New Orleans: a music lover’s guide

By Mike Welch

Photography by Mary Smyth

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November 2016

As the birthplace of jazz, no trip to New Orleans is complete without an evening of live music. But it’s not just about bebops and boogie-woogies. On any given night of the week, indie, R’n’B and folk rock sounds drift through the city’s bars, clubs and streets – if you know where to listen. Local resident Mike Welch rounds up the NOLA music venues not to be missed.

Chickie Wah Wah

This intimate Mid-City bar hosts two informal shows a night, almost every night, where you can catch some of the bigger names in local music – such as guitarist Anders Osborne or trombonist Big Sam – especially when Jazz Fest takes over the neighbourhood every spring. Even when the tourists are long gone, Chickie Wah Wah provides local music like the alt-country melodies of Happy Talk Band, or the double-saxophone swamp-pop revival of Creole String Beans.

Where? 2828 Canal Street

Nearest streetcar? The Canal streetcar is central and attached to all other streetcar lines.

Circle Bar

This extra tiny bar perched on Lee Circle can feel packed if two dozen people show up to dance to the band – but that just adds to the intimate musical experience. Expect everything from famous touring garage rock bands like the Oblivions, to local blues man Guitar Lightnin’ Lee and old school DJs spinning R’n’B vinyls.

Where? 1032 St Charles Avenue

Nearest streetcar? Circle Bar is named after Lee Circle, the main nexus where all the streetcars turn around.

  • Expect everything from drag shows to punk bands at AllWays Lounge and Theatre © Joshua Brasted

    Top tip…

    If you need to get away from the crowds, seek out the tiny patio between the front bar and theatre before or after the show.

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  • Look out for impromptu musical sets in the French Quarter’s Royal Street
 © Alamy

    Fit for a king (or queen)

    Royal Street – or Rue Royale – is also known for it fine antique shops that sell rare items of furniture that were once owned by royalty. In fact, it’s been listed as one of the world’s most expensive places to shop.

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  • Brass bands are a staple of the NOLA music scene © NOLA Tourist Board

    Did you know… ?

    Music is such a big part of the culture of the city that jazz music and dancing are a part of funeral traditions. The original belief was that jazz funerals would help the deceased find their way to heaven.

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Old Point Bar

On the other side of the Mississippi River, the Old Point Bar is one of few live music options for locals living in beautiful Algiers. But with its captive neighbourhood audience for live music – which includes everything from solo barroom piano players to Latin and brass bands from happy hour onward, most nights of the week – the Old Point may provide all the drinking and dancing fun you’ll need.

Where? 545 Patterson Drive

Nearest streetcar? You’ll be taking the ferry across the river to Old Point Bar.

Preservation Hall

Arguably the most famous jazz club in the world, the French Quarter’s Preservation Hall has championed the city’s best-known musical invention since 1961. Just one small room with peeling paint and wooden benches (but no microphones or speakers) it nonetheless lives up to the hype. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band tours the world, while the club’s house band plays three shows on weeknights, and four shows Thursday through Sunday. In recent years, the venue’s hipness quotient has risen as they’ve collaborated with everyone from folk-rock group My Morning Jacket to Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters.

Where? 726 St Peter Street

Nearest streetcar? The Rampart Street streetcar runs along the northern border of the French Quarter, while the Canal streetcar runs along its western border.

  • Preservation Hall is arguably the world’s most famous jazz club © Shannon Brinkman

    Music men

    The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has a constantly changing roster of musicians playing instruments from the saxophone and trumpet to the cello and drums.

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Royal Street

Most of the city’s street musicians perform up and down the shopping and gallery districts of Royal Street in the French Quarter. There’s no better way to while away an hour than to sit outside Rouses grocery store on Royal Street, listening to some ragtag, old-timey band bathed in southern sunlight, singing about the city.

Where? In and around Royal Street in the French Quarter.

Nearest streetcar? The Rampart Street streetcar runs along the northern border of the French Quarter, while the Canal streetcar runs along its western border.

Saenger Theatre

Since 1927, this historic 4,000-seat theatre has delighted music lovers as much as the performances hosted there. Renovated once again since Katrina, with meticulous golden ceiling detail, and glorious columns framing a pipe organ on a gorgeous hardwood stage, the Saenger is back better than ever, hosting rock stars such as Beck, as well as The Book of Mormon, and comedians Amy Schumer and Dave Chappelle.

Where? 1111 Canal Street

Nearest streetcar? The Saenger sits at the crossing of the Rampart and Canal streetcars.


Tipitina was a hard partying woman, immortalised by beloved old New Orleans piano player, Professor Longhair – himself immortalised by this beloved New Orleans music club. This isn’t a fancy place, but the drinks are fairly priced, and on stage you will witness everything from authentic Cajun music to early morning Jazz Fest jams, Mardi Gras Indian bands laying down the funk, and adventurous jazz.

Where? 501 Napoleon Avenue

Nearest streetcar? The St Charles streetcar crosses Napoleon but is 11 blocks away. An authentic United Cab ride in New Orleans is usually just as fun and memorable as the streetcar.

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