed of rebirth in the Warehouse District, which was plagued by skid row blocks and empty buildings. Former CAC director Don Marshall recalls when it was the only arts institution in the neighborhood.
"I can remember being in the building and watching a corner bar where a bunch of bikers took pipes and demolished a car," he says.
But the CAC was a center of art, theater and music in a neighborhood about to be advertised to the world as the location for the 1984 World's Fair.
Most of Gambit's preview coverage of the World's Fair focused on its financial problems, including a last-minute appeal to the legislature for a $10 million loan to finish construction. Gambit urged organizers to ask for $25 million in order to ensure success. Instead, marketing efforts foundered, and national and international media arrived on opening day, before all the exhibits were completed and paint dry.
Gambit reviews highlighted the few successes and many miscues. Parade reviewer Rex Duke™ appeared out of season to pan the inauthentic Mardi Gras-style parade that offered advertising handbills to spectators instead of doubloons and beads. A video about commerce on the Mississippi named Memphis the "birthplace of jazz." An aquarium tank in the petroleum expo held a creature identified as "Dutch the Moray Eel."
Though it was a financial failure, the World's Fair helped open the door to development in the Warehouse District. Art galleries filled Julia Street and warehouses were converted to condominiums and apartments. The Federal Fibre Mills housed Louisiana folk culture exhibits curated by Nick Spitzer during the fair but the structure was later converted to housing. By the early 1990s, restaurants and music clubs opened, and eventually the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the National World War II Museum opened major exhibition spaces in the Warehouse District.
Through the 1980s, New Orleans' downtown revitalized. The French Quarter Festival was initiated to draw metro-area residents back to the historic district. In 1986, Southern Rep opened and the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival was founded. The New Orleans Film Festival premiered in 1989. Frenchmen Street had popular music clubs, including a couple of addresses serially occupied by similar businesses: the Dream Palace is now Blue Nile, Snug Harbor has replaced The Faubourg. The strip became a locals' alternative to Bourbon Street in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In January 1994, House of Blues opened with a concert featuring Dan Aykroyd in his Blues Brothers guise as well as Dr. John and John Mooney. The club shook up the music scene and grew into a multi-story complex, which is now part of the global entertainment giant Live Nation. After prolonged construction and negotiations with state and local government, Harrah's New Orleans casino moved into a massive site at the foot of Canal Street, replacing the Rivergate Convention Center.
Gambit also covered art and music on the margins and underground. There have been previews of the wildly eclectic films and bands of the 25-year-old Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center as it moved from Mid-City to Uptown, Bywater, the CBD and to Central City, where it has presented everything from the Sex Workers' Art Show to European avant-garde jazz artists.
On the film front, longtime Gambit reviewer Rick Barton posted more than 1,500 reviews, marveling at everything from major studio shipwrecks to alternative gems. He championed David Lynch's Blue Velvet when many critics listed it among the year's worst. And he gave Blade Runner a rating of six out of 10, and he now notes that in the years since, he's thought about it more often than many films he rated higher.
Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures disrupted everything in the city, and recovery and rebirth have been Gambit's focus for much of the last five years. The nation embraced local musicians, and initiatives like Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village began to address some of the pre-existing issues musicians have wrestled with in housing and job security. Five years after the storm, however, Sweet Home New Orleans reports that many musicians still struggle with a scene that has not returned to pre-Katrina norms in terms of pay or quantity of gigs.
The Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park and theaters including the Orpheum remain shuttered. Some organizations altered or expanded their missions, like the Ogden Museum, which successfully incorporated regular music programming.
Among the people who came to New Orleans to be part of rebuilding have been young musicians, artists and actors. The NOLA Project brought a crew of young actors from New York to New Orleans. Art curator Dan Cameron created the international art show Prospect.1, bringing top contemporary artists from around the world to display and install work in the city. The 2008 citywide event also helped spur activity and growth in Bywater and the St. Claude Avenue corridor, which now house a cluster of new art galleries, theater spaces, restaurants, bars and speakeasies. The 2010 New Orleans Fringe Festival included many offbeat neighborhood venues offering top quality performances.
As 2010 comes to a close, Gambit is reporting on changes for better and worse, just like it was in December 1980. While theater is thriving in the Marigny, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre has shut its doors — at least for the time being. There's new leadership at several major visual art institutions. New Orleans has lost almost all of its neighborhood theaters, but there are more projects filming in the region than ever before.
It's never easy to predict which headliners and trends will last. But there's often a great story, even if in hindsight, a critic has to eat his or her words.