Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys – Grand Isle – 40:03 *****:
(Steve Riley – Cajun accordion, vocals; David Greely – fiddle, vocals; Sam Broussard – guitar, vocals; Brazos Huval – bass; Kevin Dugas – drums, triangle; and many others)
Zydeco, a traditional colorful musical idiom, is a working function of American culture. Based in Louisiana, it draws upon the rich aesthetics of folk music, while integrating the boisterous rhythms of its Caribbean and Latin American roots. Woven into that alchemy are healthy doses of R & B, jazz and gospel. For New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the music can be a fragmented portrait of the unity and despair that is post-Katrina society. The inherent volatility of Louisiana custom expands the specter by embracing wildly divergent artists. Its vision unifies them in heartfelt lockstep, through the best and worst of times.
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, formed in 1988, have become a staple of Southern Louisianan music. Riley, from the town of Mamou, is widely regarded as a master of the accordion (single row diatonic). Bandmate David Greely is a premier fiddler with a keen knowledge of Cajun history. Together, they form the nucleus of a band that has transcended a genre with evolving harmonics. The addition of guitarist Sam Broussard in 2001 brought a talented instrumentalist and songwriter. With ten albums, this band has established a reputation as groundbreaking artists.
No one will ever accuse Riley and company of complacency. The self-released Grand Isle pushes the regional dialectic beyond thematic constraints. Twelve zesty tracks of modern and time-honored, glorious zydeco liven up this album. The context is as direct as the oil-covered bird on the front cover, and the harrowing words, April 20, 2010-4.9 million barrels, on the back. Louisiana is furious over the oil disaster, and will express outrage with incendiary music. Recorded in different studio locations, the band is able to explore a variety of styles.. The opening song, “Danser Sans Comprendre/Dancing Without Understanding”, takes off with two step vitality. Greely’s violin and Riley’s accordion establish a rollicking groove, with Poco-like vocals. Swamp funk master, Quintron, brings his edgy psychedelic grooves to “Chatterbox”. With an unusual blend of drum buddy and altered Hammond B-3, this recounting of a funeral conjures a percussive, out of this world departure with distorted vocals and pulsating accordion riffs. Continuing the contemporary motif is “C’est L’Heure Pour Changer/This Is The Time For Change” an infectious ska-infused romp, coalesced with pattycake and 60s organ riffs. As with all of the songs, Riley’s reedy tenor voice embraces every nuance. Honky tonk permeates the title piece, as a pedal steel guitar and mandolin bring Saturday night attitude to a pleasant simmer.
For aficionados of pure Cajun music, there are slower waltzes (“Valse De Chagrin/Waltz Of Sorrow”, “Au Revoir”), that feature elegant violin and plaintive vocals. Two eclectic covers are transformative. Riley handles the emotional blitheness of Edith Piaf (which he found on an old recording) on “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien/No Regrets” with animated verve. The string section accents are intriguing against the slow, bluesy cadence of the dancehall ensemble. Rock and roll roots are exemplified by “Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better”, an obscure Fats Domino B-side. Jon Cleary offers lithe piano runs as homage.
This album is irresistible, full of exultant sounds and rhythms. The mixing handles both the sophistication and raw energy of present-day Louisiana. For anyone interested in the exotic world of cajun-zydeco, Grand Isle is a must.
[This album was recorded using a highly unusual retro technical approach. According to fiddler Greely, “We’re talking about using tape, playing thru tube equipment, singing into mics shaped like silver footballs…” The idea was evidently to get an “old” sound. I was told the album was mastered first to vinyl disc, and then that disc became the master for the CD release, but for some reason it is difficult to get any specifics on this very retro technique…Ed.]
TrackList: Danser Sans Comprendre/Dancing Without Understanding; Chatterbox; C’Est L’Heure Pour Changer/This Is The Time For Change; C’Est Ennuyant/It’s Lonely; Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien/No Regrets; Pierre; Valse De Chagrin/Waltz Of Shame; Grand Isle; Lyons Point; C’Est Trop/Too Much; Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better; Au Revoir
— Robbie Gerson