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Music and Mardi Gras at Scullers

Let the good times roll with Revolutionary Snake Ensemble and special guests

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Music and Mardi Gras at Scullers
(clockwise from top left) Vocalist Henri Smith PHOTO: Nate Dow, Saxophonist Amadee Castenell PHOTO: Ellen Snyder Revolutionary Snake Ensemble PHOTO: Jean Hangarter

Bringing the sound and spirit of Mardi Gras to Boston, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble will hold its 10th annual Mardi Gras Party on Saturday, Feb. 18 with all-ages shows at 7 pm and 9 pm. This year’s celebration will be at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston.   

Decked out in feathered finery, leader Ken Field (saxophone), Jerry Sabatini (trumpet), Dave Harris (trombone and tuba), Blake Newman (bass) and Phil Neighbors (drums) create music set to funky New Orleans marching grooves. The group’s many Mardi Gras credits include five trips to New Orleans, playing en route on the Amtrak Crescent train, to march with the Krewe of Muses in the Mardi Gras parade. 

Joining the Snakes at Scullers will be two eminent alumni of the New Orleans musical community, saxophonist Amadee Castenell and vocalist Henri Smith.

Field, president of JazzBoston and an organizer of the annual Somerville-based HONK! Festival of activist street bands, also explores genre-crossing instrumental music as a member of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and as host of “The New Edge” on WMBR.

As a creature that sheds its skin, the snake is a symbol of renewal, said Field via video link from Wollongong, Australia, where he was performing in two festivals. One of those was a honk festival, “one of 20 worldwide inspired by ours,” he said. 

The pre-Lenten music of Mardi Gras also heralds rebirth. With its blend of marching, African beats and cacophony, Fields said, “There’s great balance between tight order and chaos, inviting the unexpected, and I enjoy that. And I’m drawn to its spirit. The New Orleans tradition to celebrate life and to simultaneously express grief is powerful.”

In 2011, after the death of Field’s wife, the renowned animator Karen Aqua, he and the Ensemble performed a second-line tribute at her memorial service.

Born and bred in New Orleans, Castenell and Smith readily credit their careers to mentors who are among the city’s musical royalty.

Smith, who relocated to Cape Ann in 2005 after losing his home to Hurricane Katrina, hosted a long-running show on the iconic New Orleans radio station, WWOZ, and frequently performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with his Creole/Cajun-inflected ensemble New Orleans Friends & Flavours. His hit anthem, “That’s When I Know It’s Mardi Gras,” emerged from a late-night studio session hosted by jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, who in 2021 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Berklee College of Music.

“Big Chief opened the door to my bird cage,” said Smith.

Castenell, a long-time member of the Allen Toussaint Orchestra, has also performed with such musicians as Dr. John, the Neville Bros, Elvis Costello and Gladys Knight. “The studio experiences I had with Allen polished my playing,” said Castenell. “Allen gave me my Ph.D.” The high regard was mutual: Toussaint, a revered leader in the New Orleans musical scene, liked to say, “When Amadee was in New Orleans, we didn’t leave home without him. He is our favorite saxophonist.” And as musical director and sax player for the R&B group Chocolate Milk, Castenell recorded eight albums for RCA in the 1970s. Recalling the first one, “Action Speaks Louder than Words,” Castenell said, “We wrote as a group. Everybody’s input was valued and fit together like a puzzle.”

Looking forward to performing at Scullers, Castenell said, “For us who grew up in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras is a really big deal. It can be celebrated anywhere with the right people. Ken Field is right people. He’s always in the spirit.”

arts, jazz, Mardi Gras, music, scullers