Piano man and raconteur Armand St. Martin has played everywhere in New Orleans, from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to the Audubon Zoo to Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law Lounge.
Since 2006, singer-pianist St. Martin has performed every Aug. 28 at another, seemingly less likely, locale: The Theaters at Canal Place. Every year on the eve of the Hurricane Katrina anniversary, his songs are part of the annual multi-disciplinary arts event, “Katrina Artistically Revisited.”
A free program taking place Thursday, Aug. 28, at The Theaters, “Katrina Artistically Revisited” will feature music, exhibits, screenings and talks.
“It symbolizes the transition from the day everything was normal to the day everything changed,” said Uptown resident St. Martin.
In addition to St. Martin, this year’s “Artistically Revisited” features musician Steve Allen, photographers Mark Sindler, Dean Shapiro (a contributor to The New Orleans Advocate) and Richard Cahn, filmmakers Matt Faust and Dennis Couvillion, and writer Ron Thibodeaux. St. Martin’s program segments will include a song inspired by Katrina and its aftermath, “Orleans Lullaby.”
“The song is about the impact Katrina had on us, losing sleep, waking up at 4 a.m.,” he said.
“Katrina Artistically Revisited,” like “Orleans Lullaby,” is an example of the healing power of art.
“We look forward to it every year,” St. Martin said.
This year is the 30th anniversary of St. Martin as a solo artist. Following work as a sideman, St. Martin, with the help of his wife and manager, Patty Lee, launched his solo career in late 1984.
No less than artist and celebrity Andy Warhol encouraged the singer-pianist to go solo. St. Martin met Warhol in New York City in 1982, when the pianist accompanied Micheal Smotherman, an Oklahoma singer-songwriter who was then signed to Epic Records, during a show at The Bottom Line.
“Andy Warhol caught me after the show,” St. Martin remembered. “He liked the connection I made to the audience.”
St. Martin made another celebrity fan recently when singer, songwriter, pianist, producer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Allen Toussaint heard him play at Dos Jefes in New Orleans. A mutual friend brought Toussaint to the Uptown venue on July 4.
“I got goose bumps,” St. Martin said of seeing Toussaint at Dos Jefes. “He’s one of my New Orleans music heroes, and he’s still around, doing wonderful things all the time. I was so thrilled to have him sitting there smiling and enjoying the music.”
St. Martin performed a few Toussaint songs during his set that night, including “All These Things,” a beautiful ballad originally recorded by Art Neville, and K-Doe’s No. 1 hit from 1961, “Mother-In-Law.” Toussaint complimented St. Martin’s repertoire and the harmonic changes he played at the piano.
Even though piano has been St. Martin’s instrument of choice since the early 1980s, guitar was his first instrument. He would have preferred to have begun with piano, but a $15 acoustic guitar was all he could afford.
Acquiring his first electric guitar at 14 was another big step. St. Martin spotted the instrument hanging in a Woolworth’s department store in the Carrollton Shopping Center.
“The man brought it down for me to play,” St. Martin recalled. “I played it some and he said, ‘Son, you want that guitar? Well, you come in here the next three Saturdays, play it for four hours each afternoon and it’s yours.’ ”
St. Martin honored the salesman’s terms, riding three or four buses across New Orleans to be at the Woolworth’s store for three consecutive Saturdays. After the salesman lived up to his end of the deal, St. Martin caught another series of bus rides home, his new guitar in hand.
“I had it sitting there on the aisle next to me with my hand on it,” he said. “I could see the light of the universe coming out of the guitar case. I was transported. I looked around. Nobody else on the bus could see that light, but I sure could.”
Katrina Artistically Revisited
FEATURING: Armand St. Martin, Steve Allen, Ron Thibodeaux, Dean Shapiro, Matt Faust, Robert Green Sr., Shirani Rae and others
WHEN: Thursday 9 p.m. (lobby exhibits), 10 p.m. (screenings and performances)
WHERE: The Theaters at Canal Place, 333 Canal St.