New Orleans/Houston

Houston bluesman Little Joe Washington

ONE of the great things about driving in America is FM radio, if you get bored with one station a quick flick along the dial is sure to turn up something much better. A dozen different stations churned out “rock classics” as I passed through the cities of Lafayette and Baton Rouge, but by the time I got to the Louisiana swamp lands surrounding Lake Pontchartrain rock music seemed somehow inadequate and I was reaching for the dial again to search out some Dixieland jazz.
I arrived in New Orleans on a humid October evening without pre-booking a room, which was a mistake, for every hotel in town was fully occupied. I was almost resigned to sleeping in my hired car for the night when I passed a rundown looking hostel in the Garden District of the city where at last I secured a bunk in a dormitory. It was cheap, friendly and clean, apart from the frog in the shower.
From the hostel it was a 10-minute trolley-car journey into New Orleans’ most famous district, the French Quarter. Many of the buildings here are shaped like the paddle steamers which sail up and down the nearby Mississippi, while cutting through the centre of the Quarter is the infamous Bourbon Street.
Eating was my first priority and I settled down at heel looking joint just off the central Jackson Square for some jambalaya and crawfish.
Afterwards I wandered around the Square where fortune tellers, artists and souvenir stalls plied their trade to the soundtrack of a live 10-piece jazz band.
Along one of the quieter streets I came across a voodoo shop where a tall guy with jet-black hair tied in a ponytail and a black goatee beard smiled malevolently from behind a counter. The shelves of the shop were crammed with voodoo dolls, packs of tarot cards, black candles, potions and powders as well as authentic voodoo T-shirts and baseball caps. I didn’t buy any thing that evening, but when I went to look for the shop again the next morning I couldn’t find it. Pretty weird, huh?
Before hitting the main drag I stopped in a huge bar called Pat O’Brien’s which is famous for serving sickly sweet Hurricane cocktails, and watched two blonde southern belles dressed in red ball gowns playing grand pianos while singing some very dodgy “Achey-Breaky Heart ” style country songs. The audience loved it, butthis was not the sort of music I was after.
Fortunately it was just a few short paces to the non-stop Mardi Gras of Bourbon Street, a hiving pedestrian area lined with bars offering a selection of blues, Zydeco, Cajun and jazz aswell as a variety of clubs with, erm, exotic dancers. The partying went on until the early hours and ended with a crowded tram journey back to the Garden District and my amphibianinfested hostel for an all too brief rest.
I was up early next morning to catch one of the old-fashioned paddle steamers that sail along the Mississippi. Apart from the novelty factor of being on one of the famous triple-decked boats with its huge churning paddles there was little really to see on the trip, for just as we hit the suburbs and the landscape opened up into swamp country the boat did an about turn and sailed back towards the city. Nevertheless it was a pleasant way to spend a morning, with a bowl of gumbo and drinking iced tea to sate my thirst while listening once again to some live jazz. From New Orleans, or N’awrleans as the locals call it, it was a six-hour drive back across thestate line to Texas. My expectations of Texas were rocky desert planes interrupted only by an occasional cactus or an oil rig so I was surprised at how green the southeast part of the state is. I did see a couple of nodding rigs pumping along side the freeway and when I drove to Galveston which sits on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico I could also see some offshore rigs on the horizon.
Texas was at one time part of Mexico, until its brief independence between 1836 and 1845, after which the Lone Star State agreed to join the United States of America. The Mexican influence is still very evident and it is not unusual to hear people speaking Spanish or see bilingual signs, but it is most notable in the local cuisine.
I was based in Houston which is a food lovers paradise with restaurants from every continent, but my favourite eatery was a Tex-Mex joint called Chuy’s on Richmond Avenue where the chilli dips were mouth blistering and the enchiladas exploded with flavour.
Houston is divided into uptown and downtown, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of orientation for it is entwined in a twisting maze of multilane highways and freeways. Once you get parked in central downtown it is not too difficult to find your way about, the streets are laid out in grids and dominated by huge mirror-windowed skyscrapers. Beneath these streets there is a labyrinthine network of tunnels to help pedestrians escape the heat of above ground.
The most obvious tourist attraction in Houston is the NASA space centre from where the US space missions are controlled, but I somehow never went to see it. I had got caught up as a bit player in an American beat novel and sleazy blues clubs were at the top of my agenda.
Uptown on Richmond Avenue is Billy Blues where one night for a $15 cover charge I was able to watch over 20 bands play at an all-day blues festival featuring Cajun, Zydeco, country blues and straightforward in your face,washboard-slapping, rhythm n’ blues. But, my favourite Houston hangout was The Big Easy in downtown Kirby Drive, a battered, smoky, two-bit joint where musicians queued to take to then stage and a tiny dance floor swayed with people.
Fortified by a glass of Lone Star draught and a shot of Wild Turkey whiskey, I watched Philadelphia Pete, Chicago Larry, Short Sighted Brad, Hair Gelled Will and No Sex Frank among others take to the stage; given the expressionsnof the various musicians as they were introduced, especially from No Sex Frank, I got the feeling the compere was making the names up as he went along.
Little Joe Washington, however, was the genuine thing; standing at just over five feet tall, black skinned, with long knotted hair and mischievous eyes, Little Joe, backed by a bass guitarist and drummer, played a blistering set that saw his hands flash along every fret of his battered guitar.
I was told he had played with legendary figures such as Albert Collins and Lightnin’ Hopkins during his 40-year career but had hit hard times and was living in an abandoned car. When he finished his set Little Joe wandered among the audience with his guitar strapped to his back, his hat held out for tips and cigarettes.