Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cajun Cookin'

Back in the late Sixties when Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records was regularly traveling across the South, searching for old 78s and recording all the Americana/Roots musicians he could find, he was sometimes accompanied by documentary filmmaker Les Blank (Les's company soon called Flower Films). Chris would tape the artists performing in living rooms,
on front porches or wherever, and Les would follow the folks around, attempting to capture their lives on film in some scaled-down but essential way. And he succeeded; he assembled brilliant portraits of Lightnin' Hopkins (The Blues Accordin' to...), songster/sharecropper Mance Lipscomb (A Well-Spent Life), Zydeco star Clifton Chenier (Hot Pepper) and others.

I got to know Les somehow, and we stayed at each other's houses occasionally. Once I had stomach flu and a serious fever, holed up at his place in L.A. for several days while still trying to peddle my screenplay on Robert Johnson; a year later, Les drank a beer too many and fell asleep on my living room couch with a lighted cigarette in his hand, burning a serious black scar in my first wife's favorite antique table. Blank was banned from the house after that--which I should have realized meant divorce was lurking in my future too!

During that time Les also made a maybe 20-minute picture--expanded later, I think--called Spend It All, which aimed to introduce Southwest Louisiana's then still-unknown, backwoods (but French Acadian derived) culture to the world. I remember a series of wacky scenes with roving bands of Cajuns on horseback riding out for some Christmas shenanigans, and also one crazed "coonass" with a major toothache who pulled out the offending molar himself using a pair of pliers! Les went on to do other documentaries on Cajuns over the years, but that's the one I always think of when I hear that distinctive music driven by squeezebox accordion, sawing fiddle and, yes, triangle.

I had that experience today playing the CD Evangeline Made in the car--released back in 2002 and Grammy-nominated later, but I'd not heard it before. Well, my new used copy sounds great! The album is subtitled "A Tribute to Cajun Music," and it's an attempt by the revered resident Savoys of Eunice, LA--author-historian Ann and musician-instrument maker Marc--to keep the flame (that would be "les flammes d'enfer") alive by teaching non-Cajuns to play the traditional songs and sounds. Willing participants range from ex-punk, ex-glam star David Johansen (kinda like a post-Katrina crawfish washed outta his bayou), and Nick Lowe-and-getting-lower for "Arrette pas la Musique," through famed singer Linda Ronstadt harmonizing neatly with Ann Savoy twice, and skittish folk star Linda Thompson in her contrary contralto mode (but still compelling), to a handful of major performers whose cuts are way beyond adequate.

Houston-born country star Rodney Crowell does a sort of Western Swung version of "Blues de Bosco" full of whoops and hollers and good times, while authenticity-driven rocker John Fogerty channels fiddler Doug Kershaw to deliver an amped-up, tres-hot Cajun stomp, cher, hauling "Diggy Liggy Lo" off to a Clearwater swamp. Country-rock songbird Maria McKee sings a sweet rewrite of Harry Choates's "Jolie Blonde" (titled "Ma Blonde Est Partie" here) and an even sweeter lullaby, "Tout un Beau Soir en me Promenant," chosen to close the album with crickets and a twilight tune. Alt.folkish Patty Griffin chirps une vraie beaute called "Pa Janvier, Laisse Moi m'en Aller," and Prince of Folk/Rock/Twanging Chinese Outer-Space Guitar, Richard Thompson (a regular pal of the Savoys), shows up twice, adding lead to one of the Ronstadt-Savoy duets, then picking his way--one-man way, at that--through the Cajun standard I mentioned earlier, "Les Flammes d'Enfer."

Aside from his nimble fingers, Richard's solo show stands out because every other track, whether with guest vocalist or instruments only, boasts backing by changing combos drawn from the Savoy-Doucet Band (with Marc's accordion work both jaw-dropping and beautiful), slide-maitre Sonny Landreth, special guests Steve Riley and Jimmy Breaux, and such Southwestern parish names as Balfa, Broussard, Gaspard, Vidrine... In other words, calmez-toi, ma jolie, you're in good gar-catching, rice-farming, coon-hunting hands. This fractious-French tribute is really a Cajun all-star cookout, fish fry, and fais-do-do. Allons au bal!

Meanwhile, for contrast I'd like to call attention to one of the most ruckus-raisin' remarkable LPs ever issued, one which I've happily held onto since the late Eighties--a sort of balls-to-the-wall, and that wall busting wide open, cross between traditional Cajun and punk-metal rock. If you can imagine the wild Irish band The Pogues as Cajun punksters instead (but, hey, one Pogues song sparks up a family-car commercial these days!), then you're half-way to grasping the sound of the group and album called Mamou, on Jungle Records out of Austin.

This is a concept LP, really, and the concept is to start out with a "Jolie Blonde" that soon explodes into speed metal, and eventually end the album in strictly traditional mode, with triangle ringing, horse hooves clopping, and a fading-off tempo more transport than two-step... and in between to burn up the recording studio with a cadre of Cajun youngsters (led by slide/electric fuzz guitarist Steve LaFleur) free to take the music anywhere they choose, as rapidly and noisily as they choose. Fiddler Jonno Frishberg (he bellows a mean accordion too) and drum-crashing Joe Granger are on fire from first to last, while LaFleur shouts and moans and his guitar snarls and sizzles, sounding on "La Valse de Balfas," for example, like Jimi Hendrix drowning in Bayou Teche.

The band "plays" LaFleur originals, Dewey Balfa standards, and traditional tunes too, but they all sound alike--loud, fast, and proud of it--screaming "Hurricane, I hear you howling," chanting "Madame Bozo, don't shoot me," and moaning a surprisingly lovely "La Louisiane, jamais d'la vie." LaFleur fights off the fires of hell too, via his own four-times-faster version of "Les Flammes." And the album delivers a final one-two punch with "'Tit Galop a Mamou" (kissin' cousin to "Diggy Liggy Lo") and the six-minute, fuzztone folkrocker "La Danse de Mardi Gras," which starts stately, goes to speed-warped, then finally slows, reverts to traditional accordion sounds and effects, and drifts off into the night... Whew!

Don't play this at home. You might just be irrevocably altered, from Acadian sad and accordion cool to plain-crazy Cajun.

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