Revelers rejoice at a recent Mardi Gras Ball.
The New Orleans party spirit is alive and well at the annual bacchanal known as “Wolf’s Mardi Gras Ball.”
This year, to mark its 20th anniversary, the Ball will double in size, offering a double dose of Delta dancing as it turns Cambridge’s Central Square into Boston’s slightly milder version of New Orleans’ Congo Square on Feb. 8 and 9 at TT the Bear’s.
Ball founder Shaun Wolf Wortis said the idea was one of the many experimental “theme” shows conceived with his old band, Slide.
“We had been to New Orleans both on tour and as a pilgrimage, and thought that it’d be fun to play some old NOLA R&B at a show and see if anyone would show up in masks,” he said.
Not only did people show up, but some have been coming back year after year to keep the show and the spirit of New Orleans going strong.
Thanks to the critical mass of Massachusetts-based talent, the Ball has long been one of the top nights on the Boston-area musical and social calendar.
“Musicians in Boston seem to love to get involved,” Wortis said. “The hardest thing is just trying to keep up with who is on the scene.”
Though he and the show are both physically based in Cambridge, Wortis’ heart is deep in Dixie and he makes regular pilgrimages to find the deepest and Delta-est musical cuts and costumes to fuel his annual fest.
“I’ve got a pretty massive collection of New Orleans music,” Wortis explains, “and I love to pore through it to find the ‘perfect’ matches for guest singers.”
Thus, regulars of Wolf’s Balls could be the only folks outside of the Crescent City to be familiar with Oliver Morgan’s “Who Shot the La La,” the Pelicans’ “Drunk Drunk Drunk” and the many other N’awlins nuggets that Wortis offers them.
“New Orleans R&B is unpretentious, ragged, irreverent, sexy, [and] funky,” Wortis said. “Once they hear the music, they’re hooked.”
The musical attraction is so strong that many Ball guests come back year after year, often bringing their own songs and sounds and creativity to the musical gumbo.
“Shaun first asked me to do the Mardi Gras Ball in 2006,” recalls Jen D’Angora of Jenny Dee and the Deelinquents (among other bands). Though she did not know Wortis well at the time, she could sense his love for music and his love for his fellow musician.
“Shaun is a great guy, even greater musician, and what an awesome person to boot,” D’Angora says. “He’s always thinking of the other guy (or gal), and he’s one of my favorite guys to sing with.”
Though the Ball features some of the most talented musicians and artists around, Wortis gives praise to his “house band.”
“My band is incredibly dedicated,” he says. “Paul Ahlstrand has played in over 20 Mardi Gras Balls and Bastille Day A-Go-Gos. Chandler Travis has been in 19 of these. Ducky Carlisle [has done] 25, and, of course, the guys in Slide … have been in dozens each.”
As much as the veterans love the Ball, some of the newer talents get into it just as much.
“I performed for the first time on this two or three years ago at Shaun’s invitation,” recalls vocalist Gabrielle Agachiko, who regularly performs with fellow NOLA-lover Ken Field of Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. “I love the show because the music is always outstanding.”
Even Boston legends and fellow impresarios like Rick Berlin (most recently of the Nickel and Dimed Band) give Wortis all the credit for launching and maintaining his spring and summer music fests.
“It’s Mr. Wortis throughout,” Berlin explains. “The idea wouldn’t exist without him.”
It’s not just about the music. Wortis also has a cause — the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, which has benefitted from this Bayou-d bash for the past 10 years.
“At some point, I got to know the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and was really psyched about the work they were doing,” Wortis explains, noting that his Balls have raised thousands of dollars for the NOMC. “I felt turning the Ball into a benefit show was an opportunity to give back to musicians whose work I’d been loving for years and whose work is so important to all the music all of us play in the rock sphere.”
In encouraging bands to donate their time and talent to benefit other artists, Wortis and his fellow musicians make sure that fans in Boston and in New Orleans all benefit from his efforts.
“It’s good for New Orleans, but it’s good for the heart and soul of Boston music, too,” said singer Jordan Valentine. “[It’s] a rare opportunity to see pure unadulterated joy on the dance floor, a world-class band, amazing guests, incredible tunes that you never get to hear, and all sorts of people coming together for one really, truly, awesomely good time.”
Wolf’s 20th Anniversary Mardi Gras Ball takes place on Feb. 8 and 9 at TT the Bear’s, 10 Brookline St., Cambridge.
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