Fat Tuesday, Slim Crowd, Big Music
A great wave of New Orleans music washed over the cavernous dance floor of the Middle East Nightclub in Cambridge last night. People all over the land celebrate Mardi Gras. Hundreds of dancers should have been bobbing in a Fat Tuesday Frenzy. Inexplicably, the band nearly outnumbered the fans in the audience.
The show got a little promotion from a Boston Globe Calendar announcement and Henri Smith’s live interview with WGBH’s Eric Jackson the week before the concert but, mama, what a crying shame the first set was so poorly attended.
Photo above: Castenell, Heath, Smith (click to enlarge)
Vocalist Henri Smith is the genuine article. He’s served as emcee of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the grand daddy of all music festivals, performed there with the Kermit Ruffins Band, and hosted a popular radio show on New Orleans radio WWOZ.
Looking out at a peanut sized crowd from a stage filled with seasoned musicians was nothing compared to Smith watching his home float away in the fury of an entity named Katrina. His band, New Orleans Friends and Flavours, exploded out of the gate. The front line played as if the joint was jammed with beaded bedecked revelers.
The hell with New Englanders if they didn’t have the sense to show up for an authentic Mardi Gras night. Smith and Company cooked up a gumbo of Funk, Rhythm & Blues, Calypso, Caribbean, Cajun, and Swing as rich as any Fat Tuesday party down in the Quarter.
Smith’s band of saxophone, trombone, electric piano, congas, percussion, standup bass, lead guitar, and harmonica made joyful noise with the kind of Afro-Caribbean rhythms so unique to New Orleans. Trombone player and Chief Energizer Danny Heath led the band with swooping solos and playful shimmies and shakes. Amadee Castenell, Jr. was a force of nature on the tenor sax and flute. Mentored by New Orleans legend Alan Toussaint, Castenell’s riveting solos drove the band to kick it into overdrive.
Smith appeared onstage after the band loosened up with two classic Dixie numbers. Henri Smith knew how to spread the love on the stage. Waving the traditional rag over his head in ‘second line’ tradition, he covered songs by Fats Domino, Dr. John, and Donald Harrison, and managed to sing Frankie Ford’s 1959 hit “Sea Cruise” Mardi Gras style.
No Fat Tuesday party is complete without Donald Harrison’s “Big Chief,” usually sung on Mardi Gras morning or “Iko Iko,” a much-covered New Orleans song that tells of a parade collision between two "tribes" of Mardi Gras Indians. Full house or not, Smith and his band were putting the calories into Fat Tuesday.
The Middle East’s Downstairs garage-sized dance floor, with its black and gray exposed duct industrial ceiling, is the middle of a fat sandwich with a bar on each side. A few hardy party couples danced away and the rest grooved in awe of the sheer musicianship on display.
Lucky for you, Henri Smith took up residence in New England after Katrina washed his home away. He’s intent on bringing the saucy musical spirit of the Crescent City to the “laissez-les-bon-temps-roulez” deprived residents of New England.
Check out his schedule, Get out your handkerchief or glass Mardi Gras beads and find him at his next local gig. As far as Smith is concerned, the spirit of Fat Tuesday thrives 365 days a year.
New Orleans Friends and Flavours personnel at Middle East Downstairs tonight: this band makes a joyful noise. You'll have a shimmy in your step when you leave and wish you were somewhere in Louisiana strutting your stuff in the second line behind some big-assed brass band.
Henri Smith, vocalist
Danny Heath, trombone
Amadee Castenell, Jr. tenor sax, flute
Tom Yates, guitar
Rick Maida, Bass
Dave Hurst, drums
John Loud, washboard
Ben Selling, Piano