The French dubbed it “Mardi Gras,” which literally translates to Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday. It marks the last night of indulgence before the ritual fasting of Lent. Though not everyone practices the religious tradition of fasting, Mardi Gras is celebrated worldwide. Stateside in New Orleans, practically everyone partakes in the party, donning exotic masks and beads of all sizes, shapes and shades, particularly of festival colors: bright green, purple and gold. No city has perfected the formula of a Mardi Gras quite like Nola, but Wilmington is about to get a healthy dose of Creole, blues and booze for the upcoming season.
Randy McQuay is a singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer rooted in soul and blues. For almost two decades he’s been an entertainer, with much time spent in the Port City after graduating from UNCW with a double major in music and business. He’s now a part of a growing community at Art Factory, which consists of entrepreneurs and creatives including Carolina Pine Music Series, Waterline Brewery, collage artist Elizabeth Singletary, and November1718 Films.
As a blues and jazz man at heart, McQuay helped locals celebrate Fat Tuesday for years at Duck n’ Dive in downtown Wilmington. Yet, after a gig on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise last year, which made its way to New Orleans among other cities, McQuay was inspired to expand local celebrations of the legendary carnival celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday.
“When I got back, my band [Randy McQuay Trio] was almost ready to go and I really wanted to do something for Mardi Gras,” he says. “That’s when [Waterline] stepped up, too, and said we’ll put a budget together to do something every day leading up to Fat Tuesday.”
With support from Waterline Brewing’s Rob and Eve Robinson and others from the Art Factory family, they decided to host a four-day Mardi Gras Under the Bridge celebration. Events will span February 5 through 7, with Creole-inspired food trucks, music and traditional Nola festivities. It all ends on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 9, with the debut of the Randy McQuay Trio.
Friday night’s kick-off to Mardi Gras will start with the traditional jazz ensemble Dixieland All Stars, alongside 2 Bros. Coastal Cuisine food truck, featuring N’Awlins-style grub. Soulful Twist food truck will provide Cajun kick on Saturday, while McQuay will keep the rhythm going with a one-man act reminiscent of his award-winning performance at the 31st International Blues Challenge in Memphis last January.
As a nod to Super Bowl Sunday on day three, there will be hot wings served while they last. However, there are no TVs at Waterline, so watching the Big Dance won’t be on the agenda.
“We don’t really want anything to do with the [game], we’re just going to offer an alternative,” McQuay says. “That’s going to be me spinning vinyl records out of my personal collection: all New Orleans jazz, zydeco and blues all day long from 4 [p.m.] ‘til close.”
As usual the brewery will be closed on Monday, but Fat Tuesday will pick back up with 2 Bros. serving traditional gumbo, red beans and rice, and more. (Look for king cakes!) Waterline will tap New Orleans’ Abita Brewing special Mardi Gras Bock, as well as a limited supply of canned Purple Haze and bottles of Bayou Bootlegger Hard Root Beer.
The Randy McQuay Trio will take the stage for the first time together, along with other special guests sitting in: Jones Smith (banjo, upright bass) and Maaike Brandis (tuba, trombone) from The Phantom Playboys, Will Maxwell (fiddle) from The Midatlantic, Benny Hill (saxophone), and Hugh Mallard (percussion) from Groove Fetish and Bad News Beers.
“Really, the golden touch is the key[board] player in my band, [Al DiMarco],” McQuay adds. “He is a really great accordion player. He’s played all over the world on accordion and is definitely known for it.”
With the new trio formed with DiMarco (keys, bass, accordion) and Jared Evans (drums), McQuay says it marks the end of his RootSoul Project and the beginning of something natural and new. “Maybe it’s an early midlife crisis,” he jokes, “but I just wanted to play blues and electric guitar again like a teenager, and just feel free with that.”
It’s also an opportunity to play professionally with like-minded musicians who share the same goals. “We haven’t performed yet [live,] but in rehearsals we have a blast, I’ve never really had so much fun in a rehearsal since I was a teenager.”
The RootSoul Project was in a state of constant rotation of members, relearning the same material. The trio will still perform songs for which McQuay is known, but mixed in will be a lot of fresh material.
“I’ve always written the songs for every project I’ve been in,” McQuay says. “So it’s kind of hard when people come out and see me fronting a band to get away from ‘Rehab Blues,’ ‘While This Crazy ‘Ol World Spins ‘Round,’ ‘Whether the Weather,’ or just songs that are always going to be in my repertoire.”
McQuay says he is more prepared with the trio going into their first gig than any other project with which he’s been involved. Their focus and time spent rehearsing has been unparalleled, whereas past bands he admits may have taken to stage too soon. “We were all really good,” McQuay adds, “but being prepared for shows and being really talented are two different things.”
The trio has already started recording video for new songs, like “Looking Back on Times When I…” Though they’re still in the process of mixing audio. The goal is to have a live-recorded album out sometime in 2016.
New songs, including “I Don’t Care Where You Cook,” are in the vein of blues, but McQuay says he’ll never cut out world music. The trio has the advantage of being able to play blues, jazz, funk, and beyond.
“Al and Jared both are really well-versed players, they can really go wherever I want to go,” he says. “So I’m not ever going to say this is just a blues band, because early on in rehearsals we found out that while everything is rooted in blues we can get out as far as we want to go.”
Fat Tuesday will open with two sets of all new original music by the Randy McQuay Trio, with a third set closing with traditional jazz and funk of Mardi Gras. They also plan to take the party to the streets (within reason of noise ordinances and laws).
“If weather permits we’re going to try and march with a second line all the way to Duck n’ Dive from here,” McQuay divulges. “I’ll play there afterward with others and some folks from the Cape Fear Blues Jam, too, that I’m hoping come out for the late night portion.”
McQuay plans to take the Duck n’ Dive stage around 11 p.m. and close it down at 2 a.m. For more details and event updates, visit the Facebook page.