The Bench

The Unofficial Landmark of a Bygone Era

Since the 1970s, Frenchmen has been home to a smorgasbord of music venues that have birthed, incubated, and showcased various facets of the local music scene. We’ve asked hundreds of musicians about their favorite spots on Frenchmen Street over the years (with an emphasis on the “musical incubator” aspect) and it’s surprising how many of them lead with somewhere that wasn’t a venue at all. It wasn’t even a place where people particularly played. It was just regular ol’ sidewalk bench.

One of the things that makes Frenchmen Street such a unique cultural corridor—one that boasts a notably outsized impact for its two-and-a-half block length—is the sheer density of venues packed into the tiny strip. 

In the late ‘90s, Frenchmen Street was still—according to longtime Frenchmen resident and Snug Harbor music programmer Jason Patterson—just a couple of popular clubs, a couple of popular restaurants, some daytime retail.” That is, a smattering of individual establishments that didn’t share a collective identity as a cultural corridor.

The turn of the millennium saw a major shift: the Spotted Cat opened, DBA opened, and—what with Snug Harbor, Cafe Brasil, and Dream Palace/Cafe Istanbul already in operation and going strong—there was suddenly “this synergy of live music clubs happening,” as Patterson described. “Things kind of snowballed, and outlets that wouldn’t have thought about doing live music started doing live music.” 

Among these unlikely outfits was the Apple Barrel, described by Patterson as “very small, like a walk-in closet.” When Liz Montoya and Doug Hopper took over in the late ‘90s, they started booking live music. The Apple Barrel became known primarily as a blues bar, thanks to frequent performances by local legend Coco Robicheaux.

“What was such a beautiful thing about [the Frenchmen scene],” Patterson noted, “was that it actually stayed local for a long period of time.” 

And a great microcosm for this intense sense of local-ness was the bench on the sidewalk outside the Apple Barrel.

In the words of drummer Tom Chute, “There was always a bench in front of the Apple Barrel. When one would get old and break down, they would replace it with a new one. You’d have people sitting on the bench together talking. Talking about the news of the day. You could always find somebody hanging out.” 

The Bench was homebase to a core group of musicians and colorful characters who became known as “The Royal Benchmen of Frenchmen.” The Benchmen included such local luminaries as Robicheaux, Uncle Lionel, Doc Love, Kenny Holiday, and Mike Sklar, to name a few.

“I remember sitting with Coco in front of the Apple Barrel on the bench,” says singer-songwriter Lynn Drury, “and he would give me all this great advice…” 

It was a place where the next generation of musicians felt comfortable hanging out, learning from their musical elders, and asking questions. 

“I just want to talk about what a cultural, anthropological institution that [bench] really was,” says Monty Banks, pianist. ”It was the only chance I’d ever seen where I could hang for long times in a comfortable social environment and just hear stories, ask questions about New Orleans music. Music in general. It was really the best place to learn. Really, really experienced people would be up there, but you felt like everybody was kind of on an even playing field.” 

To Monty, The Bench symbolized the kind of musical golden era he never thought he’d see, akin to New York in Charlie Parker’s day or the big swing bands of World War Two. 

To Tom, it was a microcosm of Frenchmen Street itself:

“You felt a bit like [Frenchmen] was a clubhouse, the whole street. Or that it was an array of clubhouses, and that you had a membership to every one of them. That was the vibe I always got. The bench was representational of that.”

But 2013, and another change in Barrel ownership, saw the Bench’s removal from the sidewalk, a sad day for many. “In the old days, the bartenders who worked there were always really good about keeping the homeless people from taking over the bench,” explained one musician. “When the place switched over, they got all new bartenders and the new bartenders just weren’t aware that that was part of the job.” 

This wasn’t the only factor contributing to the end of the Bench-era, though: after a good run catering to mostly local audiences, Frenchmen was changing again. According to our old friend Jason Patterson, the years 2012 to 2015 saw a shift on Frenchmen, from “90% locals to 90% tourists.” So by the time the Bench was removed, the sun was already setting on the version of Frenchmen where neighbors milled around on benches, talking about the art they were creating and sharing the news of the day.

The Apple Barrel is still a hub for live blues (albeit for different types of audiences) but the Bench has passed on from a place where locals tell stories to a place locals tell stories about.

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609 Frenchmen Street