Thursday, October 18, 2007

Allons a Lafayette - Festivals Acadiens 2007

We headed to Lafayette Friday afternoon from New Orleans, via US-90, past miles and miles of cane fields. Our hotel was in a busy commercial area surrounded by chain restaurants and stores - not a particularly scenic location, but convenient to everything we wanted to do.
That seems to be the way in Lafayette, unless you plan early and book one of
the B&B's in the area. (Maison Mouton, the one we had stayed at in 2002, is
no longer in operation). We wanted to end up at the Blue Moon Saloon that
night, so we went to find it. What a cool place! This is a hostel / guest
house with live music just about every night. It would be a great place to stay if you
don't mind sharing a bathroom and being in the middle of all the action.
When we were there it was happy hour, just a few people chilling, having
beers at the bar, or sitting on the porch or around the lush back
garden/patio which is surrounded by tropical plants.

The stage is directly behind the guesthouse, (which has some windows that overlook it) facing the bar, covered by a tin roof. One of the most unique venues I've ever been in,
reminded me a little of the place in Luckenbach Texas. After a couple of
Shiner Bocks, we walked a few blocks downtown for some dinner at Don's
seafood, and then to the nearby pavillion for Downtown Alive, a weekly
concert series, which this weekend was the kickoff to the festival. When we
arrived Li'l Nate & the Zydeco Big Timers (son of Nathan "Zydeco Cha-Cha"
Williams) were on stage, playing high energy zydeco to an enthusiastic
crowd. One of the rubboard players was a little kid, maybe a younger
brother? We've enjoyed Nathan Williams Sr. plenty of times, I'm hoping we
will get to see Lil Nate up our way soon!

When we made our way back to the Blue Moon Saloon, les Traiteurs were
getting ready to take the stage. This is a rocking Cajun band that only
gets together occasionally when all the members, who are all involved in
other bands or projects, are in town. Les Traiteurs is Al Berard of the
Basin Brothers on fiddle, Errol Veret (formerly of Beausoleil) on accordion, bassist Gary Newman and guitarist Tony Latiolais, and Sonny Landreth on slide
guitar. I've usually only seen Sonny Landreth with his own band, where the
guitar is the focus; with Les Traiteurs, in a departure from his usual role,
he traded leads with the fiddle and accordion, on mostly familiar Cajun
songs, but in that same unique style of his. The gig was a benefit for the Dr.
Tommy Comeaux fund and the place was packed - there was barely room to
stand, let alone dance, so the indoor/outdoor setting was much appreciated
for taking a breather between bands. After the Traiteurs came the
BlueRunners, another band I have not seen much of. They were kind of bluesy, kind of
country/sourthern rock, and at times they sounded like North Miss Allstars,
but also did some straight-ahead Cajun and Zydeco, including some songs by Boozoo Chavis
and Clifton Chenier.

Goin’ Back to Big Mamou
After that night there was no way we were going to make it out to Café Des
in Breaux Bridge for the Zydeco breakfast at 8:30, but it had been a
while (15 years??!!) since we last visited Mamou, self-proclaimed "Cajun
Music Capitol”. So before heading to the festival, we decided to make the 1 hour drive out to Fred's Lounge, one of a string of small bars on Main Street, across from the
seemingly deserted Hotel Cazan (pictured on the cover of Steve Riley's first
album). Fred’s is a small brick building with a steel door which opens into a raucous Cajun jam and dance that only takes place on Saturday mornings from 9 am to 1 or 2 pm. As soon as you
enter, you are in the thick of it. This week, Sheryl Cormier (accordion
player) was there with her band, which included her husband Russell on
vocals, a young pedal steel guitar player, bassist, and drummer, and Gina
Forsyth, the fiddle player from Bruce Daigrepont's band. There is no stage
or dance floor - the band plays in a loosely roped off area in the the
center of the floor, surrounded by dancing, talking, smoking, drinking
patrons getting their weekend off to a good start. There are a few visitors
like us, but mostly everyone seems like regulars. It is hot outside,
but the air conditioner is blasting, and it is a good thing because the
place is packed. Behind the bar is Tante Sue de Mamou, widow of Fred Tate, the bar’s namesake. (They had owned the bar since the 1940’s but Fred died in 1992.The family sold the place in 1996 but Tante Sue has stayed on as manager. ) Tante Sue greets everyone who comes in, encouraging visitors to sign her guest book. She dances and swigs
out of a bottle of Cinnamon Schnapps (Hot Damn! is her slogan), offering the
bottle to band members and patrons. When she wants to hear a song she comes
out from behind the bar, holding her request in a sign above her head, and
after she bribes them with a few swigs from the Schnapps bottle, the band
accommodates her request for Pine Grove Blues.

This has been going on every Saturday for 60-plus years and is still broadcast on the radio. In one concession to modern times, it can be heard Saturday mornings over the internet on KVPI.
Around 12:30, we stepped out into the blinding sun and headed out of town.
When we got to Eunice, we passed by the KBON studios, which was blasting
Cajun music out at a deserted downtown street. Everyone must have been at
the Festivals Acadiens, which is where we headed next.

Festivals Acadiens

Festivals Acadiens is unlike most of the other music festivals I go to, in
that 100% of the music, food, and other features are local to the area.
About 2 dozen bands were on the schedule and I think all are based in
southwest Louisiana - mostly Cajun with a few Creole / Zydeco performers.
And that is just a sampling of the local talent available! Some of the
bands, like Beausoleil, are often on the road so they seem to relish the
chance to play in front of a hometown crowd, while others like Goldman
Thibodeaux, are more regional. The food is all from local restaurants and
civic organizations, with offerings such as boudin, cracklins, pork chop
sandwiches, fried softshell crab, shrimp or crawfish pasta, jambalaya, gumbo
and more.

It is a very relaxed atmosphere; the festival is free, held in Girard Park, at University of Lousiana Lafayette, so there is no gate and access is from all sides. Parking didn't seem to be a problem- we rolled in around 2:30 and got a spot a few blocks away. At that time Jeffrey
Broussard and the Creole Cowboys were rocking the main stage. We set up
chairs off to the side, in the shade, and caught the last 15 minutes or so,
then went in search of something to eat. I tried some Shrimp Penne and a
Fried Soft Shell crab sandwich which was pretty good. Needed some energy to
keep up with Feufollet, one of the fun-loving younger bands who was up next on the main stage.. Here's a video of them doing Flammes d'Enfer - check out the bass player, he's having
such a great time!

The next two bands were two more young Cajun bands, Bonsoir Catin - the
mostly all-girl Cajun band with Kristy Guillory on accordion and vocals -
she really belts out some of the old standards, followed by the Pineleaf Boys . Each year the festival honors an artist or group, and this year 's festival was dedicated to Mark and Ann Savoy, who were pictured on a large painting overlooking the main stage. When their son Wilson appeared that day with the Pineleaf Boys, it emphasized the multi-generational, traditional feeling of the festival, as musical traditions are preserved and enhanced at the same time. They were recording a live album, I think, so they were really on fire.

We left a little early, skipping Geno Delafose's performance on the
Heritage stage, because we were planning to go see him later at Grant Street Dancehall,
but then got hopelessly lost trying to find the place after dinner at
Prejeans. Grant Street is not all that hard to find if you know where it is (downtown near the train station), as we found out the next morning when we went on a recon mission to find it in the daytime.

Back at the festival on Sunday we ran into tons of people from New England,
some we knew already, and others we just met for the first time in
Lafayette - small world! So many of us New Englanders have grown to love
Cajun music from all those years at Escoheag and Ninigret.

On the main stage, I enjoyed hearing Goldman Thibodeaux, who was on early with his band the Lawtell Playboys, playing old-style Creole dance music; the rubboard player, "Zydeco Joe" was fun to watch. One thing I like about the Lafayette festival is that the people dance right in front of the stage, instead of on the sidelines. No dance floor necessary. It gets dusty but it’s so much fun to do and to watch. There are no rules, nobody telling you to sit down. Those that want to sit back and watch, or talk , stay on the sides, and when they want to get a closer look, or dance,
they jump into the fray. There are people of all ages - some families with
young kids, grandmas, college students, and travelling fest nuts like us.

Another cool thing about this festival is the continuous jam tent. When I
stopped by, Sheryl Cormier was jamming on accordion with several fiddles,
guitars, a few other accordions, triangles, etc...a mix of professionals and
amateurs, some people just stay there and jam all day. Speaking of
jamming, everywhere I turned on Sunday it seemed like Michael Doucet was on stage
with someone. Here with Jimmy Breaux and friends (including Waylon
Thibodeau), there with the Savoy Family Band (this year's festival honorees),
and of course with Beausoleil.

After watching some of Steve Riley, as he closed out the main stage joined
by Christine Balfa on triangle, we left a little early in order to make it
over to Grant Street, where the evening's show was scheduled to
start around 6:45 - a double bill with Bruce Daigrepont and the Creole
Cowboys, plus Cedric Watson of the Pineleaf Boys, and free jambalaya too.
Bruce is one of our favorite Cajun musicians - he does some of the old
classics, but also writes a lot of his own songs, and has a great voice and
energetic accordion style. He seldom comes up our way so we were glad to
see him. After a while, Cedric joined Gina Forsyth for some fine fiddle
harmonies. The band played for almost 2 hours, and are just as good as
ever. There wasn't a huge crowd, being Sunday night, post festival…but it
was really enjoyable, dancing in that large, smooth air conditioned space.

We were also glad to see Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, since we
missed some of their set at the festival. He is a great accordion player,
does a lot of Boozoo Chavis material, only more hard driving, and with the
amazing Classie Ballou on bass they really keeps the groove going. Cedric
jammed with them too, first on fiddle, then he and Jeffrey switched
instruments like the Pine Leaf Boys.

Even though we heard some of the same songs over and over, at the festival, in the dance hall, and on the radio, I never tired of it - that Cajun beat just gets into your soul and won't let go. Cajun and Zydeco bands play at Northeast festivals and other venues fairly often, but
if you like that type of music as much as we do, Lafayette and Festivals
Acadiens is the place to go. And if you can’t wait for Festivals Acadiens, there always seems to some festival going on in Louisiana – this weekend is the Rice Festival in Crowley. In a couple of weeks in New Orleans is the Swamp Festival, which is a two day festival of mostly Cajun and Zydeco bands at Audobon Zoo, and in Lafayette is the Black Pot festival at the Acadian Village. We picked up information in the Lafayette visitors center on hundreds of other festivals – Swine festival, Cracklin festival, Yambilee Festival, and countless others …. There’s at least one almost every weekend and most have great music and delicious food, the essence of festive living!

Though the focus of this trip to Louisiana was to visit Lafayette for Festivals Acadiens, we flew into and out of New Orleans, and spent a day before and after the festival visiting with friends there and just enjoying the city without the craziness of Jazzfest. On Thursday we met up with our hosts Jenn and Dave and a few other friends at Snug Harbor, where they were having a CD release party for Shamarr Allen. Shamarr is a young trumpet player who we have seen and heard at Jazzfest and other gigs in New Orleans with the Rebirth Brass Band, and Bob French’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band. This year his funk band, the Underdawgs, was probably the freshest act at the “patry” that takes place on the days between Jazzfest weekends in New Orleans. The CD is mostly traditional jazz with some originals. "Meet me on Frenchmen Street", the title tune, is all about the music and party atmosphere there (yes everyone thinks of Bourbon Street when they think of New Orleans, but many of the good music clubs are on Frenchmen). There are several special guests on the CD, and some of them sat in on the gig, including Irvin Mayfield, Bob French, Paul Sanchez, Ellen Smith. Kermit Ruffins, who sings some of the title track on the CD, was in the house too, but Shamarr’s young son & friend sang that song with him on stage. Besides being a talented musician and just genuinely sweet person, Shamarr runs a music clinic for youths in New Orleans. We and many of our friends are supporting their efforts with an initiative called Fest4Kids, which will be funding a group of kids participating in the music clinics to attend Jazzfest 2008, and possibly helping to sponsor one of the music clinics. You can read more about that program here, and here.

Monday we returned to New Orleans and went back to Frenchmen street for Bob French’s regular gig at dba. Shamarr, Steven (the trombone player from Thursday) and several guests played that night, including blues guitarist Little Freddy King. Bob is a drummer, and also a DJ on WWOZ; and his live show was similar to his radio show, where he plays music and holds court with a steady stream of guests from around New Orleans, who are often subject to some friendly ribbing between songs.

We returned home Tuesday and right back to work…and then Friday were treated to a visit from Beausoleil at the intimate Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, where we had a chance to dance and visit with the band we had just seen in a completely different atmosphere down in Lafayette. That was followed by a casual Saturday afternoon gig from our local Cajun band, Magnolia….so we could keep that Cajun Groove going a little longer… thus it took a while to get the blog updated this time. The rest of my pictures and some video from the trip to Louisiana can be seen here. Until next time, Allons danser!

More pictures:

NOLA & Festivals Acadiens 2007

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