September 14, 2015


Sonny Schneidau became a founding owner of Tipitina's with a $100 investment. It was 1977 and he wasn't quite yet 18. He hung out with his sister Georgia who, eight years older, had a group of buddies who liked to put on concerts and dances where and when they could.

"The Rhapsodizers, Earl King, the Meters, Fess," Schneidau said. "They'd rent a hall or a gym or set up in a field. The basement of my sister's house was the first place I saw James Booker. Everyone put in a dollar and sat on the floor."

Schneidau had spent his teens "going to every single show at the Warehouse," the hippie hangout that brought the likes of the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac and the Doors. "It drove me to realize I loved live music."

After high school, Schneidau went to work at Tipitina's full-time. He learned to run the soundboard on the fly; in 1982, he became the club's talent buyer. "It was, in every sense, a community," he said.

It's been nearly 40 years since Schneidau threw in his $100 and became one of Tipitina's "Fabulous Fo'Teen," that group of young music fans who opened the club. Surviving a brief closure and a change of ownership, Tip's grew to be one of America's iconic independent music venues known around the world for its local concerts and star-studded touring calendar. Its walls are a scrapbook of epic good times, papered with decades' worth of posters that read like a who's who of American music and beyond.

In 1994, Schneidau was tapped to book the brand-new House of Blues opening on upper Decatur Street in the French Quarter. "It's an experience I would never trade for anything," he said on a recent afternoon in the House of Blues' courtyard, "being in a position to steer the music, over the past three decades, at two of the best music clubs in the country."

Even in New Orleans, things change a lot over that kind of time, and the live music landscape is no exception.

[Read about eight new and renewed venues on the New Orleans scene.]

Today, for instance, the digital community space created by social media is as much of a vital meeting spot as Tip's was for the Fo'Teen. Multi-day destination festivals have mushroomed to such an extent that they're now a significant part of the way fans experience live music and the way musicians plan both travel and album release dates. (In an article examining the festival boom on the Wondering Sound website last summer, an employee of the high-profile Billions booking agency, which handles acts such as Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, St. Vincent and Jason Isbell, said that there were 847 festivals in North America alone that were on her radar.)

So the business of live music has evolved, as such things do, on a global scale. And New Orleans has its own unique variable: the ongoing rebuilding effort since Hurricane Katrina and its effect on the city's cultural profile, a challenging thing to quantify and define. The impact on traditional local music and culture bearers has been profound, certainly -- a long and complex story of its own. But when it comes to New Orleans' place on the national map, as a destination, momentum has gathered.


After the 2005 storm and flood, several major venues -- some physically damaged, some struggling with the economic challenge of doing business in a recovering city -- shuttered. Others, big and small, opened up or reopened their doors after lengthy renovations. St. Claude Avenue and Freret Street became live music destinations, and Canal Street lit up again.

Both local and national entertainment powerhouses have invested in many of those stages:

  • AEG Live, the huge entertainment company that partnered with Jazz Fest in 2004, and Live Nation have expanded their presence to open new regional offices in New Orleans. The House of Blues New Orleans, which was the second club to open in the chain and is now its longest-operating spot, is part of Live Nation, which comprises artist management, booking and Ticketmaster.
  • The Southern arm of Bowery Presents, an East Coast concert promotion juggernaut, established a foothold, working closely with newcomers Gasa Gasa and the Civic Theatre.
  • The Joy Theater transformed into a music venue in 2011. The following year, the beautifully restored Saenger Theatre, with its classical statuary and twinkling trompe l'oeil night sky, reopened.
  • The Beaux Arts Orpheum, home to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra as well as marquee popular acts such as Wilco, who play Sept. 28, reopened this month. (The LPO kicks off its 2015-16 season with a sold-out concert at the Orpheum on Thursday, Sept. 17.) New spots appeared, too. Freret Street, with the opening of Gasa Gasa and the Publiq House, and St. Claude Avenue, with newcomer Siberia and the AllWays and Hi-Ho Lounges, under new owners, became de facto entertainment districts, booking a steady mix of local and touring acts.
  • The historic Carver Theater reopened on Orleans Avenue, and a block down from it, the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar, drawing more music lovers to Treme.

All that activity -- the combination of new and renewed rooms that can accommodate a range of crowd sizes, plus the booking muscle of the big guns -- has given a fresh shot in the arm to the city's concert calendar. With the closure of the Saenger, the Orpheum and the State Palace theaters after the floods, New Orleans had lost most of its mid-size concert spaces (bigger than the House of Blues or Tipitina's, which fit about 800 people, but smaller than the Lakefront Arena, which can accommodate more than a dozen times that number).

In 2015, arguably, with reopenings and new spaces, New Orleans has a fuller and more exciting national live music footprint than ever.

"There's a lot going on," Schneidau said. "New theaters, three entertainment districts, two of which didn't exist before." Frenchmen Street, the former mellow locals' hideaway, he said, "has become almost a brand in itself. There are four or five festivals every weekend."


A significant moving part of the evolving post-flood live music world in New Orleans, especially when it comes to visiting acts, is the increased involvement of those organizations with national reach.

In 2013, Live Nation acquired the 15-year-old Voodoo Music Experience, hiring fest founder Stephen Rehage as president of its North American festivals division, and the following year it established a New Orleans office, installing local independent promoter Russell Doussan as its head. Along with him came the classic rock-driven Gretna Heritage Festival, which Doussan had been hired to book after longtime talent buyer Kerry Brown fell ill, as well as the Bold Sphere Music series at Champions Square. As Keith Spera reported at the time, Doussan's office was "charged with bringing more concerts to Louisiana and Mississippi."

In that, Live Nation has company. Huka Entertainment, founded in Mobile, Ala., in 2004 and now based in New Orleans, has booked and produced Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Ala., the Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Pemberton Music Festival in Pemberton, British Columbia, working with acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Kenny Chesney, the Black Keys, Jack White and the Foo Fighters.

Huka also presents shows at Baton Rouge's Varsity Theatre, the Saenger, and the Freret Street PubliQ House. In 2013, Huka added its muscle to the then year-old Buku Music + Art Project, which mines the springtime parade of buzzy indie-rock and hip-hop acts on their way to the massive South by Southwest festival and industry conference in Austin, Texas, to fill its stages, along with high-draw EDM artists such as Skrillex, Zedd and Calvin Harris.

In August 2015, AEG Live announced that it had acquired Winter Circle Productions, the homegrown boutique promoter behind Buku, as well as a share of the festival; Goldenvoice, the AEG company that produces huge fests such as Coachella and Stagecoach, would join the team producing Buku, while Winter Circle's founders would helm AEG's new New Orleans office. And Bowery Presents added the newly opened Civic Theatre, which seats 1,200, to its stable of venues in 2013.

Bowery Presents operates five music spaces in New York City and three in Boston, and regularly presents shows at several others in those cities, plus Albany, N.Y., and New Jersey. Besides the Civic, its Bowery South arm books clubs and theaters in its base of Atlanta, and in Birmingham, Ala.

Tim Sweetwood, Bowery South's general manager, identified his company's mission as "simply a passion for live music," and the Civic's calendar has been varied: This coming fall and winter, it has Preservation Hall's fundraising ball, hip songwriter Mac DeMarco, a Michael Jackson tribute show and John Waters.

"New Orleans is a city of music lovers, and, actually, pre-Katrina it was a strong market for touring acts," Sweetwood said in an email. "New Orleans' local music scene is an incredible community that has continued to grow and flourish despite the unique challenges the entire city has faced in the aftermath of Katrina, but national touring acts have been slower to return to the market. Bowery wants to be part of putting New Orleans back on the map for these acts." 

Bowery started up in the 1990s, with the 250-capacity Mercury Lounge (where the Strokes got their start) in New York City and expanded next into the increasingly hip Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. The brand has a definite whiff of indie tastemaker to it, and trendsetter, too: A 2007 profile of the company in The New York Times called it "an unlikely challenger to Live Nation and A.E.G. Live." It noted that in New York, Live Nation had begun to explore investing in smaller, more Bowery-like rooms.  (In New Orleans, Schneidau appreciatively noted the versatility that Live Nation's reach offered. They could book, he said, anything from the 350-capacity Parish at the House of Blues to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.)

"The nature of the industry is that the bands working hard in 200-capacity venues across the country now are the ones who will be selling out arenas in the future," Sweetwood said.  

"We are so thrilled with the Civic and the level of talent we have been able to bring to that room, but so many of the musicians we love are not quite at that level yet, and we needed somewhere to grow their audiences in New Orleans."


That turned out to be Gasa Gasa, the teeny venue on Freret Street that Micah Burns opened in 2012 with his wife, Mary DiPasquale-Burns, and some friends with whom they had briefly run an art and performance coffee-shop speakeasy called Breezy's. The impetus to start Gasa Gasa (which literally means means "a small rustling noise" in Japanese; partner Gavin McArthur came up with it) was the same one most young people cite for opening arts venues. They wanted to put on the shows they wanted to see, and hopefully create the kind of scene they want to be a part of. 

"When I first got down here, it wasn't the kind of scene that I was from," said Burns, who had enjoyed the D.I.Y. noise-music and punk-rock culture in Washington. It was 2007 when he settled in New Orleans, and the local music scene was still very much finding its way back onto its feet.

"I saw bands going on tour that skipped New Orleans," Burns said. "I wanted to build a place catering to that scene -- indie rock, fringe stuff, give it a home in New Orleans."

Punk wasn't dead in New Orleans. Spots such as One Eyed Jacks and the Circle Bar had rebounded quickly after Katrina, and Siberia was settling in downtown. But Freret Street was starting to make its own rustling noise, and the kind of spot the group envisioned -- an incubator for local bands and a place to entice favorite touring acts -- fit right in, especially as close as it was to the Uptown universities. ("I thought, why not put the music these kids listen to within a reasonable distance?" Micah said.)

They hadn't necessarily been planning to open a street-legal, brick-and mortar venue. They'd been putting on shows in the backyard of their apartment on and off. ("The cops didn't like it that much," Micah said.) Then, Mary saw a sandwich board outside of the Freret Street space announcing it was for rent, and Micah "quickly kind of got myself into some trouble," he said.

"I had no money, so I thought, 'If he sues me, what'll happen?' But I was pretty sure I could pull it off," he said. The owner turned them down at first -- Micah thinks a coffee shop showed interest in the space -- but then, it was theirs. "Suddenly, we had it, and we had to do something," he said.

A silent investing partner who owns other commercial properties on Freret helped finance them. Mike Twillmann, a Loyola University graduate who had promoted shows at the Howlin' Wolf and Prytania Bar, started booking. Mary, an artist and art teacher, curated murals and installations, and is working on establishing an art market. Other partners in the group, including sound engineer Mike Seaman -- who recorded and mixed Glen David Andrews' "Live at Three Muses" album -- worked on lighting, sound, construction, marketing and money.

"We wanted to be a small room, but a professional room," Twillmann said. "A place that bands enjoy playing."

Bowery approached the group at the end of 2014.

"They have the same ethos, the same passion that Bowery does, and they carved out this wonderful space from scratch, which we are excited to have a hand in developing," Sweetwood wrote about the Gasa Gasa crew. They work well together, Burns said, mixing a D.I.Y. New Orleans vibe with the bigger company's combination of corporate power and indie style. The weeks surrounding South by Southwest, the calendar was full of Bowery shows. But during Jazz Fest, their partner left them alone to stack the roster with local acts.


Most of these new, returned and reimagined or revitalized venues and partnerships in New Orleans, which bring in the big names and the buzz names, draw from the expanding festival economy -- like Bowery, booking between-fest touring bands at the Civic and Gasa Gasa. Some are participating in it, too, as are Live Nation, Huka and Winter Circle with Voodoo, Gretna Fest and Buku.

Over the years at the House of Blues, Schneidau has given his spot perhaps the strongest regional identity of any in the chain, booking heavy on homegrown brass, funk, hip-hop and R&B in between, or sharing bills with, the national touring acts that come through.

The newer faces on the scene also liberally mix local music into their calendars. At the Joy, for example, Winter Circle's periodic "This Is NOLA" series showcases rising local bands plus film, dance, visual art, food and cocktails from young artists and artisans. NOCCA alumna Sasha Masakowski used her residency as a curator at Gasa Gasa to nourish young local bands and incubate innovative new work of her own.

"In sheer size and scope," Schneidau said, New Orleans was never a major market, not an Atlanta, Houston or Dallas. "But it's known around the world as a vibrant city with lots of culture, and musicians love it."

A lot of things have changed since he bought into Tipitina's with a few dollars and a lot of sweat equity, but -- hopefully -- not that.

Big companies investing in small local rooms is pretty new, and so is the epidemic of national festivals that they work around, and with. But on the small stages and the large ones, for the newcomers and the veterans, what they still seem to share is the drive to help live music in New Orleans shape what he found at Tipitina's back in the day: community.

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