, Salem, MA

March 6, 2014

From Bourbon Street to Wallis Street

Singer Henri Smith comes to Larcom Theatre this weekend

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — While waiting for spring, you can warm up to the music of Mardi Gras this weekend.

That’s because singer Henri Smith, leading a band with fellow New Orleans natives Charles Neville and Amadee Castenell, is bringing the music of Fat Tuesday to the North Shore this weekend.

“We pride ourselves on authenticity,” Smith said. “It’s going to be four of us, including a young drummer, Charles Burchell. He’s going to be with us Sunday at the matinee. He was taught by some of the greatest drummers of New Orleans.”

Neville, who with his brothers Aaron, Art and Cyril, has performed all over the world, is a Grammy-award winning saxophone player, and so is Castenell.

“Castenell’s been with Elvis Costello,” said Smith, who lives in Gloucester. “He won a Grammy with Dr. John, and he’s been with Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, and Etta James.”

The band will play concerts at the Larcom Theatre on Friday night and Sunday afternoon and, minus Neville, will also appear at the Community House of Hamilton and Wenham on Saturday night.

The Community House is encouraging visitors to wear Mardi Gras costumes, and will provide plenty of floor space for dancing.

Smith’s band will play traditional Mardi Gras tunes like “That’s When I Know It’s Mardi Gras,” and “Mardi Gras Mambo,” which North Shore audiences like to hear all year, he said.

“We play all kinds of jazz music, but people tend to want to hear Mardi Gras music, because they don’t get to hear it that often,” Smith said. “Especially with the Fats Domino stuff I do, they love that.”

Smith knew Domino in New Orleans, and sang at the rock-and-roll legend’s 80th birthday party.

“He was a very nice guy and Amadee and I both knew him,” Smith said. “I was good friends with Dave Bartholomew, he grew up down the street. He wrote a lot of hits for Fats Domino. They were both inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Smith left New Orleans on the morning the city was struck by Hurricane Katrina, in August of 2005, and moved to Massachusetts after settling temporarily in Houston and then Baytown, Texas.

He had worked as a teacher and athletic director in New Orleans schools for 20 years, and got his start in music as a disc jockey.

“I was a DJ Thursdays and Saturday for 14 years, on WWOZ radio,” he said. “I was a jazz DJ. I’d play the New Orleans sound, with regular jazz.”

Smith also introduced acts at local clubs and at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which is held the last week in April and the first week in May every year, and features musicians from all over the world.

His career as a singer began in the early ’90s when trumpet player Kermit Ruffins brought him on stage at Tipitina’s, a New Orleans club, and asked him to sing.

“I sang ‘Work Song,’ which was my signature tune,” Smith said. “I went all over the world with him.”

Smith’s childhood memories of Mardi Gras began with the festival’s “Indian” tribes, which don elaborate suits to wear at special events, he said.

“They make those suits for a whole year,” Smith said. “There’s a song called ‘New Suit.’ My dad used to bring me out early in the morning, we’d see the Indians come out early in the morning.”

As he got older, Smith started to participate in these celebrations.

“I became friends with Donald Harrison Jr. the great saxophonist, and became part of his Indian gang called the Congo Nation,” he said.

Music is essential to Mardi Gras, as much as the King Cake, floats and beads, and Smith remembers hearing it all day long in New Orleans.

“Music would be in the streets, even down to the drums and all that,” he said. “People used tambourines, that’s why I use a tambourine on stage, because it gives the flavor of Mardi Gras.”

This is the first Mardi Gras concert Smith has performed at the Community House, and the second he has played at the Larcom, where the wall decorations add to the spirit, he said.

He will supplement his core of New Orleans natives with plenty of local talent, which will include vocalist Diane Disanto, who will appear at the show in Hamilton.

“We have some students from the New England Conservatory on trumpet and drums, and one graduate of the conservatory on bass,” he said. “I have a couple of other surprises.”