Sunday, August 27, 2006

Don't Call It Folk Music

Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys

I am married to a woman with very catholic tastes in music. Country Mouse's CD library encompasses everything from reggae to bluegrass, and unlike me she's less concerned at how sharp the lead guitarist looks in a skinny vintage three button suit than with if the music is danceable or the singing sublime. She does love her American music, though. In the past year she completed her personal country trifecta of seeing Dolly Parton, Allison Krauss, and the Dixie Chicks live. Since we've been together she's dragged me into Florida pickin' sheds, to the Lobster Festival to see the Neville Brothers (2003) and Beau Soleil (2005), to the National Folk Festival to see gospel shout brass bands, and to the Blue Hill Fair to see Charlie Daniels sing a song about lynching marijuana smokers. I have to admit that I have enjoyed every minute of it.

Tonight it was the turn of some old favorites of hers, the cajun and creole music of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys five minutes walk away on Main Street at the Strand Theatre. That in itself is a sign that she really loves her cajun music, as the Strand is the sworn blood enemy of the movie theater she runs, the Bayview Street Cinema up the road in Camden. CM first saw the Steve Riley in 1997 at a CD launch party in Eunice, Louisiana while she was in college and has the signed CD to prove it. (Personally I think she has a crush on the diminutive accordionist but I'm secure enough to not worry about her fantasies involving midget Cajun squeezebox pumpers.)

As with most concerts with the frozen chosen of Northern New England in attendance it took a while for the crowd to warm up and for the polite applause to be replaced by dancing and hollering. But when the ice melted, oh boy. What my Yankee neighbors lack in rhythm they make up for in enthusiasm. Watching a bunch of Mainers dance to cajun music is less like watching a carefree two-step and more like watching a series of coreographed muggings, and seeing some of the unatural stiff twists and turns suddenly made me realize why there are so many chiropractors around here. Still, they danced, which is more than could be said of me. The trouble is, whenever I'm at a traditional music performance I can't decide if I'm there as a rug-cutter or anthopologist. There's never enough booze at these things to make me frug. I think that's my problem.

No matter. The music was brilliant- not too many of the slow and meaningful songs and lots of frantic accordion playing numbers that had me gyrating in my seat. There was the obligatory sideways reference to the perfidious English and the expulsion of the Acadians from Northern Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick 250 years ago (yes, yes, we were evil bastards and if the French had won they would have done something similar like expelling all the English from Massachusetts to Newfoundland or Jamaica. Get over it: you got Chef Boyardee out the experience; we got fluffer nutter.) but no Katrina stuff which was a little odd. The Playboys are a tight unit, from the 12 year old bassist to Smiley Mulleteaux* the Bill Hicks lookalike drummer. Even though they seemed to be painting by numbers a bit (a reticent crowd will do that to you) once they realized that the polite applause was the Maine equivalent of rapturous cheering and wolf-whistles they stepped it up.

When the traditional goodnight-off we go-everyone shouts 'encore'-out we come again coda** rolled around it was obvious that the Playboys had been to Maine before as they barely waited 10 seconds before retaking the stage. When we saw Allison Krauss and Union Station in Augusta last year some of the crowd took them at their word when the band said goodnight and started to leave, which must have been embarrassing for the 20 time Grammy winner when she came back out for the standard a cappella number plus greatest hit plus stomping-extended-jam-send-off. The Playboys did the a cappella bit (ick) but redeemed themselves by giving their all on an extended Allons Danser that induced a fresh wave of physical jerks from the hoofers and mass clapping and grinning from the rest of us. There was even, dare I admit it, some singing along in French.

Weird to think that the culture of the Cajuns got its new world start not too far to the north of here in the crown of Maine in Acadie***. Weirder still to think that I made myself mushroom and onion ployes for breakfast without making the connection that I'd be at a Mamou Playboy's concert tonight. This country will trick you both with its diversity and its community connections every day if you aren't careful.

One last thought. I'm sort of glad that most of the Acadians escaped the northeast and wound up as Cajuns in Louisiana. Otherwise I fear given the climate and the innate puritanism of our region the phrase would have been "lassiez le bon temps arrete".

*Not his real name. That's Kevin Dugas. But he does smile a lot and he has a mullet.
Why do bands do that?
***Northern Acadian last names don't have the "x" on the end like Louisianans do. That's because many of the original Acadians were illiterate when they were deported back to French America and thus dictated their last names to the receiving officals and signed with an "x". Thus, "Thibodeau" from Maine became "Thibodeaux" in Louisiana.


RPS(X) said...

...and thus dictated their last names to the receiving officals and signed with an "x".


One day Broussard asked his friend Boudreaux if he would help his son, Tee Boy, take his donkey into town to get some seed potatoes for his fall planting. Boudreaux said, "Dat's a long way, yeah." Broussard said, "Mais, Boudreaux, that donkey is strong enough to carry both of you, if you want." So Boudreaux said, "It's a nice day for a walk. I t'ink I'll let Tee Boy ride," and they set off with Tee Boy on the donkey and Boudreaux walking.

As they walked along the bayou side, some tourists stopped to ask directions and they remarked to Boudreaux, "It's a shame for you to be walking when the boy is riding."

Boudreaux thought about it and decided they was right, so he and Tee Boy swapped places.

Later, they passed some Texas roughnecks working on an oil rig who yelled, "Look at that dumb Coonass making that kid walk." So Boudreaux told Tee Boy, "Mais, I guess we'd better both walk."

Soon they passed some big city folks having a picnic in the country. "Look at dem dumb Cajuns! They're walking when they've got a perfectly good donkey to ride on." So, both Boudreaux and Tee Boy decided to get on the donkey and ride together.

Now they passed the parish priest at Our Lady of Prompt Succor who said, "Shame on you, Boudreaux, for putting such a load on that poor donkey."

Boudreaux said, "Thank you, Father, I do believe you are right, yeah!"

So Boudreaux and Tee Boy lifted the donkey upon their shoulders and began to carry it into town. As they walked over the bridge crossing the bayou, they lost their grip on the animal and it fell into the river and drowned.

When Boudreaux told Broussard what happened later, Broussard said, "Mais, I could've have told you dat was going to happen!"

"How's dat?" Boudreaux asked.

"Wahl, my Papa always told me, 'If you try to please everyone, you might as well kiss yo' ass goodbye.'"

Weaselx said...

When the guitarist broke a sting half way through the show, Steve and boys regaled the crowd with "Boudreaux" jokes. Not that one though.

It occurs to me that you were at half of those musical experiences. And at Puffin Fest.

rps said...

Ah, memories. There at half of the events, unlike many of the attendees at the notorious, not-quite-Woodstock-level Puffin Fest, who were only half-there.

I, however, was proud to be the only person there present (as far as I can remember) on two levels, both on stage as a musician and in the trailer as a radio journalist.

Well, a sort-of musician. And as an interviewer, somewhat less effective (but much, much taller) than Terry Gross.

weasel said...

I forgot you actually performed! I just remember getting drunk, stealing Jefferson Starship's booze rider, and sleeping in my crappy Ford Probe until I sobered up enough to pass muster with the Hancock County Sheriff's Deputy parked at the fairground gate.

Boo and I drank Paul Kanter's tequilla for weeks afterwards. We even invented the "Jefferson Starship Frappe" in their honour: tequila, strawberry juice, orange juice, and crushed ice.

100%-american-redbone hound-dog said...

searching for a piece that I just posted to my blog the passing of an acquaintance mother, who was buried in Eunice La.....the piece I wrote was Eunice and Blue...and noticed someone..who you...had mentioned steve of the best, along with Zachery Richard, who I stole my e dress from, from an early album he did..with the gator is not folk willies is not country...they busted willie outside of lafayette, and in the process of writing a tribute entitled were you there when they draged willie from the bus, upon the banks of the Vermillion River....he exhaled when the officer requested, and let loose of a plume that would make an ancient volcano extinct, and would have killed a bayou teche gator at fifty yards, and the officer just grinned and asked willie to exhale late friend TeeRichard was from Duscon...Gatorbeat...turned many sonoma county souls onto cajun/zydeco....a coonass zen bastard....brilliant..brilliant...brilliant...