The music of southern Louisiana has been described in many ways, but "progressive" isn't a word you often see thrown in the direction of the myriad zydeco and Cajun bands that set the region's culture and mores to music that ranges from reeling to rocking, from swaying to smoldering. Of course there have been a few groups that have tried to incorporate eclectic (although mostly Anglo) influences into the framework of zydeco and Cajun, most with only marginal success. Beausoleil's hodgepodge of rock, blues, country, and soul stylings helps make their Cajun-based fusion interesting at times, but too often it comes off as mere marketing schtick. And poor Buckwheat Zydeco -- one of the few zydeco artists with a major-label contract -- has gone from being a journeyman in search of Clifton Chenier's ghost to a pandering crossover wannabe with neither focus nor direction. How else do you explain ill-conceived cover versions of Derek and the Dominos' "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad" and Dylan's "On a Night Like This"? (Live, however, Buckwheat remains a monster.)
But between the staunch traditionalism that defines southern Louisiana's indigenous music and the few slavering bids for mainstream appeal, there exists plenty of room in which to push the music forward without selling out its past glories. And no two artists do that better than Beau Jocque and Steve Riley, the leaders of the greatest Louisiana groups currently setting fire to festival and nightclub stages and the featured performers at this weekend's Cajun Zydeco Crawfish Festival in Fort Lauderdale.
Riley's Mamou Playboys are that rarest of Cajun aggregations -- they're both willing and able to inject into their music a massive shot of zydeco blues and Louisiana swamp pop. Their sound has evolved over the last seven years into something that brings together nearly every bayou-based style, and with their latest release -- La Toussaint, issued in 1995 on Rounder -- Riley & Co. have started writing their own material. And these aren't just novel variations on "Toot Toot" themes; the songs are infused with the remorse, pathos, joy, and jubilation that characterize the best Cajun music. There are songs of love and loss, heartache and bitter memory, with stunning musicianship all around (Riley is a master of the single-row, ten-button diatonic accordion, and fiddle player David Greely is simply amazing). But it's the title track that most firmly places the Playboys at the forefront of modern Cajun bands. A beautiful eulogy for Riley's grandmother, "La Toussaint" ends with words that define the key appeal of the music: "It's enough to be buried in these tombs/Dear children, don't bury us with noise and money/Get in tune, get in tune with us/Get in tune and play something we can dance to."
Beau Jocque's Zydeco Hi-Rollers are no less innovative than Riley's Mamou Playboys, but they work at the opposite end of the Louisiana spectrum, in the harder-edged, blues-soaked domain of zydeco. What separates the gravel-voiced Jocque and his group from so many other worthy combos (and really, is there such a thing as a truly bad zydeco group?) is their fierce and fervid passion for grooves -- big, long ones that build slowly over eight, ten, even twenty minutes, with Jocque's accordion riding high in the mix, pushing the drums, the bass, and the guitar into an orbit of rhythm so tight it would overwhelm even James Brown. And unlike Buckwheat Zydeco, Jocque's sometimes odd taste in covers usually works to his advantage (e.g., War's "Cisco Kid," from the '96 disc Gonna Take You Downtown).
Of the five albums released by the band -- like Riley, Jocque records for Rounder -- the best is Git It, Beau Jocque!, cut live during two white-hot Louisiana nights in Breaux Bridge and Opelousas. Even if you've never seen him live, the nearly eleven-minute workout on "Beau Jocque Boogie" should convince you that if there's a new king of zydeco, his name is Beau Jocque.
The fifth annual Crawfish Festival is going on Friday through Sunday, May 9 through 11, at Mills' Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale, 2201 Powerline Rd. See this week's "Calendar" on page 34 for more information.
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The new and supposedly improved Y&T Records will officially be open this weekend in South Miami at 7321 SW 59th Ct. In case you didn't know, the store -- owned for years by local music entrepreneur Richard Ulloa -- was sold in January to Chris Leluga (an entrepreneur himself; he's the guy who co-runs the Star Crunch label). Leluga bought the store in January, after Ulloa decided to focus his energies on his Y&T Music label and management company.
Leluga describes the store's new location as "an old schoolhouse-looking place painted orange and trimmed in purple and green and yellow, sort of like Pee-Wee's playhouse," and says he's hoping to focus on new and import vinyl releases, as well as compact discs and B-movie video rentals. "We're going to try to get more fringe elements, different kinds of music," he explains. "Punk, gothic, and newer dance music. It'll be more of a specialized store." He'll also have a mess of collectible toys for sale, and will be using the walls of the shop to showcase the works of local artists, including Terry Sigmund (who's sharing the space with Leluga).
To find out the particulars around this weekend's opening (Leluga was still working things out at press time), call the store at 666-6416. He promises, though, that it'll be this weekend.
-- By John Floyd