O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Ragin’ Cajun--Accordion to Delafose
If Beausoleil are the inventive Beatles of Louisiana bayou music, John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys may be its groove-oriented Rolling Stones. The Stones were never better than when emulating roots music, with their 1972 “Exile on Main Street” standing as the most valiant effort yet in pale British people’s attempts at becoming swamp-dwelling Americans.
But, whatever murky grooves the Stones may have been able to sink into, they scarcely compare with the total gumbo immersion of Delafose’s music. There is a quality to his accordion playing and band arrangements that is at once both thick and woozy and yet nearly irresistible in its rhythmic drive.
Though the 52-year-old accordionist wasn’t in top form at the Sunset Beach Club on Saturday night, he still offered a fine kickoff for what may become a regular, and much needed, event in the county. Promoter David Gaar, who also puts on the weekly Chank-a-Chank accordion dance shows in Santa Monica, said the 150-person turnout Saturday was sufficient to encourage him to make it a monthly occurence at the club.
The recently opened venue, which can hold an audience of 250 or so, is well-suited to the music. It has a relaxed atmosphere, good sound and sight lines, and, crucially, a wood dance floor near the stage. It’s a bit jarring to see a zydeco band performing in front of a mural of a New Age California beach scene, but not fatally so.
Delafose was still recovering from an illness that has dogged him throughout his West Coast tour, and his son Gino fronted the band for well over half its time onstage. But, given that the band played for nearly four hours with only one short break, Delafose was still at the helm plenty of the time.
His band is a family affair, with Gino--who plays drums when Delafose is onstage--another son, Tony, on bass, a nephew on rub board and a brother-in-law on guitar. They play with a special empathy, such that even when one song went wildly out of tune, it still had power and personality.
Delafose plans to have Gino take over the band when he retires, and Gino may yet fill his father’s shoes. While some of his playing was perfunctory, as on Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and “Hey Good Lookin’,” he warmed up as he went along. He drove out sterling versions of Guitar Slim’s “Things That I Used to Do"--with Slim’s classic idiot guitar solo transposed to the keyboard--and Chuck Berry’s “Don’t Lie to Me,” given a rollicking rhythmic reworking. On one breakneck instrumental, he was accompanied only by the drums and rub board, with all the parts popping like a string of firecrackers.
Though his son is a worthy acolyte, Delafose remains a nearly unapproachable master on his instrument. That’s instruments, actually, as he plays three varieties of accordion, the standard piano type, the Cajun diatonic model and the three-row button accordion.
Each instrument brought a distinct nuance to the music, and his personality came through as clearly on each. Even the Cajun accordion, used most for the more easygoing traditional music, was pressed into service on full-tilt zydeco tunes.
Even ailing as he was, Delafose’s playing and singing was full of exultation and release. He did much of his singing in French, though the most ardent student of the language would have had trouble translating some of the songs, which in one case was only a series of wild whoops and shouts exchanged by Delafose and his sons. And all the music did the job for which it was intended--getting people moving on the dance floor.
Gaar had a Creole caterer in for the event, who lent further bayou authenticity to the proceedings with a seafood gumbo and red beans and rice. The $7 small bowl of gumbo, though good, might not have been quite up to the 50 cents a bite it averaged.