John “Papa” Gros is slow to embrace Mardi Gras. Inevitably, the New Orleans keyboardist and bandleader dreads the onset of the Carnival season. “The older I get, the harder it gets,” he admitted recently. “I keep putting it off.
“And then I go to a parade, and it’s over with — I’m in.”
Gros must conjure the Carnival spirit a bit early this year. On Friday, before attending any parades, he’ll host a “Karnival Kick-off” concert at Tipitina’s. He, drummer Raymond Weber, bassist Eric Vogel and Funky Meters guitarist Brian Stoltz will join vocalist Cyril Neville, bassist George Porter Jr. and the Naughty Professor horn section on a program of mostly classic Mardi Gras songs.
The show “will be my wake-up call, probably more for me than anybody else,” Gros said. “It’ll be a great way to kick it off and get me excited.”
Born in New Orleans, Gros grew up in Baton Rouge. His family made annual pilgrimages to Carnival; he and his grandfather would catch Thoth early in the route, drive downtown to see it again around Lee Circle, then end the day with the Metairie parades. Gros moved back to New Orleans to earn a degree in French horn performance from Loyola University’s classical music department.
After graduation, he set the French horn aside to work as a keyboardist, singer and songwriter. He logged 12 years at the Tropical Isle on Bourbon Street, either with a band or as a solo keyboardist. “A lot of people talk bad about Bourbon Street, but it’s a great music education. If you’re there for the right reasons, you can’t replace that kind of education. The chops, stamina and strength that you get from Bourbon Street — there’s nothing else like it. All that pays off down the road.”
For seven years, he played alongside Porter, the legendary bassist of the Meters, in the Runnin’ Pardners. He co-founded the brassy rock band MuleBone with Bonerama trombonist Mark Mullins. In 2004, he released a solo album, “Day’s End,” that bore the influence of Dr. John, Leon Russell and Little Feat. He’s perhaps best-known for his 13 years of leading funk/R&B band Papa Grows Funk, which released five well-received albums and toured as far away as Japan.
Since Papa Grows Funk disbanded in 2013, Gros has worked across the spectrum of New Orleans music. He joined several alumni of the Radiators in Raw Oyster Cult. He was a member of the house band at the Saenger Theatre for the 2014 Jazz and Heritage Fest-week tribute to Dr. John, backing the likes of Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty. He’s played countless solo piano gigs and assembled one-off local all-star shows, such as this weekend’s Mardi Gras event at Tipitina’s.
Gros and his all-stars will revive seasonal classics by Professor Longhair, the Meters and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, among others, as well as traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs, which Cyril Neville will sing.
The show’s inspiration dates to Gros’ time at Loyola in the 1980s. Back then, he grooved to the likes of the Neville Brothers, the Radiators and Walter “Wolfman” Washington at Tipitina’s, the long-gone Benny’s Blues Bar, and Friday afternoon concerts on the Tulane University quad. Gigs around Carnival time had their own sort of magic, which he hopes to replicate this weekend.
“My whole goal is to get back to the shows in the ’80s with that Mardi Gras, Uptown funk vibe. The older I get, the less I see it around me. It’s part of my responsibility to keep that up. That’s something I can do, and do well, especially with George and Cyril in the mix. They wrote the music. Or if they didn’t write it, they created the vibe and energy of it through their arrangements.
“Cyril does something special that not enough of us get to hear. And when we play ‘Hey Pocky A-way’ with George Porter, there’s nothing like it. He was on the original record. He’s played it a million times, and it always feels like the first time.”
Gros may be kicking off his Carnival season onstage, but that’s not how he’ll end it. “I hate playing on Mardi Gras day,” he said. “I like to get out on the streets early. That’s the true celebration. That’s the joy of Mardi Gras, getting out early and letting your hair down.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.