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.|
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