The Cajun-Zydeco Fest adds spice to June’s music lineup
4th June 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
The music schedule for this weekend’s free Cajun-Zydeco Festival (June 9 and June 10) got a big boost with the inclusion of some top-rated artists who’ve never before performed at the event. They include the warm, wonderful and funny, 80-year-old D.L. Menard, who’s been dubbed “the Hank Williams of Cajun Music,” the extremely popular Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie and C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band that carries on the tradition of C.J.’s father, the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier. These newcomers to the fest are among 21 acts that will appear on three stages located near the U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue.
“I’ve pretty much been MIA in New Orleans except for Jazz Fest,” says C.J. Chenier, 54, who was nominated for a Grammy this year for his solid CD, Can’t Sit Down, and makes his Cajun-Zydeco Fest debut on Saturday. The accordionist and vocalist notes that he used to play in the city regularly at spots like Tipitina’s, Audubon Zoo, Rock ‘n Bowl and Storyville. “Once a year – that’s terrible,” complains the hugely talented bandleader. Aware that Chenier spends a lot of time on the road and touring in Europe, many of his local fans had assumed that he was just too busy to make it down to New Orleans from his home in Houston, Texas.
“I’m always ready for New Orleans,” Chenier exclaims enthusiastically. “I’d rather drive three or four hours to New Orleans to perform than 16 hours to Chicago – that’s no joke.”
Vocally and instrumentally, Chenier is at the top of his game as demonstrated on his latest album as well as at his Jazz Fest set at the Fais Do-Do Stage where he stood flanked by images of his father Clifton and his uncle, rubboard wizard Cleveland Chenier. When he closes out Saturday’s edition of the Cajun-Zydeco Fest at the Esplanade (in the shade!) Stage (5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.), C.J. won’t be playing his father’s vintage accordion – Black Gal – as he did at Jazz Fest though his musical philosophy of offering a variety of styles will remain key.
“I’m not trying to satisfy one person,” C.J. says. “I’m tryin’ to catch as many as I can. I learned from my daddy and I didn’t learn to play one beat all night. Zydeco, blues, boogie and waltzes, that’s what makes a “la la” dance,” Chenier explains, adding that in the past people would say they were going to a la la or a French dance. Zydeco, he continues, used to describe the style of music when just an accordion, washboard and drums were used. “They took the word and adopted it to a whole dance,” he says with some evident regret..
Chenier is old-school, though first and foremost he’s a serious musician. “You know I’m a saxophone player,” says Chenier who switched to accordion before taking over the Red Hot Louisiana Band following his father’s death in 1987. He still picks up the horn and plays flute as well as piano and organ on the CD. “But there are so many things you can do with an accordion; it’s so versatile. Once you pick it up, it’s like you can’t do without playing it. It just took me over. You never stop learning.
“When you get an a accordion you’re not supposed to play a few riffs,” he continues. “You’re supposed to get on that sucker and go for it – improvise. That’s what I learned.”
Chenier praises the tone of his father’s old accordion with its keys yellowed with age saying that no other instrument he’s ever played had a sound quality quite like it has. “It’s an Italian accordion with what I call a ‘Frenchy’ sound — a wavy sound. Jazz Fest was only the second time I’ve used it since I got it refurbished. I played it once in Europe and now it’s pretty much back in retirement again. It’s old and fragile and I don’t want to tear it up.”
Since Chenier didn’t grow up with his father, he, like most people in the United States, only associated the accordion with Lawrence Welk, the polka-playing host of his own Sunday evening television program. C.J. didn’t have the opportunity to experience the instrument in the zydeco realm until he heard Clifton play it when he was older. Nonetheless, music was in his blood and he began blowing saxophone and playing piano when he was a child.
“What I always say is that whatever instrument you play, whatever you put into it, that’s what’s going to come out,” Chenier offers in reference to the accordion’s, well, nerdy image in this country. “You play polka, you’re going to get polka. If you play a blues, that’s what you’re going to get out of that thing. The accordion wasn’t popular because people weren’t hearing it in their (preferred stylistic) light.”
Chenier’s light, is the light of the la la dances from back in the day when waltzes had the dance halls swaying and zydeco got them jumpin’. When he stretches out on a blues like “Trouble In Mind” or Clifton’s mournful ballad “I’m Comin’ Home,” all of the accordion’s attributes are awakened beneath his inventive finger tips.
“I’m gonna show up with bells on and a whole bunch of boogie,” Chenier declares eagerly anticipating his return to New Orleans and debut at the Cajun-Zydeco Festival. “That’s what I’m comin’ with — boogie, blues and zydeco and a little bit of funk. I’m ready, willing and very able.”
The Cajun-Zydeco Festival, which is presented by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, boasts three stages of music. It will be held on June 9 and June 10 in conjunction with the French Market’s Creole Tomato Festival. For a full music line-up and further information go to www.jazzandheritage.org/cajun-zydeco.
This article was originally published in the June 4, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper