Thanks to David Bowie, Arcade Fire and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Carnival gridlock arrived early in the French Quarter.
On Saturday afternoon, thousands of fans and curious onlookers lined the route of a memorial second-line parade in honor of Bowie, the British rock icon who died of cancer Jan. 10 at age 69.
The huge crowds were indicative of Bowie’s fame as well as the popularity of the musicians leading the second-line, especially Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, of the genre-bending arena rock band Arcade Fire.
The parade was scheduled to depart from Preservation Hall at 4 p.m. As start time approached, the 700 block of St. Peter Street was as impassable as Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras evening. At the corner of Royal and Toulouse streets, crowds stood six-deep. Traffic trying to navigate that part of the French Quarter was brought to a standstill.
Butler and Chassagne have more or less lived in New Orleans since Arcade Fire’s headlining set at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. They’ve become familiar figures at music-related events around town. They’ve befriended members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose creative director, Ben Jaffe, has fostered partnerships with a wide cross-section of popular artists.
Several years ago, Arcade Fire collaborated with Bowie; Butler and Chassagne have cited him as a major influence. Staging a second-line in Bowie’s honor was a way to acknowledge that inspirational debt while also tapping into the traditions of their adopted hometown.
Bowie performed in south Louisiana only four times during his 40-year career. But his creative aesthetic, with its costumes and characters, resonated in the Big Easy.
Saturday’s second-line was announced via social media only 48 hours in advance. Despite the short notice, many of those in attendance sported Bowie-like costumes: silver capes, gold body suits and, most popularly, his trademark red lightning bolt across the face, which was the choice of wheelchair-bound, former Saints star Steve Gleason.
The Preservation Hall contingent wore black suits with red shirts. Butler opted for a hot-pink suit and a red bullhorn. Chassagne rocked a “key-tar,” a portable keyboard.
They set out from Preservation Hall with a dirgelike rendering of Bowie’s 1971 single “Oh! You Pretty Things.”
Unlike a Mardi Gras parade, the main action of a second-line — the band — passes in a matter of seconds. As the procession, led by two New Orleans police officers on motorcycles, inched along jam-packed streets, more onlookers fell in behind the band.
Thirty minutes later, as the throng rounded Jax Brewery en route to the riverfront, the band blew through a brassy, funky take on Bowie’s “Fame.”
“He’s gone, but he’s alive,” Butler chanted through his amplified bullhorn. “Who needs a body?”
After a brief pass along the waterfront, the parade flowed onto St. Louis Street, filling the whole of the 500 block with a river of humanity. Pausing near Johnny’s Po-Boys, Butler, Chassagne and the Preservation Hall band tumbled into “Suffragette City,” another Bowie standard. The parade continued, ultimately bound for One Eyed Jacks, a music club on Toulouse Street.
Darryl “Dancing Man 504” Young, whose hot-footed high-stepping has made him a popular parade grand marshal, hustled from a function at Algiers Point on Saturday afternoon to Preservation Hall. He squeezed through the crowd, danced a bit at the start of the Bowie parade and then ducked out of the claustrophobic crowd at Chartres Street.
“I’m a big fan of David Bowie. I grew up listening to him,” Young said. “I made every effort to make sure I was here. And I made it just in time.”
Greg Hymel marched along with his daughters, Ava, 10, and Molly, 7. Each of their faces bore a red lightning bolt.
When Ava was an infant, she was soothed to sleep by Bowie’s narration of “Peter and the Wolf.” For that and other reasons, Hymel brought his daughters to the second-line.
“When a rock icon like that passes away in their lifetime,” he said, “we had to be a part of it.”
On Saturday, many thousands of fans felt the same way.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.