Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Blackened Fish... and Beaches, and Birds

Louisiana, you're on my mind... Jesse Winchester might well have sung that when instead he sang "Mississippi."

Consider this confluence of circumstance and events:

(1) The first anniversary of the B.P. oil spill disaster, started April 20 a year ago: nearly 5 million barrels released, and clean-up of the damaged Gulf Coast environment still a long way from finished.

(2) Good friends Susan and Kim just back from a long weekend in New Orleans, enjoying the popular, but less madhouse, French Quarter Festival. (She gets to the Crescent City occasionally on foundation business, while he's spent some time there helping with the Habitat for Humanity rebuilding effort, not to mention staunchly attending NOLA's post-Katrina music fests.)
3) Our son Mike getting married early in May, the ceremony to occur up in the northwestern corner of Louisiana, in Shreveport. We're flying-in a few days early and so will have time to drive south to the prairies and bayous, the small towns and lively music spots, of Cajun country--my first time back since the early Fifties.

(4) That trip plan prodded me into a spending spree buying every used or new CD of Cajun and Zydeco music I could track down, to learn as much as I could in a short period of time. (And thus the extra credit-card debt that persuaded me to sell the Elvis Sun 78 mentioned in two recent posts; I got a few hundred for Elvis but thousands of dollars worth of enjoyment--with more ahead--from the CDs, whether white French Acadien or Zydeco by Creole gens de couleur.)

(5) And if I hadn't done all the listening and learning, by means of discs from the Twenties right on into the twenty-first century, I wouldn't have heard the surprising and distinct albums (dating from 2008, 2010, and 2009, respectively) by Michael Doucet, Steve Riley, and Zachary Richard--veteran Cajun Music superstars all three. Nor would I have been thinking again of a certain later-Fifties, not-really-Easy Listening album--more a light Jazz suite, in fact--that haunts me now and then...

But let's save that till later, while we galop across the Mamou prairie, our horses headed for Eunice, or drift down some Atchafalaya tributary in a 'gator-proof pirogue. (Sometimes even in the Louisiana backcountry life is good.) But the terrible experience of Katrina and the big oil spill, and the horrific aftermath of both, seem to have set the tone and subject matter of two and maybe all three of the recent CDs, all of them beautifully introspective and less upbeat than usual. So: music less for lively dancing than for pondering and dreaming and looking back, finding a hard-earned equilibrium rather than the fais do-do and joie de vie (approximate Cajun French spelling).

Doucet and Richard are cousins and got their start in music back in the late Sixties, Michael taking his fiddle straight into Rock (a short-lived but seminal band called Coteau), influenced by It's a Beautiful Day and the Grateful Dead, while Zachary gravitated to the traditional, learning accordeon Acadien. But in the early Seventies things changed radically. Doucet went to France for six months, was swamped (so to speak) by fans of Cajun music, and returned ready to devote his playing, indeed his life, to the sounds of early fiddle-driven Cajun; he apprenticed with famous players like Dewey Balfa, Lionel LeLieux, and Dennis McGee, plus the Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot. By the Mid-Eighties he was leading the hugely influential modern Cajun group called BeauSoleil, with hints of Jazz, Classical, Blues, Zydeco, and much more tossed into that "sunny" gumbo.

Meanwhile, Richard moved to Quebec and built a very successful international career--in France and French Canada as well as Cajun Louisiana, with several albums released on A&M in the States--Richard offering Cajun-spiced, French-speaking rock 'n' roll, the lyric content sometimes quite political, but playing less and less of his Acadian squeezebox. In fact his 2009 album, Last Kiss, is a moody ballads set with nary an accordion within hearing! The opening track is a lovely mid-tempo number called "Danse," with sweet nostalgia and moonlight on the bayou, but it sounds like something arranged for the Dixie Chicks--and that's not meant as a slur, just a musical definition. Lots of guitars and mandolins and some strings strings too, if you catch my drift, but no sawblade fiddle. Still, this is a gorgeous set with Zachary delivering his dozen originals like a Jackson Browne with a gruffer, more soulful voice, even convincing gospel power on Richard's own "The Levee Broke," worthy of standing beside Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927."

But enough with the comparative name-dropping; Richard is a major force because he writes, sings, plays, and commands respect. Among other gems here are "Give My Heart," which also evokes watery doom, but is an interracial love song; the sad hopelessness of "Sweet Daniel," which seems to be about a gay draftee escaping in his mind by sniffing cocaine (wow!); the chiming power ballad "Come to Me"; and the final number... I ignored the change earlier; the twelfth song is actually Robbie Robertson's grand histoire titled "Acadian Driftwood," nicely reworked here, Richard joined by--are you ready for it?--Celine Dion for a fine "gypsy tail wind" of character instead of a titanic duet. The song--the album--ends with Richard and Dion shouting across each other, echoing and calling out, again and again, "J'arrive, Acadie./ J'ai le mal du pays."

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys aren't experiencing mal du pays (sort of "homesickness"); they're another kind of sick--sad and p.o.'ed--and the Grand Isle cover image gets right to it. Whatever that blackened bird, outsiders have befouled--coated in oil and destroyed--whole portions of the Pelican State. The opener ("Dancing without Understanding") begins as a dirge then turns to snarly rock 'n' roll, heading straight into the punk anger of "Chatterbox" (both Eunice club and shallow girl). Things settle down for the chant chorus number "This Is the Time for Change," Riley's anger now understated and direct, followed by a ballad ("It's Lonely") and then... wait for it... Edith Piaf's signature number "Non, je ne regrette rien" in a strings-and-squeezebox arrangement. Next comes "Pierre," a rhythmic Creole number more Mamou-metal-band than Mamou Playboys.

And then a return to the real Cajun music sound for the lovely "Valse de chagrin" and the country-rockin' title track--but with lyrics alluding to the terrible destruction of that once-idyllic island--plus actual Cajun triangle and serious squeezebox driving Riley's happier-times original "Lyon's Point" (a classic in the making, I'd say). Steve and the 'Boys finally unleash the full arsenal (hmm, strange expression) for "C'est trop/Too Much," Cajun players rocking harder and harder, Cajun spice burning blacker and blacker...

And that's the climax of Grand Isle. The last two leftover numbers actually leave the album sounding worn down and unsettled. One's final impression is this: Louisiana may be hardhit, knocked to the canvas, but is getting up again, back on its feet and looking for another fight... or a fais do-do.

Michael Doucet is one of the supreme Cajun musicians far and away (and also close to home, lazing in Lafayette). His mastery of the fiddle, likely the violin too, is definite and irrefutable, playing like that Johnny (and the Devil himself maybe) from Charlie Daniel's famous song. Doucet seems not just to master whatever sort of music he chooses, whether from the U.S. or around the world, but to imbue all with excitement and his adventurous spirit, often creating structural innovations on the fly. To hear accordionist Marc Savoy calling out, urging "Mike" on and on when the Savoy-Doucet Band gets to steamrolling, is to experience tenfold the heated, high-stepping, happy soul of Cajun country and culture. However... Michael might should leave the vocalizing to others. He has the high-pitched Cajun yelp down pretty good, but otherwise... let him focus on that fiddle.

As some Soul singer put it, "First cut is the deepest"--and the opener on Doucet's album makes a philosophical statement, I guess ("Ev'ry thang gone be fonk-y, from now on"), maybe subtly acknowedging some of his state's problems, but Michael attempting to channel Allen Toussaint is excruciating. Is he paying hommage to Toussaint, or mocking him? Is he stating a strange blueprint for the future (album title: From Now On), or dredging up the minstrel show past?

Doucet is too proud a player and too decent and learned a man to be truly stuck in the muck, but a listener is much relieved when the rest of the album gets musically serious and splendidly varied, reeling and unreeling like a career resume--recalling the past, releasing the present, revealing the likely future of Cajun stylings in music. Traditional numbers ("Le Two-Step de Basile," "Contredanse de Mamou"), Jazz standards ("Saint Louis Blues," "New Orleans"), Gospel/Blues cuts ("A Closer Walk with Thee," "You Gotta Move"), Doucet originals ("L'Amour ou la Folie," "Brasse la Gombo Vite," and, yes, "Fonky Bayou"), they're all saw-fiddlated and finely Douceted. (And to discover Mike really getting funky, just track down the sessions where he provides smokin' fiddle for Zydeco great Nathan Williams.)

So... now for the lagniappe. Among the so-called Mood albums recorded by composer/conductor Paul Weston and his Hollywood orchestra, one misfit standout from 1957 or so was Columbia CL 977, titled Crescent City: The Moods of New Orleans, but really a 35-minute suite for Jazz players, percussion, and strings-boosted full orchestra. Weston (husband to singer Jo Stafford) wrote three-quarters of the suite's individual pieces and arranged traditional numbers to complete his portrait of the old New Orleans... which just barely exists now, a half century later. "Vieux Carre," "Riverside Blues," "Storyville,"
"Bayou St. Jean," and "Esplanade at Sunset" are some of his individual impressions, and he adapted "High Society," "Creole Songs and Dances," and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." (And drifting through many of the pieces, his yearning "Crescent City" theme.)

French-sounding tunes, Blues and Gospel, Louis Armstrong-styled traditional Jazz, Creole dances, Mardi Gras marching, haunting melodies that play more like embedded memories, history and the social mores of NOLA, they're all a part of Weston's lively and lovely, spirited and spiritual Crescent City, and the suite as a whole is certainly worthy of a documentary or feature film utilizing it. In fact, Weston and his orchestra gave a live concert or two around New Orleans performing the whole composition; and I imagine some of his regular Jazz guys (including Eddie Miller, Ted Nash, Matty Matlock, Dick Cathcart, Barney Kessel, and Paul Smith) were involved.

About the only local music neglected (so near yet so far) was of course the odd sounds of the Acadiens--loud and exciting, mixing Western Swing, country, and a hint of Blues, French folk fiddle and German-polka accordion. In the mid-Fifties that region was both isolated and ignored, the French language banned, Cajun "culture" a source of jokes, the people treated like second-class citizens (sound familiar?).

It took another decade and more for other parts of the nation to learn about and come to appreciate Cajun music and spices and spirit. But that change made it possible for young men like Doucet and Richard and Riley to hold their heads high, to wonder about their heritage and then become musicians preserving and advancing it.

Meanwhile Weston's career continued. The New Orleans album eventually went out of print and did not make it to CD until Paul or Jo or the estate reclaimed the copyright and issued it with a slightly changed name and a boring cover shot of a cathedral. That was a mistake. The original cover shot seemed as mysterious and perhaps dangerous as the city. It displayed a distant aerial view of inner New Orleans ostensibly at sunset, showing the sweeping curves of the river and a major bridge in the early stages of construction.

The only problem was, the picture was so dark, with an eerie orange glow layered between the roiling gray-black clouds above and the unlit wards and districts below, that you might also see a deadly storm building, a hurricane or tornedo about to strike, the Wrath of God about to descend on the Crescent City.

Weston's album--tribute, memorial, cautionary tale--was just 50 years too soon.


Steve Provizer said...

A terrific take on the music...I'm going back to Jazzfest next week for the first time in 15 years (the size of the crowds got to me).

The last time I went, I wrote a story for the C.S.Monitor about a guy named Walter Polite (Po-leet). Walter was a laborer who sometimes played in local joints. I sought him out and, with his grandkids running in and out of the house, he sat on the porch, played accordion and sang for me for a couple of hours-just cause he loved the music.

I Witness said...

A private concert on Mr. Polite's front porch? Excellent story and a perfect serendipitous moment. They're the ones we live for but don't always recognize when so blessed. My last trip to JazzFest was 1999, and crowds be damned, a fine time was had by every one. Enjoy all the music, plus some high life beyond your present imagining.