Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas in New Orleans: St. Louis Cathedral & Preservation Hall

They love their Christmas music in New Orleans. During the season, you can hear it at some the Crescent City’s most hallowed spaces, including St. Louis Cathedral and the slightly less imposing Preservation Hall.

Originally completed in 1727 and rebuilt in 1794, the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France might be the most recognizable building in New Orleans, rising over Jackson Square on the banks of the Mississippi. It is also where hip New Orleanians go for Christmas concerts based on Monday night’s turn out for the diverse trio of Theresa Andersson, John Fohl, and David Doucet. Originally hailing from Sweden, Andersson fell in with the city’s legendary R&B scene, while maintaining a rootsy acoustic sound on the fiddle. Fohl is a regular member of one of New Orleans top local organ trios, as well as a sideman in Dr. John’s band. Doucet is a respected standard bearer of the Cajun musical tradition. Together their Christmas concerts at the Cathedral have become something of a tradition for them, even resulting in a CD of their Christmas music.

Andersson has a lovely voice, nicely featured on “Hark the Herald,” but their finest number may have been their instrumental version of “Little Drummer Boy,” displaying their dazzling technique, but not at the expense of feeling. Fitting New Orleans’ history as a port city melting pot, it was a trilingual night, with Andersson performing the German and English lyrics to “Silent Night” and Doucet performing the French carol “Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant,” which he learned from the nuns in Catholic school.

Though the décor is meaner, Preservation Hall is certainly sacred ground for those who love traditional New Orleans hot jazz and Dixieland. While the Hall is all about tradition, their Creole Christmas Eve shows are a relatively recent institution, only in their third year. This year, they featured the St. Peter Street Allstars under the direction of Lars Edegran, also a Swedish transplant. Edegran has been leading groups at the Hall for years, usually on piano, but he is also an accomplished banjo and guitar player. With the raspy blues shouter Big Al Carson on vocals and a top notch group of New Orleans style jazz musicians, notably including Freddie Lonzo on trombone and Shannon Powell on drums, they ragged up favorite yuletide carols with old school flair.

Up-tempo pieces like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were particularly amenable to their hot style of interpretation, but Carson’s finest vocal may have come on their beautiful rendition of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Edegran and company also mixed in a couple of tunes from their usual repertoire. In fact, it must have been Christmas, because they concluded the first set with “The Saints,” which ordinarily will set you back a ten-spot if you want to hear it at Preservation Hall.

Music is a way of life in New Orleans, so it naturally figures prominently in their Christmas celebrations. St. Louis holds their special Christmas concerts throughout the month of December, featuring important local artists like Ellis Marsalis and Irvin Mayfield in addition to Anderson, Fohl, and Doucet’s annual concert. Preservation Hall is open year round, but Christmas Eve is the day to hear carols there. Of course, it is not impossible to hear Christmas music there on other days, but it might cost some change. Remember, traditional requests are two dollars, other requests are five, and “The Saints” will set you back a full ten.