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Admittedly what most people remember from the movie The Big Easy is either the steamy love scene between Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin or Quaid's cockeyed Cajun accent. Louisianans from Thibodaux to Natchitoches howled at Quaid's mangling of the vernacular, especially the way he said "cher" (it's pronounced "sha" as in Shaquille). In Chicago, New York, and L.A., of course, they lauded him for sounding so authentic.
To their credit, big-city movie critics were as impressed with the film's soundtrack as they were with the heavy petting engaged in by its marquee stars. Roger Ebert alluded to "the authentic local Cajun music on the soundtrack," and even Leonard Maltin complimented the "terrific Cajun music score." Neither one actually broke down and used the word "zydeco," but at least their evaluation of the beat was more on the money than their analysis of Quaid's talent for mimicry.
What caught their ears was, in large measure, the work of young (nineteen at the time) Terrance Simien and his rollicking cohorts, the Mallet Playboys (named not for some mudbug-pulverizing bludgeon, but for Simien's hometown of Mallet, Louisiana). Simien co-wrote the movie's big love song, "Closer to You," with Quaid, and the band was featured in the dinner scene at Tipitina's where Quaid and Barkin get acquainted. Simien and the gang were supposed to provide a little background music, but ended up stealing the spotlight with their irrepressible washboard-and-accordion brew. Remember the guy leaping off the stage with the huge squeezebox strapped to his chest? That was our man Terrance. "I'd never seen a movie bein' shot before," Simien explains with a slow Cajun lilt. "Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman A they really helped me out a lot. Dennis and I wrote some songs together and hung out and Ellen had her agent negotiate my deal for the movie. But they kicked everybody out for the love scene."
The Playboys were even more raucous at their Stephen Talkhouse gig at the beginning of October, when their riotous gumbo threatened to bring down what was left of the hurricane-ravaged Talkhouse roof (long since repaired and heavily reinforced in anticipation of Simien's visit this week). Simien was glistening with perspiration after the first song; by the end of the Mallet Playboys' set everyone in the Talkhouse was sweating like tourists at a crawfish boil.
"Miami is beautiful," enthuses the nouveau-zydeco hitman, "nice and warm. Usually people get up and dance during
the first song, but it varies from place to place. In Miami, they start dancin' right away. Some of them, maybe they're embarrassed, waiting for two or three other couples to get up first so they won't be the only ones, but eventually they all get up."
Simien didn't start playing the accordion until he was fifteen, about the same time he began to outgrow his distaste for zydeco, which many in his peer group considered to be old folks' music. "It [zydeco] was all around when I was growing up," Simien says. "My friends and I were going to a lot of record hops, mostly soul and R&B music. Then one day my daddy took me to a zydeco gig at Slim's Y Ki-Ki in Opelousas, and we had more fun there than at any record hop."
Three years later he was good enough to sit in with the master, Clifton Chenier, who is widely acknowledged as the man who first threw traditional Cajun music and blues into a cauldron and cooked up a potful of zydeco. Ironically, zydeco purists occasionally fault Simien for embracing diverse styles such as rock and reggae, and integrating them into his music. Indeed, his 1990 release, Zydeco on the Bayou, included a cover of Peter Tosh's "Stop That Train," and his new album, already recorded and slated for release in May, includes both a Dylan cover and a reggae tune that Simien penned with former Neville Brothers' bassist Darryl Johnson (now touring with Daniel Lanois, one of whose tunes is also covered on the new album).
"I wrote the reggae song," Simien explains, "called 'Come Back Home,' about my wife and my baby girl. It's going to be an album with universal appeal A home, party, church. But don't worry, there'll be plenty of zydeco."
When the rogues at the Talkhouse decided to throw a Fat Tuesday extravaganza to benefit Camillus House, featuring Cajun cuisine and decorative Mardi Gras floats and trinkets, they scored a major coup by landing Simien (a Mardi Gras staple in New Orleans) to provide the tunes. "To tell you the truth," admits the dancing squeezebox wildman sheepishly, "We kind of wanted to get out of New Orleans this year. We do better on the road during Mardi Gras."
Simien and the Mallet Playboys will be featured in an upcoming Lonesome Pine Special on PBS, and will be reprising their Fat Tuesday performance all weekend at the Talkhouse. Simien allows as to how he's got a few surprises in store for Miami audiences, but offers no clue as to what they might be.
"You just tell them we comin' back," he requests.
Consider it done.
Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys perform at various times Friday through Sunday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $10.