february 2009

Down Louisiana Way...

By David McGee

"Folks, this is genuine Cajun breakdown music as heard in Evangeline country. Let's go, boys!" With that greeting, twin fiddles begin the exuberant dialogue that introduces Dennis McGee's "Reel Cajun (451 St. Joseph St.)" and another sizzling offering from BeauSolell avec Michael Doucet is off to the races. It preceded by less than a month the release of the Pine Leaf Boys' Homage Au Passe, which is sure to add more laudatory reviews to this young band's bulging media kit. Louisiana music and musicians have stood strong in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with young acolytes such as Amanda Shaw joining the generations represented by these two bands in demonstrating the continued vitality and growth of their home state's native music. Alligator Purse and Homage Au Passe proceed along similar paths, of limning the sources of Cajun and Creole music while adding contemporary colors to the palette, both in new original songs and an inspired selection of covers from beyond the Cajun/Creole axis that are utterly transformed rhythmically and texturally by accordions, fiddles and the distinctive cry and break in the singers' voices.

Some of the fresh twists BeauSoleil brings to this party are, for instance, John Sebastian adding some wild, frantic harp on a foot-stomping treatment of Julie Miller's "Little Darlin'," on which Doucet's plaintive tenor is joined in harmony by Natalie Merchant's sturdy, blues-tinged cries. On "Marie," the sensuous, swaying horn section, sounding so much like it was hand-picked by Dave Bartholomew for a Fats Domino record, provides Andy Stein a showcase baritone sax solo preceding Michael Doucet's bluesy fiddle turn. Those rich, swirling organ riffs adding the ethereal touch to a lowdown treatment of Louisiana R&B legend Bobby Charles's lyrically searing "I Spent All My Money Loving You" come courtesy one Garth Hudson, who continues burbling along on the keys under Doucet's sly, bluesy vocal and Jimmy Breaux's evocative accordion commentary. On the good-time, swinging "Les Oignons" Roswell Rudd's muted, playful trombone solos summon that boozy Bourbon Street mood, and the hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie group vocals of the Hudson Valley Boys and Happy and Artie Traum further enhance the genial atmosphere. (This also happened to be one of the last recording sessions for Artie Traum, who passed away last year.)

To the mix of high spirited and broken hearted tunes Doucet adds a bit of working man's blues in the form of a shuffling, banjo-inflected (courtesy Bill Keith), anti-authoritarian, populist treatise by JJ Cale, "The Problem," which Doucet delivers with a menacing growl as the music pulses along. Coming at a time when the many post-Katrina government failings have been well documented (and acknowledged by everyone except, it seems, George W. Bush), Doucet's menacing reading of the lyric "the man in charge has got to go," especially at song's end, when it becomes a chilling chant, has the effect of reigniting the simmering anger over government malfeasance and indifference to a suffering populace. Cale's lyrics specifically reference a younger generation rising up against intractable elders, but Doucet's timing in including it here, at the moment when Bush was trying to burnish his disastrous legacy by, among other items, rewriting the history of his administration's Katrina response to make it seem swift and effective, well, the man in charge has got to go. And so he has, but Alligator Purse remains as a reminder that we won't get fooled again, if you will, and a soulful, joyous celebration of the music BeauSoleil has championed so effectively over the years.

Although it does offer a passel of traditional numbers, the title sentiment of the Pine Leaf Boys' Homage Au Passe (Homage To the Past) is honored in several new songs by the band members themselves; more to the point, the past being honored is as much personal as it is musical. Hence the reflective mood borne of experience as expressed in the lovelorn ache inspiring the western swing flavor of "Je Cherche Tout Partout" ("I Looked Everywhere"); in the keening, heartfelt sweet nothings expressed in the lilting waltz, "La Delaysay"; in the blues-tinged regrets of a life lived too much on the edge as voiced in the gravelly tone and mournful fiddle of Courtney Granger in "J'ai Fait Un Grosse Erreur"; in the chronicle of the peaks and valleys of love's winding way as summoned so evocatively in Wilson Savoy's hymn-like waltz, "T'es pa la meme," to which Drew Simon adds sad, crying accordion laments. These are songs of people who have been brave enough to open their hearts to others, only to have their hearts handed back, always unceremoniously, often due to their own failings.

But this being a Cajun occasion, you know no one's spending much time crying into the blackened catfish. The Boys charge out of the gate with the festive toe-tapper, "Festival Acadiens Two Step," a lively tribute by Granger to one of Lafayette, Louisiana's most popular annual events. "Country Playboy Special" bops and stomps behind Drew Simon's hearty vocalizing and ebullient accordion solos, to which Granger adds his own spirited fiddling. Guitarist Jon Betrand cuts out on a trebly, stone-country guitar solo to further enliven "Country Playboy Special," then returns a couple of cuts later with another blazing solo on the foot-stomping, rockabilly-flavored barnburner, "J'Suis Gone Pour Me Saouler," a song built to rock the house to its foundation. A shambling, shuffling drinking song from the Balfa Brothers, "Parlez Nous a Boire," has enough of a loosey-goosey feel in its rough-cut harmonizing and woozy instrumental solos to convince you the principals themselves were well lubricated before tearing into it. At the album's close the band returns to its introspective mode for a sweet, sincere treatment of "I'll Always Take Care of You," one of many stellar contributions made to country music by Monroe, Louisiana's favorite son, Webb Pierce (whose English lyrics are translated to Cajun French here), with Bertrand and Granger enhancing the tear-stained mood with emotionally evocative fiddle and guitar solos, respectively.

So we are blessed by these two intelligent, emotionally resonant gifts from Louisiana. The approaches aren't radically different between the veterans of BeauSoleil and the young upstarts of the Pine Leaf Boys, but it's telling how each group concludes its new albums. BeauSoleil, which kicks off Alligator Purse with the aforementioned tune by Cajun fiddle pioneer Dennis McGee, closes with the accordion-driven exultation, "Valse à Thomas Ardoin," by McGee's contemporary visionary, Amédéé Ardoin, with Doucet crying the plaintive lyrics, bringing the album full circle from Cajun music's recorded origins through some of its many variations over time, and back to the beginning—a quintessential BeauSoleil move to link the rich past to its contemporary variations in elegant fashion. The Pine Leaf Boys exit closer to the present days, with the Webb Pierce song, reconsidered Cajun style. Doesn't mean the older music is any less resonant for the PLBs, but tipping their hat to Webb as they depart seems right for this younger bunch. However far in you wanna go, it's all good, any old way you choose it.

BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet
Yep Roc


Buy it at www.barnesandnoble.com

Pine Leaf Boys
Lionsgate Music


Buy it at www.lionsgate.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024