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Cajun Fans Get Their Fill at Fest

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may not be rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s Cajun music as it was always meant to be.

Sure enough, that statement Saturday from singer-guitarist Anne Savoy at the 10th annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival was said with a smile, but underlined a commitment to music heard too infrequently outside the bayou.

The rootsy sound of her Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band (led by her husband, accordionist Marc Savoy, and Beausoleil fiddler Michael Doucet) certainly was meant as no challenge to other, less traditional acts on the bill of this two-day festival, which concluded Sunday. This was the kind of show where members of one band leave the stage only to cheer on the next act.

Opening day at Rainbow Lagoon (next to the Long Beach Convention Center) offered longtime Cajun music fans and new converts plenty of music to believe in. Bands performed hourlong sets on a small stage as fans sprawled out across the grass or danced under the sun, while vendors offered a menu ranging from jambalaya to alligator-on-a-stick, and sold Cajun cookbooks, instruction videos on zydeco dancing and CDs with such titles as “Louisiana Spice.”

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Headliner C.J. Chenier chose to open his set not with the sound of traditional zydeco (as played by his late father, zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier) but with some blues-seared rock ‘n’ roll.

Carrying a big black accordion in front of his six-man band, Chenier brought an R&B; thrust to most everything he played. “I’ve got the blues, baby,” he told the crowd. “Every time I turn around, something’s gone wrong.”

The edge in his voice was well-suited to the sorrowful sound. And while his lineage and choice of instruments always will keep this Texas-born bandleader’s music rooted in Louisiana folk culture, Chenier made his interests in certain rock ‘n’ roll traditions clear with a version of “I Ain’t No Playboy” that included some rocking blues played by three guitarists, and was topped with a drum solo (!).

Playing with similar fire, but with both feet planted firmly in tradition, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys made energetic Cajun music accented with bits of bluegrass and rock enthusiasm.

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Utilizing sweet vocal harmonies and a sound that often wanders not too far from your local honky-tonk (with songs like “Popcorn Blues”), Riley stands among the most compelling of a new generation of Cajun and zydeco players.

He and his backing quartet blended fiddle, accordion and youthful adrenaline into music from their recent “La Toussaint” album. Though comfortable with modern musical styles, the Playboys were most moving during the up-tempo instrumental two-step “Between Eunice & Opelousas,” written by Marc Savoy--Riley’s second cousin.

Clean-cut and sharply dressed beneath a cowboy hat, accordionist Geno Delafose played unrelenting good-time zydeco, from rollicking instrumentals to yearning love laments, accented by a jolt of electricity from guitarist Bobby Broussard.

Delafose and his band, French Rockin’ Boogie, played selections culled largely from “That’s What I’m Talkin’ About,” Delafose’s second album since he took over the band of his late father, zydeco veteran John Delafose. Other songs, like “Zydeco Cha Cha,” set an uplifting tone to the set of unrelenting zydeco, though a bit more variety would have helped.

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Fans searching for a broader mix of sounds were rewarded early in the day by the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band. Marc Savoy sat happily with his handmade accordion, kicking up his heels and giving up the occasional Cajun yelp as his band blended good vibes with the old sounds of Southwest Louisiana.

Noting the intensity of some of the acts that would follow, Anne Savoy told the crowd that the Savoy-Doucet band was “representatives of waltzes"--which was only partly true, since the band was as comfortable making uplifting Cajun dance music, making Savoy-Doucet one the afternoon’s greatest pleasures.


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