After the levee broke

Iron balconies on a building in the French Quarter of New Orleans
Iron balconies on a building in the French Quarter of New Orleans
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Chris Berry takes in the sounds of the Big Easy, whose spirit lives on, though it still bears the scars of Hurricane Katrina.

The first line of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B.Goode “way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,” must be one of the best known first lines of any rock ‘n’ roll song. and it is a permanent advertisement for the city that has built its reputation on music.

I visited “The Big Easy”, as New Orleans is known, for the first time this year, but it’s the kind of city that you already seem to know before you get there – the world-recognised birthplace of jazz, the Mardi Gras, the Mississippi river, warnings not to venture too far from the French Quarter and hurricanes.

During the daytime it is a pleasant, easy-going tourist-friendly city with cafés and jazz/blues trios and quartets playing soft and sweet while you while away the hours over a coffee or a glass of wine. Sax players are the stars at this time of day, andI even experienced that archetypal movie image of the funeral jazz band walking and dancing through the streets. I half expected Michael Caine or one of the numerous James Bonds to appear within the throng.

Market stalls and hundreds of independent retailers provide a blaze of colour with vibrant outfits and jewellery. French Creole architecture is pleasing to the eye, as is the small public park of Jackson Square. There stands a statue of Major General Andrew Jackson on horseback. His feat was leading the American troops to victory against the British invasion at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

What I really wanted to see was the Mississippi River, but the truth is it holds little of the charm you might expect from memories of songs from famous shows. There are pleasure cruises on paddle steamers but it is simply a huge expanse of water that at first glance isn’t dissimilar to looking across the Humber.

The reality is that the Mississippi is and always has been a working river, one of the major distribution arteries for export and import of goods. New Orleans is the fifth largest port in the US by volume of cargo and at one time the city was the also the fifth largest in population. Today it is not even fifth largest in the south-east.

New Orleans slumbers during the hours of light, but when the sun goes down it comes alive. Not for nothing has it been voted the US’s favourite city as a Spring Break wild weekend destination.

If you enjoy an eclectic mix of live music all played with exuberance and no little talent then Bourbon Street, the city’s most famous thoroughfare, has music of all descriptions on every corner and within yards of each other. Jazz, funk, rock, trad jazz, soul, it’s all here but not the Mardi Gras. That moved out of Bourbon Street in 1972 as the narrow street and overhead obstructions couldn’t cope with the festival parades.

In the course of an evening you can take in an amazing array of bands that can have you up and jumping, or sitting back and relaxing. The “duelling pianos” at Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar would be my favourite. It features two grand pianos and four great keyboard/vocalists tag-teaming their way through the evening and into the wee small hours. They sing and play classic hit songs from every generation of popular music.

It’s also where you can pick up the Hurricane, a red cocktail that you must try at least once while in New Orleans.

After taking in a great soul band; a funk combo that centred its performance on audience involvement; a trad jazz ensemble doing a nice line in gospel; and a rock band sounding uncannily like Elvis Costello and his band The Imposters; as well as the wonderful music at Pat O’Brien’s I completed my evening with a three-hour long stint at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.

Lafitte’s is the oldest bar in New Orleans. Live music was here too, even though it is a little removed from the main drag where the hookers stand outside of doorways and men holding placards advertise Big Ass Beers. Lafitte’s confirms the image I had before I came here. It has that old world jazz/Mississippi charm you expect.

I stayed in a small but magnificently appointed and historic hotel that features elaborate galleries overlooking Bourbon Street and Downtown New Orleans beyond. Lafitte’s was next door, an easy finish to my evening.

Hurricane Katrina wrought its damage back in 2005 causing the city to be evacuated and 80 per cent of the city flooded when the Federal levee system failed causing the biggest civil engineering disaster in American history. New Orleans is more susceptible to hurricanes than any other US city although as Hurricane Sandy provided when it struck New Jersey and New York in October extreme weather is part of life for much of the US.

New Orleans’ French Quarter was once of the areas least affected by Katrina. Seven years on there is no obvious evidence of the disaster in the heart of the tourist area, but a few miles away it’s a different picture. There once bustling residential areas have become ghost towns, school buildings and hospitals abandoned to nature.

Katrina did shake Louisana to its core, but the spirit of New Orleans lives on and not just in its Hurricane cocktail.

New Orleans facts

Population: 360,740 (in 2011) of which 60.2 per cent is African/American and 33 per cent white.

Tourist Industry: Worth $5.5bn a year and employs 85,000 people.

Year founded: 1718

Mardi Gras: The celebration starts on Twelfth Night (January 6) and next year the parades proper will begin on January 19. There will be a brief pause in actitivities from January 28 to February, but only because the city is hosting the Super Bowl XLVII, so the party will continue. New Orleans Mardi Gras parades will resume as normal from February 6 to 12.

Chris Berry travelled to New Orleans from Manchester (including one stop enroute at Atlanta) via Delta Airlines, flying in to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, New Orleans.