By Will Broaddus
---- — For a Mardi Gras celebration, it’s hard to beat tomorrow night’s concert at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly.
Not only will it feature two saxophone players, Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers and Amadee Castenell — both Grammy award winners — but they’ll be playing in a band with two other natives of New Orleans, including vocalist and band leader Henri Smith, to help send North Shore teenagers to rebuild their city.
“I have to be involved, ‘cause it’s my town,” said Smith, who has lived in Gloucester since fleeing Hurricane Katrina. “We’re all doing this for the cause of New Orleans.”
Fifty percent of proceeds from the Henri Smith New Orleans Mardi Gras Concert will help the North Shore YMCA send about 100 teenagers on a service-learning trip to New Orleans during April school vacation.
“We’re going to play a lot of Fats Domino, and lot of New Orleans Mardi Gras music,” said Smith, who worked as a DJ in New Orleans before his singing career took off.
In addition to Castenell, who won his Grammy playing sax for Dr. John, and Neville, whose musical family is a New Orleans institution, the other Louisiana native in the band is drummer Charles Burchell.
The band, which Smith formed seven years ago, also includes violinist Orie Furuta, young trumpet player Jake Baldwin, and experienced percussionist Les Lumley.
“He’s played with Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens and Jefferson Airplane,” Smith said of Lumley.
Clarinet player Steve Swartz also brings serious credentials to the stage, having studied his instrument with New Orleans legend Pete Fountain.
This is the fourth year the YMCA has sponsored a service-learning trip to New Orleans, which originally was limited to members of the Cape Ann YMCA and last year expanded to include teens from across the North Shore.
It is the third year a benefit concert has been organized to help them, and the event has grown along with the program, forcing organizers to find a larger venue.
Smith’s appearance will mark the first time in more than 30 years that the Larcom Theatre has hosted performers other than Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Magic Company. The company stopped appearing at the venue last spring, after founder Cesareo Pelaez died.
The students’ volunteer work in New Orleans is coordinated by the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit that was founded to help the city rebuild after Katrina.
“We do anything from sheet rocking and gutting houses to mold remediation,” said Rick Doucette, who runs teen services at the Y.
The labor the teenagers provide isn’t skilled, but it is a vital step in the rebuilding.
Doucette went to New Orleans within a year after the hurricane hit, and what he saw left an impression.
“You go past block after block after block of concrete steps leading up to nothing,” he said.
“The lower 9th Ward is in St. Bernard Parish. They are literally in a basin, a kind of bowl, 15 feet below Lake Pontchartrain on one side, and 20 feet below sea level on the other. There were 50,000 people living in that area before Katrina. After that there were six homes deemed habitable.”
The devastation fell on a part of the city where poverty had already taken a toll, making recovery that much more of a challenge.
“This is the poorest area, where people who lost their homes were living in shotgun houses,” Doucette said, referring to a narrow, rectangular style of house usually no more than 12 feet wide. “They might have gotten $30,000 for insurance, and you can’t rebuild a home for $30,000.”
He has seen major improvements to businesses in the district since his first visit, but there are still 100 families waiting to get into homes, and people who have been living in FEMA trailers for six years, he said.
Before Katrina hit, Smith had been planning to go the Superdome and wait out the storm.
“I got out the morning of,” he said. “My family told me not to stay, that I needed to get out.”
He traveled to Houston with 20 other people “in a caravan,” he said. “We had 20 of us and nobody had any money. Twenty of us in two rooms.”
They then moved to Baytown, Texas, where there were cots to sleep in, but this arrangement had to be abandoned when Hurricane Rita hit a month later.
The exodus continued until a musical acquaintance from Manchester, Nat Simpson, suggested that Smith come to Massachusetts.
Smith has found a home in Gloucester, and the band he started here plays around the region, including a regular gig at Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen in Boston.
Other musicians like Neville, who also moved to Massachusetts from New Orleans, have joined Smith in re-creating the sound he fostered as a performer and DJ in his native town.
Doucette mentions the gratitude that people in New Orleans often extend to teenagers from the Y, and it is echoed in Smith’s desire to help the program with his music.
“This is our third fundraiser at the Y,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be involved with this.”
IF YOU GO ... What: New Orleans Mardi Gras Concert When: Friday, Feb. 8, 7:30 p.m. Where: Larcom Theatre, 13 Wallis St., Beverly To benefit: YMCA teens' service trip to New Orleans Tickets & information: $20 in advance ($15 for people over 65 or under 18); $25 at the door for all ages. Available at many North Shore YMCA offices, online at www.gimmelive.tv, or by phone at 978-525-9093.