Louisiana Trip: The Music, Part II

We wound up the live music portion of the trip with the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. It's the first weekend of May, every year. Lots of music, fun, food, and of course, massive amounts of incredible crawfish. (More about that in a forthcoming post devoted solely to the food.)

Every year from spring through fall, little towns throughout Louisiana have their annual festivals. It's their big party that they plan all year, whole worlds unto themselves with local political intrigue, beauty pageant dramas, cookoff controversies, etc. And music and rides and crafts and funnel cake and fascinating peoplewatching. Every place has its festivals and carnivals, but Louisiana's really do seem to have a little extra something special. Where true Americana meets true Acadiana. Rayne has the Frog Festival, Opelousas has the Yambilee, Natchitoches has the Meat Pie Festival, Crowley has the International Rice Festival, and there's a "5,000 Egg Giant Omelette Celebration" every November in Abbeville. And so many, many more. I just never get enough of these cultural microcosms. For more and more communities, they're the last real bastion of genuine local culture. And south Louisiana sure knows how to hold on to cultural identity. They've literally had to fight for it. Authorities tried to actually beat it out of them. Even among sympathizers, it wasn't at all 'cool' until the 1980s.

Along with the annual Crawfish Queen, Junior Crawfish Queen, and Little Miss Pincher (which are pictured above), eleven young Breaux Bridge girls are chosen to be Ecrévettes ("little crawfish"). They seem to be sort of ladies-in-waiting to the Crawfish Queen and roaming goodwill ambassadors. They were also entrusted with getting a couple of crawfish to the crawfish race, so there wasn't time to explain the significance of the costume on the right.

The liveliest expressions of Cajun culture are naturally food and music. Spirited love of life seems to just bubble up through the pots and kegs, maybe even up out of the water and the very ground itself, and streams out through pipes, reeds, strings, drums, voices, dances. Soul and spice and syncopation just hit that primal pleasure center. Young and old, everybody's grooving in their own way. Fussy toddlers suddenly stop and listen, maybe look up at the band if they're close enough. Then start to sway back and forth a little. Then grin. Then they're giggling and stomping all around in unbridled glee. Which is highly contagious. It's just impossible to be angry or depressed around that. (Whether it's the Taliban in the Middle East or the Southern Baptists down the street, how can anyone think feeling this good is unnatural or wrong??)(...and I accidentally typed "feeling this god" at first...)

The festival's music lineup is peerless. Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys are worth driving any distance. Steve truly is one of the world's best accordion players--and an impressive fiddler. It's very traditional Cajun music, sung in English and French, but somehow ageless. And just feels good. It really says something that in the middle of this festival, between showy fast-paced zydeco bands rocking out with bawdy lyrics and lots of stagecraft, this band simply stepped forward and delivered a very solid, straight set--no flashy moves, no tricks, no overt debauchery--and still left a huge crowd screaming for more. They're just that damn good. That much talent and authenticity really don't need much else.

Revered guitarist Sam Broussard played utterly amazing solos, including a searing Cajun blues slide number. And made it look almost matter-of-fact, swaying serenely in his seersucker slacks. (Plus I like a lot of what he has to say on his site. Check it out some time.) The whole band is just impeccable. Even if you don't think traditional Cajun is your thing, go see these guys.

Another musical must-see is Keith Frank and the Soileau Zydeco Band. Keith Frank comes from a family of noted Cajun/zydeco musicians, and the band is a family affair. It's straight-up zydeco with generous helpings of R&B, funk, rock, even gospel and occasionally rap. It's instantly infectious, and the momentum never stops. The music can more than stand on its own, but Keith Frank is also quite a showman. He doesn't do it every minute, but he'll play his accordion under and around his legs, on his back on the floor, jumping up and down, and in coordinated little dances with the rest of the band.

We saw the rubboard player literally get down--shoving the rubboard sideways to crouch real low and extend one leg out along the floor, and then hopping around on the other in sort of a breakdance spin. While keeping up a complicated rhythm with a spoon in each hand. There's a lot of YouTube footage, but with cheapo digital cameras' delayed shutters and limited video capacity, it's hard to capture some of the showier moments. The band wisely uses the big moves as more of an occasional punctuation point. The main focus stays on the music.

Besides, one thing about zydeco (and Cajun music as well) is you never fully 'get it' unless you're there. Something in the live shows never quite comes across on a CD. I wonder what a full-length professional DVD would be like. (hint hint)
Another cool thing about zydeco is how it's stayed relevant with the younger crowd but still true to its roots. Besides incorporating occasional rock, hip hop, and rap influences, zydeco can adapt pretty much any song on the planet and still sound great, without selling out or condescending. Keith Frank and Travis Matte and other really good zydeco bands often cover rock, country, '80s one-hit wonders, all kinds of stuff, and it just adds to the party. (The late great Beau Jocque is often credited with starting that.) I think they could even cover Yoko Ono and make me like it.

Um, if you really love your bunny, you take it to see some zydeco.

Speaking of Travis Matte...he and his Zydeco Kingpins took the stage just after sunset, and really kicked the festivities into high gear. They're an unabashed, wild-'n'-woolly party band. Zydeco with a harder rock edge and lyrics that border on dirty limericks. It's no accident they come on after most families go home to tuck in the little ones. They reworked Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" into an upbeat "Doin' the 69." Which would be eyerolling from a lot of other bands, but these guys get away with it by balancing the swagger with an air of merry mischief. Everyone is having such a blast it's just irresistible. And just when you think they're mostly party boys who aren't that reverent about musical tradition, Lil' Band O' Gold saxophonist Pat Breaux leans in with another wailing solo. Too much fun. They're the ideal closer for the festival.

Coming back from an Acadian music fest is like coming back from the beach--you can still feel the the rock and sway in your legs, still faintly hear it and smell it in the breeze.

This Blogger template is a little unstable when it comes to posting a lot of pictures and captions. Looks just fine in some browsers, goes all wonky in others. So I'll just end with some photos.

Next up:
The Louisiana Trip - La Louisianne Studio


They say it comes in threes...

Gotta take a moment aside from the Louisiana merriment to pay some respects. The past few days have been pretty rough on the Austin music community.

On Wednesday, we very suddenly lost Poodie Locke, Willie Nelson's stage manager for over 30 years and owner of the beloved Poodie's Hilltop Bar & Grill out by the lake in Spicewood. More about him here and here. The last time Charlie & I saw Poodie was just several weeks ago, when we stopped in for a green chile Poodie Burger on the way to a nearby party. As always, we were all talking music nerd stuff, and the unassuming-but-highly-knowledgeable guy at Poodie's elbow turned out to be none other than legendary producer Bob Johnston. (He did a little record you might've heard of: Blonde on Blonde. Among many, many others.) That was the cool thing about Poodie and his bar. You just never knew who you'd meet, and Poodie treated us all the same. He was from Waco and was so amused that I'm from Bellmead. Which is, to put it politely, not one of Waco's finer areas. He even brought his sister Cindy over to me later at that same party, just to laugh about that. Even funnier, it turned out she knew some of my more, um, notorious family members back home. As he was leaving that evening, he brushed past me, patted my shoulder, and said, "Bomp-ba-bomp, Bellmead!"

Then yesterday, writer Bud Shrake succumbed to cancer. He was a very talented and prolific novelist, sportswriter, screenwriter, longtime companion of the late Gov. Ann Richards, and also friend to Willie Nelson and many others in Texas music. A true treasure to Texas arts and letters, as well as its people and culture in general. He's being buried next to Ann in the State Cemetery, which seems fitting not only because of his relationship with her, but also his invaluable body of work, which includes Blood Reckoning, Strange Peaches (about the JFK assassination), Willie: An Autobiography, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, and the movies Songwriter, A Pair of Aces, and Another Pair of Aces.

And then a couple hours ago, we found out the incredibly talented musician and songwriter (and sometime actor) Stephen Bruton passed away this morning after battling cancer. He played with and/or wrote songs for Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball, and Willie Nelson, and so many others. He also sat in at the Saxon Pub every so often with The Resentments.

What a sad week, especially for Willie or what. Our hearts go out to him, the respective families and friends, and to Bonnie Raitt, who was also very close to Stephen and Poodie. (Actually, she once married Poodie briefly, years ago at a party, "until we all sobered up.") Oddly enough, she was scheduled to play a big concert here tomorrow night.

This quote from Stephen in the article above probably goes for all three of them.
“I’ve got no complaints. I get to do what I love. How many people can say that? And that’s worth more than anything. I’d be doing it anyway. And I’ve been very fortunate to do what I do for a long time.”

Louisiana Trip: The Music, Part I

Back from the trip, a little burnt (literally--forgot the sunscreen on the swamp tour), maybe a little heavier, and definitely a lot happier. We did most of the things on the list, although we overslept for the zydeco breakfast and didn't make it out to Floyd's or the Palace. But it was still a great little vacation for much-needed recharging, refocusing, reconnecting, and re-evaluating.

Thursday night was a sidetrip to New Orleans for the Legends of Zydeco show at the Rock 'N' Bowl's new location a couple blocks down Carrollton. (Next to owner John Blancher's other place, Ye Olde College Inn.) I was a bit worried whether the new place could hold up to the vibe and memory of the funky old original Rock 'N' Bowl. But they did a good job. Great care was apparently taken to preserve as much of the original place's layout, decor, and feel. They took a lot of the old stuff with them, including pictures and posters, the Blessed Mother, even the neon bowling pin out front and the red-&-beige "Welcome" sign which has graced the background of so many beloved stage photos. A life-size cutout of Beau Jocque presides over the stage action. The sound seems better, and the lanes have computerized scoring. But all in all it feels mostly the same, only half again bigger, with more open space for dancing. It already feels somewhat lived-in even though it's only been there a matter of weeks. If I hadn't known the place's history, I would've thought this is where it's always been.

While surfing around for some more info on the Rock 'N' Bowl's move, I found this little article about the legendary Beau vs. Boo shows, which sadly I never got to see. That definitely goes on the "time machine" list.

Clinton S?
This may or may not be Clinton S.
All that said, the show itself was pretty good, if a bit disjointed and unrehearsed. Various sources listed the showtime at 7:00 or 8:30. It started way after 9. But as our friend and NOLA native Martin reminded us, any stated showtime in Louisiana really just means "at some point on that particular night." The opener was a real-deal, traditional Cajun wailer whose name I didn't catch, but I'm assuming he was the "Clinton S" on the bill since we knew who everyone else was.

Instead of separate sets, people loosely rotated throughout, with Lil' Buck Sinegal and Lee Allen Zeno backing most folks, and Rockin' Dopsie, Jr. on rubboard. Dopsie was celebrating his new CD release. He was of course his usual high-energy self. An ailing but cheery Buckwheat guested very briefly on B-3 organ before turning it over to the very capable hands of C. J. Chenier and Sunpie Barnes. I hadn't seen Sunpie before, but will again. He blends traditional zydeco with more of a world-beat sound.

We had to leave a little after 11 to catch our other show of the night: Lil' Band O' Gold's midnight gig at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal St. (OK, I know this blog is in danger of becoming "The Adventures of Lil' Band O' Gold and Lil' Buck Sinegal" since they've been in every post so far, but after they've run their course with the movie and new CD, they probably won't regroup. So I'm seeing them every chance I get.)

What a pleasant surprise to walk in there to masterful slide blues from John Mooney, a guy my slide teacher Harry Bodine kept raving about. He's right--this guy knows his stuff. It can be easy to get 'ear fatigue' with Delta slide, especially in a solo set like this, but he kept it fresh by switching around between acoustic and electric, and various tunings, with a bare minimum of effects, and a mic'ed footstomp for rhythm. A soulful, stripped-down set of old-school blues. Even more of a treat when he joined Lil' Band O' Gold to trade some solos a little later. I definitely want to catch him some time with his full band, Bluesiana.

Another great Dopsie shot.

Buckwheat at the B-3

Sunpie playin' from the heart

Tommy McLain and Richard Comeaux were absent from the LBOG lineup that night. (And there was no more room on the stage, anyway). So David Egan got a few more songs, including "Hallelujah, I'm a Dreamer," which I finally decided is my favorite of his. I understand it will also be on the forthcoming Promised Land soundtrack shortened to "I'm a Dreamer." It was so packed this is the only picture I could manage without heads and hands in the way or being jostled by overzealous dancers still jacked up from the day at Jazz Fest.

They were of course in their usual fine form, Buck especially so, with a much longer set than at the Continental. Including their own memorable take on the Elvis/Chuck Berry hit "Promised Land." And this time they did do "Seven Letters."

Next up: Louisiana Trip - The Music, Part II: Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival and La Louisianne studio visit