Thursday, October 06, 2011


The first time I saw Clifton Chenier play was at Antone’s blues club in Austin, TX in 1975, back when it used to be down on Sixth Street, back in the ‘cosmic cowboy’ days, back when a plate of BBQ out on Burnside Road would set you back a cool $3, more than the minimum wage btw.  It was a revelation, though, the zydeco music, that is, named after the lowly snap bean, staple food ‘down there’.  This was something neither country nor blues, but somehow somewhere in the middle, with a detour through N’awlins, where it picked up a whiff of the French and a flair for funk.  Still it was something completely different, closest in genre to the Cajun music of the era, but not really, not exactly.  Something entirely new had been born, and this was the man who’d midwifed it, the Bob Marley, the Chuck Berry, the Leadbelly of zydeco.  It was being refined and defined and expanded and expounded while I sat there watching and listening.  The only question was: What next? 

When Clifton died in 1987, would zydeco die with it, like so many other sub-genres?  Enter C. J. Chenier, hot on the heels of his father’s success, even taking over his father’s band upon his death, and automatically inheriting much of his success.  But that was the ‘90’s; what about now?  Fast-forward to the present and much water has passed under the bridge, the old Mississippi River Bridge at Vicksburg.  Zydeco’s changed, with Clifton long gone, and a succession of pretenders to his throne having already given their best, a list with names as illustrious as their music- Buckwheat, Queen Ida, Rockin’s Sidney and Dopsie, and many others, not just in southwest Louisiana, but also on the West Coast and even in Europe.  And of course, the recording industry has undergone a near-collapse, leaving live performance the only constant in a rapidly-changing music scene.  But the best news of all is that C. J. Chenier has gone back into the studio and done an entirely new album in one swift session.

C. J. Chenier’s new album is called ‘Can’t Sit Down’, and while it may not be the “second coming” of zydeco, it’s pretty darn good.  Of course, the ‘boogie factor’ is primary, and that’s present in full force, but there’s more than that.  Lately zydeco has become more and more a close cousin to Tex-Mex, not surprising considering their geographic proximity in southeast Texas, and their mutual love of that German import for all things polkaic, the accordion.  This album changes all that, moving it back toward its original blues roots.  This album starts out with the title song, a rockin’ number by long gone daddy Clifton, complete with killer guitar solo, the signature style for modern blues-rock, and waving a flag for what’s to come.  ‘Baby Please Don't Go’ by Joe Williams is nothing but wailin’ gutter blues, accordion taking the parts normally assigned to guitar.  Then things get really interesting, the reason I wanted to listen to this album in the first place- ready for this?  How about ‘Clap Hands’ by Tom Waits?  Now I’m not a TW freak, but I do like this song a lot, so anxiously awaited a listen.  Expecting something approximating Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, I was disappointed at first, but upon re-listen… no, CJ got it right, nailing it with a 20 oz. claw hammer.

At clean-up position in the lineup, ‘Ridin' With Uncle Cleveland’ is probably CJ’s best self-penned song on the collection, a credit shared with Denise LaBrie, sweet and slow and soulful.  Here CJ references his father’s brother and frottoir washboarder par excellence, he and his ever-present bottle of Crown Royale, out on the town.  ‘Red Shack Zydeco’, a rockin’ instrumental, kicks the tempo back up again, coincidentally the name of the studio the album was recorded in, and something of an exercise in zydeco fundamentals, complete with guitar solo.  ‘Trouble in Mind’ by Richard M. Jones, has a slick bluesy urban groove, and then CJ covers dad’s classic ‘Hot Tamale Baby’.  Dusty Road’ by John Lee Hooker continues the blues theme, and CJ pays tribute to his influences with a cover of arguably the first zydeco song ever, ‘Paper in My Shoe’ by Boozoo Chavis.

My only mild complaint of CJ, and zydeco in general, is ironically CJ’s own complaint back in the days when he was a music student at university while Dad was rockin’ the honky-tonks: sometimes it all sounds too similar, a complaint that could also be lodged against many other of the smaller genres, including blues, jazz, even country.  It’s no surprise then that they often cover rock and pop hits, even to this day, as this is where much of modern music’s creativity lies.  Blues’ inability to do so has bequeathed it a lower status over the years.  Novelty sells- that’s the first law of business.  Not surprisingly some of the juiciest nuggets on this album are loaners from other genres.  Surprisingly blues is often the loan of choice.  That’s the way it should be, the way it was always intended.  The results are good.  The album is called ‘Can’t Sit Down’ by CJ Chenier, out now on World Village Records.  Check it out… standing up.

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