Although Fat Tuesday is officially on March 8, it's Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Right now the streets of the Big Easy are filled with parades of Mardi Gras Indians, Second Line musicians and kings and queens tossing doubloons and beads from floats. Toss in some drunken visitors and you've got a party.
Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French and officially starts Jan. 6, the Twelfth Night after Christmas. This year, the first parades in New Orleans began on Feb. 12.
The huge carnival festival celebrates the last days of feasting before the Lenten season begins. Revelers dress in purple, green and gold, eat rich spicy foods, drink generous amounts of libations and frolic to a variety of traditional New Orleans music. The jubilation ends at midnight Fat Tuesday. The following day, Ash Wednesday, is the start of Lent, when guilty pleasures are given up for 40 days, based on Catholic and Christian traditions.
It may be no surprise, but not all Mardi Gras attendees are motivated by religious belief. Most just go for the spirit of "Laissez le bon temp rouler,", or "let the good times roll."
Benicia got its own good times rolling Saturday night at . The popular First Street tavern did its part to set the stage for the festivities, with decorations, beads and King Cake for guests. By 8:30, the place was packed and simmering with anticipation.
Once the live music began, revelers kicked it into high gear. Spontaneous dancing broke out, at one point leading to a parade of dancers through the narrow pub.
The Nawlins music was enthusiastically provided by band, The Funk Roux. The group covered crowd favorites like the Hey Pocky A-Way by the Meters, The Neville Brothers' Mardi Gras Mambo, a funky version of the Who's Eminence Front and of course Jock-a-Mo, also knows as the Iko-Iko song.
Reveler of all ages got their groove on in fine style. Like many Northerners, most Benicians don't have appropriately outrageous Mardi Gras attire, so Messina and crew had plenty of beads to toss out to the crowd.
Along with Messina on drums, band members included Todd Stritter on guitar and vocals, Alex Berrier on bass and Kevin Frasier on saxophone. Wall of Blues' front-man Joe 'Flambo' Guistino, formerly of Benicia, joined the band for the night on vocal and harmonica, as well as Robert McNulty, who sat in on drums.
Messina, founder of the Mardi Gras Benicia Parade and Festival, brought the flavor of the Big Easy with him when he moved to Benicia from New Orleans. The parade and festival, last known as the Gold and Gumbo Festival, was popular in the community for years, but no longer takes place.
Still, the spirit of Mardi Gras lives on in Benicia with the members of Messina's Mardi Gras crew, many of whom attended Saturday night's party in full carnival style. “It was perfect. It felt like I was back in New Orleans for a moment,” said Messina. “It was great to have my whole crew there, all dressed up.”
By tradition, a king and queen of Mardi Gras were chosen and crowned. This year the honor went to costume-contest winners and , former members of the Mardi Gras Benicia committee.
The band kept the party going late. No worries if you missed it. Benicians can expect similar celebrations Tuesday at the Rellik, the and other Benicia pubs. If you come out, have fun with it and dress in festive purple, green and gold. Festive supplies and beads can be found at party stores.