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Frenchmen Street: Finding the real New Orleans

By Jarrett Bellini, CNN
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Frenchmen Street: The real New Orleans
  • Bourbon Street's Hurricanes and cover bands don't capture New Orleans' true essence
  • Frenchmen Street, adjacent to the French Quarter, offers amazing jazz venues
  • Locals and tourists mingle and connect there over an appreciation for music

New Orleans (CNN) -- To say I was looking for the real New Orleans is perhaps an unfair statement, considering that Bourbon Street, despite all of its annoyances, is just as real as anything else in the Crescent City. But for music and culture, it just wasn't the New Orleans I was looking for.

Nevertheless, I soon found myself wandering under wrought-iron balconies holding something that consisted of one part rum to 60 parts sugar. You might call it a Hurricane, but that would be offensive to the original Hurricane, which is more like one part rum to only 20 parts sugar. Either way, they're awful. Which, of course, is why I had four.

Maybe five. Six at most.

That first stroll down neon-lit Bourbon Street immediately brings you into sensory overload. On the right, a strip club. On the left, a T-shirt shop. Up ahead, a bar... flanked by a strip club and a T-shirt shop.

Add thousands of tourists who can't seem to turn down three-for-one drinks, bad cover bands, or avoid the occasional bout of projectile vomit, and you've got a typical night on the French Quarter's most famous stretch of pavement. On a Sunday.

Mind you, the entire French Quarter isn't defined by Bourbon Street. Far from it.

But that's where most people seem to go. As one local resident so eloquently put it, "Bourbon Street is where we quarantine the tourists, so they don't [expletive] up the city."

So where is the real New Orleans? At least the New Orleans not defined by Bourbon Street?

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Amazingly, arguably the best answer to that question is just steps away from all the madness.

Welcome to Frenchmen Street, a colorful two-block strip in a neighborhood called The Marigny. It's literally adjacent to the French Quarter, and this is where the true spirit of New Orleans seems to come to life.

Many New Orleanians told me that Frenchmen is what Bourbon Street used to be. It's hard to picture it, but what is now home to venues blaring several really bad versions of "Don't Stop Believin' " at the same time up and down the street was once the birthplace of jazz.

Yet wander into any of the clubs on Frenchmen and you'll still find some of that serious talent. And locals.

On a Monday night, several hours after promising every god I could think of that I would never drink another Hurricane for as long as I lived, I stumbled into The Spotted Cat.

There, on maybe a 6-foot-by-6-foot stage, Dominic Grillo and the Frenchmen Street All-Stars treated a polite crowd to some absolutely amazing jazz. There was no cover, and it almost seemed criminal not to have to pay for this kind of musicianship. Tips are welcome, of course.

Later, I ventured across the street to another club called d.b.a. On this particular night, Glen David Andrews (cousin of Trombone Shorty) was absolutely destroying the crowd in what I can honestly call one of the most energized performances I have ever seen. The cover: $5. Yes. Five dollars.

Joining Andrews and his band on stage was a phenomenal Cajun fiddle player named Amanda Shaw, who pounded her heels into the floor as though she was trying to break through the wood. It was truly an all-star night of music -- Andrews and Shaw were recently named Future Famer Honorees in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

Did I mention it was only five bucks?

Quite simply, Frenchmen is where the best music happens in New Orleans -- it's where world-famous musicians might even show up on stage just because they feel like playing.

And it's quirky. Just because it isn't Bourbon Street doesn't mean that Frenchmen doesn't have its weirdos. Only these weirdos hang out here because they think there are too many weirdos over there.

I enjoyed the company of one particular weirdo: an artist painting next to the Apple Barrel Bar. By day, he was friendly and bizarre, loaded (quite literally) with fun stories. By night, he was dangerously fueling giant flames from his cigarette lighter with a can of spray paint.

I liked him better by day.

In general, though, there's a warm, comforting sense of community on Frenchmen Street, and people I met often used the word "neighbors" to describe each other. They believe in their little village and wouldn't want it any other way.

Which is not to say that they don't want tourism. They do. But they want the right kind of tourism; they don't want to spend the bulk of their time mopping up after drunken frat boys who happened to have some jazz with their Jäger shots.

And Bourbon Street isn't a terrible place. It's a party. And for many people, that's terrific. On top of that, the French Quarter is an absolute American jewel.

But there's more to New Orleans than Hurricanes and Hustler Clubs. There's Frenchmen.

Don't stop believin'.