The Cajun and zydeco music of southern Louisiana is known for its close-knit sense of community. That kinship surfaced not only during the 12th annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival in Long Beach, it also saved Friday night's pre-concert dance at the Golden Sails Hotel's Crystal Ballroom.
The dance's only scheduled act was Walter Mouton & the Scott Playboys, but flight delays out of Memphis postponed the revered Cajun band's arrival at LAX to 3 a.m. Saturday. So on very short notice, festival promoter Franklin Zawacki brought to bat pinch-hitting members of Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic and the Zydeco Bone Shakers, who joined forces to prevent a last-minute dance cancellation.
Despite operating on only 3 1/2 hours' sleep, Mouton eventually performed Saturday, serving up a low-key but thoroughly satisfying set of authentic Cajun music during the first of a two-day appearance at Rainbow Lagoon. With the exception of a disappointing set by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, the musical acts--both the newcomers and the old guard--offered much to cheer.
Hailing from Scott, La., the 59-year-old Mouton specializes in the Cajun-country hybrid developed in the 1930s. Back home, the singer-accordionist is a full-time truck driver; amazingly, he's released only one 45 rpm record over his 42-year career. Nonetheless, he's a well-respected figure who was elected to the Louisiana Cajun Hall of Fame last year.
Just how unassuming is Mouton?
He dresses simply enough, wearing a baseball cap, pullover shirt and blue jeans. He practically shuns attention. He offers no flashy sound bites and has no new record to promote.
What Mouton does do is play soul-stirring music from the heart. His four-man band performed dead-on throughout Saturday's hourlong set, with the aching notes of steel guitarist Chris Lougon perfectly augmenting Mouton's seasoned accordion-playing and U.J. Meaux's exquisite fiddle work. Highlights included the catchy "Scott Playboys Special," the mournful ballad "Little Short Pants" and a scorching instrumental titled "Hicks' Wagon Wheel Special."
Backstage after his set, Mouton explained his aversion to fame by saying, "I don't want to make a record because I don't really want to create a demand for something I can't fulfill . . . like go out on the road and promote it. For the most part, I play just on weekends." Mouton's band has been playing La Poussier--a dance hall in Breaux Bridge, La.--every Saturday night for the last 10 years.
While Mouton prefers keeping his music undiluted and somewhat of a well-kept secret, two of the festival's key acts--Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys and Terrance Simien--have taken aim at crossing over into the pop-oriented mainstream. But they're headed in opposite directions.
Based in Lafayette, La., Simien is a rising zydeco star. He courted a pop-based audience with his 1993 release, "There's Room for Us All," which included strains of funk, soul, rock and R & B while downplaying his zydeco roots. The good news is the accordionist-singer's latest release--a five-song EP, "Jam the JazzFest"--finds Simien regaining his focus. In addition, he's working on a children's album based on the Creole culture.
On stage, Simien throws himself into his performance, playing with a kind of unbridled enthusiasm that's downright contagious. His headlining set inspired some of the most dance-happy shuffles of the day, with the fiery instrumental "Macque Choux" and his stirring rendition of John Delafose's "Uncle Bud" earning high marks.
But Simien, 28, and his four-piece group proved to be more than just a one-dimensional party band. With his sweet, doo-wop tenor, Simien mixed in several soulful ballads that could hold their own against Aaron Neville and Sam Cooke. Also impressive was the brand-new "The Same Dog That Bit Me Is Barking at You," which smartly uses aggressive canines as a metaphor for a spiteful, souring romance.
Riley and his band are festival regulars who happen to be one of the finest Cajun bands going. Unfortunately, the group's desire to mainstream its music is cause for concern.
Set for release next week, "Bayou Ruler" (Rounder) is a scattered-sounding, misdirected album that Riley describes as "swamp pop." Its layers of brass, electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, Hammond B3 organ and other pop-friendly devices are murky indeed, and a far cry from the band's early influences of the Balfa Brothers, Marc Savoy and Iry LeJeune.
Live versions of songs from "Bayou Ruler" were easily the set's most disheartening, particularly the generic-sounding title track and a misguided cover of "Mama Told Papa," which somehow managed to turn Clifton Chenier's zydeco stomp into a bleating, slick-sounding mess.
But Riley and his bandmates did escape further decay by playing some of their older material. "It's All Over," a slow waltz sung by fiddler-saxophonist David Greely, was rendered with a skillful, tender touch. And the hauntingly beautiful "La Toussaint"--a tribute to Nov. 1, All Saints Day--was evocative and moving.
Preceding Riley was one of the few female voices in zydeco, Rosie Ledet. The 26-year-old singer-accordionist from Church Point, La., writes her own material and has released three albums of peppy zydeco tunes and swampy blues, including last year's spicy "Zydeco Sensation."
On the plus side, Ledet offers an appealing stage presence that alternates between shy and sexy. Plus, her sensual, R & B-tinged voice soars on both sassy numbers ("I Believe in You," "Don't Have to Worry") and scathing tales of female liberation (the powerful and new "I'm a Woman").
But her five-piece band--called the Zydeco Playboys and featuring three generations of the Ledet family--often overpowers the star attraction. The constant motion of her frottoir (rub board) playing father-in-law, Lanice Ledet, proved to be more distracting than energizing, while lead guitarist Bobby Broussard's addiction to Eddie Van Halen-like riffing is in serious need of detox.
Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic opened Saturday's concert with a promising if uneven set of traditional zydeco. The 18-year-old Thierry, who hails from the Bay Area, demonstrated a deft hand on the triple-row squeeze box and connected on a pair of spirited kiss-off songs ("I'm on My Way," "Hey Julie.") But the mild-mannered youngster would do well to vary his predominant midtempo groove and to project more of himself on the audience.