LIVE: Mardi Gras Festival @ Proctors, 2/5/16

Review and photographs by Greg Haymes
Videos by Joyce Cornell

If you think that Mardi Gras is strictly a New Orleans thing, well, think again. The Fat Tuesday bash is an annual last-gasp celebration on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the start of Lent. In other words, it’s your last chance to do all of those “bad” things before you make your Lenten sacrifices. This year Mardi Gras was on Tuesday, February 9, but in many places – especially in Louisiana – it’s not just a single day to party; it’s a whole season.

And while Mardi Gras season was hitting its peak in Louisiana, Schenectady was hosting its own celebration with the return of the Mardi Gras Festival at Proctors after a long hiatus. The fest used to take place in Proctors’ main theater, but this year’s comeback bash was held in the GE Theatre, which was transformed into a club setting with a few high-top tables and chairs scattered around the room, providing for a spacious dance floor. Unfortunately, the dance floor remained largely empty throughout most of the night, leaving a considerably gulf between the performers on stage and the audience.

The musicians – headlining Cajun band Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys and the opening Creole combo Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole – were both first rate during each of their 65-minute sets. The bandleaders for both five-piece bands not only deftly handled the lead vocal chores, but also doubled as the lead instrumentalist, switching back and forth between accordion and fiddle – sometimes during the same song.

Playing the last date of their northeast tour before heading back home to Eunice, Louisiana for Fat Tuesday, Steve Riley and his band also featured fiddler Kevin Wimmer and electric guitarist Sam Broussard, who both stepped up to the microphone for some lead vocals. Meanwhile, Watson’s Lafayette-based band had more of the traditional flavor to their sound, despite the fact that honkin’ saxman Kyle Gambino lent them more than a bit of a ’50s vintage R&B edge.

It was a bit disappointing that Bijou Creole’s long-time frottoir player Desiree Champagne wasn’t on hand this time around, but special kudos go out to drummer Brian Egan – a longtime member of Local 518 favorites Captain Squeeze & the Zydeco Moshers – who got the last-minute call to sub for Bijou Creole’s drummer with less than two hours’ notice and did quite an admirable job fueling the collection of bayou blues, two-steps and waltzes.

Proctors actually launched the Mardi Gras festivities long before the doors opened to the theater, however. Saxman Keith Pray and his Mohawk Brass Band captured the funky, syncopated New Orleans brass band sound as they paraded throughout Proctors’ Arcade for a couple of hours prior to the show. And Proctors offered sustenance, too, with vendors in the arcade served up traditional Mardi Gras from red beans & rice and jambalaya to King Cupcakes.

On the other hand, if Proctors really wanted fans to revel in the true spirit of Mardi Gras, maybe next time they won’t close the bar at 9:30pm…

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