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John 'Papa' Gros delights Hygienic Art Park crowd in Friday concert

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New London — With this collective and giddy sense of (almost) post-COVID freedom we're all experiencing, it's almost easy to forget Those Who Would Capitalize on our new desire to DO THINGS. Take, for example, the airline industry.

My wife, Eileen, and I had been planning a trip to New Orleans — where we were married and where we've spent a lot of time over the years — when the plague struck. One of the first things we did after our respective second vaccinations was to go online and see when we could book a flight to Louisiana for a much-needed respite in our favorite town.

"Sure," sayeth the travel agent. "That'll be $14,000 each way — and you'll be tucked into one of the overhead baggage bins."

Well, for a very reasonable $20, Friday night in New London's beautifully refurbished Hygienic Art Park, a gentleman named John "Papa" Gros took us to New Orleans in a completely musical and sensorially evocative fashion. No airplane or boutique hotel in the Bywater required.

Nope: Just a man and his piano and voice and a mastery of the city's rich piano heritage — a legacy, by the way, that Gros continues to further with his own fine compositions.

Before a large crowd on a night more like early October than June, with a lush sense that cool mist could fall at any moment, Gros delighted with a lovingly curated 15-song, 90-minute set that, by the end, had a diverse but representative audience of New London arts and music lovers dancing with happy abandon — rather like the impromptu "A Charlie Brown Christmas" scene as they rehearse for the holiday pageant.

Part of Gros's magic goes beyond his mastery of style. He's like one of the bright kids in the class whose curiosity about source material blossomed into genuine love. Not only has he eagerly studied New Orleans rock 'n' roll and funk — the latter during 30 years as leader of the internationally acclaimed Papa Grows Funk — he's immersed himself in the canon of styles and material of the city's so-called Piano Professors. Professor Longhair. Allen Toussaint. Huey "Piano" Smith. Fats Domino. Dr. John. James Booker. Lloyd Price. More than that, he actually studied and played WITH many of these artists.

And while those artists explored and furthered what is technically a fairly simple form of three-chord rock, they each used their own artistry and a creative sense of style — one that couldn't have evolved in any city NOT imbued with the particular rhythms and mystical properties of New Orleans.

As such, up close and personal Friday with Gros was a fantastic and fun display. To watch his left hand assuredly hammer out the separately distinctive low-end boogie patterns of 'Fess or Dr. John or Fats was laugh-inducingly grand. As for his right hand? A fireworks display of rhythmic majesty, fractal chord blocks and riverine runs worthy of the churning Mississippi itself.

A fan can't help but enjoy such things — particularly since Gros is never showing off at the expense of the song. He's just floating above his instrument, letting his hands and heart and the music take him along.

At the outset, Gros explained he is touring behind his latest album, "Central City," a thematic labor of homage to New Orleans piano rock with a cherry-picked selection of cover tunes mixed with originals. His set list at the Hygienic went beyond just that album, of course, but was across-the-board representative of the whole concept.

That included works by not necessarily obvious songwriters such as the Band's Levon Helm and generations-removed NOLA guitarists/songwriters Earl King and Alex McMurray. Most tunes were intro'd with charming anecdotes from personal experiences or New Orleans history, and they served to enrich the experience.

A particularly excellent moment happened when Gros previewed a Fats Domino tune by explaining how his dad's love of Domino had been an inspiration to him as a boy. Then, because it happened that Gros's father's birthday was Friday, the pianist called the Old Man and, with the phone resting on the keyboard, regaled him with a raucous version of "I'm Gonna Be a Big Wheel Someday." Not a bad way to celebrate someone's 82nd birthday.

For those of us in the Art Park, Gros's entire show was indeed a wonderful way to celebrate — not just a performance by a special artist and a special musical form, but a return to our own little but passionate live music scene.

r.koster@theday.com

Set list

John "Papa" Gros' set list at the Hygienic Art Park on Friday: "Junco Partner," "Do Re Me," "River's On Fire," "All My Rivers," "This New Year's Eve," "Yeah Yeah Yeah," "I'm Gonna Be a Big Wheel Someday," "Tipitina," "When That Evening Sun Goes Down," "Hurricane," "Old Joe's Turkey," "Cocaine and Chicken Fricasee," "Make a Better World," "Qualified" and "Big Chief."

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