Friday, May 31, 2013

My Favorite Things - Creole Crossroads

One of the great things about going to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is that you are invariably drawn to new styles of music.  For my first Jazz Fest in 1987, I was starting to enjoy the blues, but was also familiar with New Orleans-based R&B.  Naturally, these were the type of acts that I gravitated to on that trip, but while roaming from stage to stage, I was lucky enough to hear some great jazz (from Alvin "Red" Tyler, the great Crescent City sax man) and some outstanding gospel (some of the finest singers you'll ever hear sing gospel music in New Orleans), in addition to some wonderful New Orleans blues/R&B (from the great Earl King, backed by the Roomful of Blues horn section), and, of course, the blues (courtesy of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Robert Cray).

Boozoo Chavis
What I was not prepared for, in the least, were the various Cajun and Zydeco bands that were also playing that day.  I don't remember the name of the Cajun band that was playing, but the legendary Boozoo Chavis was laying down some of the grooviest Zydeco music I'd ever heard.  Up until then, my only real experience with Zydeco had been Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot Toot," which had been a hit a few years earlier, and had spawned several country and R&B versions, nearly to the point of oversaturation.  While that was a fun tune in itself, Boozoo Chavis was a totally different animal.  His music was pretty basic and simple, but it made you shake your tail feathers.

It also inspired me to hear more, but as you could probably imagine at the time, east central Mississippi wasn't exactly overrun with music stores carrying this style of music.  Most record stores had a couple of rows of blues recordings and that was it, so for several years, my Zydeco experience was pretty much limited to what I heard each year at Jazz Fest, plus a set from Buckwheat Zydeco, who opened for Eric Clapton during Slowhand's 1989 American tour.

Fortunately, relief came in the form of Walmart (where America shops).  My local Walmart, probably due to the surge in popularity of the music (it was starting to show up on commercials, various movies, and even on some mainstream pop recordings by people like Paul Simon), received a shipment of cassettes of Cajun and Zydeco music, and ended up with a nice, varied selection.  I was able to hear a lot of great music from artists like Boozoo Chavis, Clifton Chenier (the King of Zydeco), Lynn August, BeauSoleil, Zachary Richard, and a group called Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.  I think I was probably the only person that ever even bought any of those tapes, but buy them I did.

Nathan Williams
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas were my favorites.  While they were heavily influenced by Chenier's blues-based brand of Zydeco, they were also comfortable mixing funk, R&B, and even Caribbean rhythms into their sound....something that Chenier also did, but frontman Nathan Williams was poised to carry Chenier's sound forward to the next generation.  His recordings were just a lot of fun and guaranteed to get you on your feet.  Williams'  band was a family affair, with his brother, Dennis Paul Williams, playing guitar, and cousin Mark Williams playing rubboard.

Michael Doucet
The main differences between Zydeco and Cajun music is that Cajun music incorporates the fiddle a lot more and sometimes has more of a country feel than Zydeco, which also uses rubboard, electric guitars, and the occasional horn section.  That being said, the music styles mesh together pretty well, so when I found out about a joint venture between Williams and Beausoleil's frontman, fiddle player Michael Doucet, in the mid 90's, I got pretty excited.

Creole Crossroads is a lot of fun, even if you're not into Zydeco and Cajun music.  You can't help but like it.  The toe-tapping is contagious from the opening track,  The band and Doucet didn't even play together until the day they started recording, but obviously they shared a musical bond.  The lively opening cut, "Zydeco Hog," was written by Williams, and is a Creole cousin to Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," with Williams declaring his love and devotion to his music.  "Festival Zydeco" is a similar tune, singing the praises of the music and the culture surrounding it, and "Alligator" is a fun song full of wise sayings ("A lot of money will make you lazy").

One thing that Williams and Doucet found that they had in common was an affinity for the music of Clifton Chenier.  There are three Chenier tunes on Creole Crossroads ("Black Gal," "Hard To Love Someone," and a medley of "Black Snake Blues" and "I Can't Go Home").  There's also a lovely tribute to Chenier, penned by Doucet ("La Nuit De Clifton Chenier").  Williams received guidance on playing the accordion from Buckwheat Zydeco, who once played in Chenier's band.  With the Chenier tunes, you can definitely get the blues feel in the music....a lot of Chenier's tunes were adaptations of blues tunes.  If you're a fan of Guitar Slim, you will probably recognize "Hard To Love Someone," from one of Slim's Atco releases.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas play a couple of songs without Doucet, the Z.Z. Hill soul/blues tune, "Everybody's Got To Cry," and a funky take on the traditional blues, "I Wanna Be Your Chauffeur."  Williams and Doucet also face off on a couple of acoustic duets, "Hey Yie Yie" and "Ma Femme Nancy," Williams' love song to his wife based on the melody of the  old tune, "Eunice Two Step."  Closing the disc is "Jolie Noir," a reworking of the old Zydeco hit, "Jolie Blonde," with Williams' brother, Sid Williams (owner of the legendary club, El Sid O's, in Lafayette), strapping on the accordion and stepping behind the mic.

Creole Crossroads is one of my all-time favorites. For newcomers to Zydeco music, it's a perfect introduction to the genre.  For longtime fans, it's a great opportunity to check out two of Louisiana's finest musicians working together with an almost telepathic rapport.  I certainly hope that the two of them can join forces again one day.  I'll certainly be listening.

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