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Gambit Weekly Fantastic Voyage

By Geraldine Wyckoff

JULY 13, 1998:  I was sitting with a friend at Kerry Irish Pub when a guy I've often seen at music clubs started raving about the "Music Bus." He just went on and on about how much fun he was having while taking the shuttle around the city and hitting all the nightspots. I certainly had seen the bus -- it's hard to miss the white van splashed with the colorful logos of the sponsoring clubs. And the glow of the thing's flashing orange exit light often shines on the wall in front of Donna's Bar & Grill or Tip's French Quarter. I admitted, however, that I didn't exactly know how the whole system worked.

"Hey, why don't you come on it tonight; the first time out is free," he said. A phone call later, we were off, circling the city onboard the 17-passenger bus with co-owner Keith Zimmerman behind the wheel.

The formal name of the company that provides the bus is Rendezvous New Orleans Music Tours (RNOMT), a business founded by co-owner Steve Novak. It began offering "self-guided" tours to visitors, providing them with an attractive guide book on the local music clubs as well as maps and discount coupons.

Zimmerman says the problem with the local music scene was that visitors had difficulty getting to the spots or were wary of venturing out on their own. As anyone who rides in cabs knows, trying to take in more than one music club via taxi can be an expensive proposition. Thus, providing transportation with a music-savvy driver behind the wheel was the way to go.

"You see flyers for swamp tours, plantation tours and ghost tours," says Zimmerman, "but there hasn't been an established industry for music tours." Though many visitors want to hear authentic New Orleans music -- be it jazz, blues, zydeco, Cajun, rock -- Zimmerman believes they simply weren't asking the right questions of the right people to find what they were looking for.

"We guarantee to find them some music, and they are not going to get stuck paying a pretty penny to just go to one place," says Zimmerman. Novak, meanwhile, says he can "find good music on any given night."

He remembers a Mississippi woman traveling alone who had her heart set on sitting in and singing with a band. As it happened, there were no "open mike" gigs the night she was in town. Novak was disappointed for her but dropped her off at Dos Jefes, a friendly neighborhood club Uptown on Tchoupitoulas Street. (It's hardly a spot a visitor would find on her own.) When Novak went back to pick her up, he discovered she had stood before the combo and sang.

"Her dream was fulfilled," says Novak with a sense of pride. He also fondly remembers an out-of-town couple who went to the weekly fais do-do at Tipitina's. "The woman came out, her cheeks flushed, saying, 'That's the first time my husband has danced with me in 15 years.' The tour lets you shed your old skin and act like a New Orleanian."

The Music Bus begins its journey at 9 p.m. every night starting at the Maple Leaf and makes a continuous loop of the clubs -- dropping off and picking up along the way -- until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. The route continues Uptown heading to Carrollton Station, Mid-City Lanes, Acadian Brew Pub, Donna's, Margaritaville, Tip's French Quarter, Vic's Kangaroo Cafe, the Howlin' Wolf, Tipitina's Uptown, Le Bon Temps Roule (by request) and Dos Jefes. The entire trip takes approximately an hour-and-a-half, and the shuttle has an onboard phone so passengers can find out its location at any given time.

Another element is that locals also are welcome to become members of the club-hopping bus set. For $15 a month, they can ride the shuttle -- every night if they want -- by catching it at one of the sponsoring clubs. (Initial charges are first and last months' fee plus a $10 administration charge.)

Though not too much was going on the night I was on the bus, I had a great time nonetheless. I was especially pleased to find trumpeter Wendell Brunious at Dos Jefes. The freedom of stopping in everywhere was a treat that I, as a carless Quarterite, savored. Besides driving, Zimmerman was also a jovial host who was well-armed with information that clearly didn't all come from books. He's a real New Orleans music fan.

Even if you own a car, you can still appreciate the Music Bus. People from, say, Metairie, could leave their car Uptown and head to the Quarter without having to worry about parking. For singles, it would be a fun (and safe) way of going out alone -- but not really alone. They'd be among other like-minded, music-loving people. Of course, taking the bus eliminates the danger of drunken driving as well.

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