Back in 1986, when BeauSoleil was first starting to tour a lot outside Louisiana, back when the Doucet brothers still had a bit of hair atop their heads, the band played at the Kennedy Center, Washington’s red-carpeted bastion of high culture. BeauSoleil was just a quartet in those days—Michael Doucet on fiddle, David Doucet on acoustic guitar, Errol Verret on accordion and Billy Ware on triangle and rubboard—and when the four musicians looked out over the East Coasters sunken in their seats, the Louisianans shook their heads.
“It’s okay to dance,” Michael joked. “This is dance music.” The audience smiled but didn’t budge. Most of them knew little about Cajun music; they had come to see the touring Newport Folk Festival package, and BeauSoleil was just an exotic attraction they were checking out. Michael made another joke, but beneath the humor was nervousness. It wasn’t just that the listeners weren’t dancing; they were paying rapt, quiet attention, which can be unnerving for a band used to Louisiana dance halls.
After all, if you’re playing a dance, you don’t have to worry about the subtleties of the music because they’ll get lost amid the chatter and the bustling bodies. What really matters is the energy and the thump. But at the Kennedy Center, every nuance was suddenly exposed in the eerie quiet. The energy and the thump could work for a few songs, but if people aren’t dancing, they want to hear something else before too long. It was an intimidating situation, but it was also an opportunity.
“We realized we could reach a new audience,” David says. “We’d been playing for Cajun dancers and your folk music types, but when we played these performing arts centers, we had a more diverse audience, so we wanted our music to be more diverse. We wanted to sound like a Cajun band on stuff that wasn’t the usual Cajun band material. We had to work at it, but the effort paid off. Even though we’re still pegged as a Cajun dance band today, people are surprised when they hear what we can do.”
Every Louisiana act that tours a lot outside the state faces the same dilemma: Should they stick to their dance-band roots, refusing to compromise on the social nature of the state’s music, or should they expand their scope, giving themselves a chance to grow as composers, arrangers and improvisers? No one has finessed this challenge better than BeauSoleil, which in its 35th year, manages to shine as both a dance band and a concert act.
Nothing better demonstrates the group’s duality than the new album, Alligator Purse, BeauSoleil’s first release on the roots-rock label, Yep Roc Records. It was another gig outside Louisiana that led to the album. Michael Pillot, an old friend of Michael and Tommy’s from the University of Southern Louisiana, had gone on to become a successful producer of music TV and film. When the levees buckled beneath Katrina in 2005, Pillot organized a “Build a Levee” benefit concert at Bard College in New York’s Hudson River Valley for December 3. Pillot asked Michael to join an eclectic group of players that included Merchant, Sebastian, Rudd, Crooked Still’s Rushad Eggleston, Hot Rize’s Nick Forster, Artie Traum and Dr. John.
“It was a magical night,” Michael says. “I didn’t know these people, but if you wanted to play with someone, you just sat in. And when you did, it felt real comfortable. So when some of them played on the new album, they didn’t feel like guest artists, because they were people I’d already played with and hung out with.”
It seemed natural to return to the Hudson Valley to cut the new tracks with Pillot as producer. It was good to get out of Louisiana, David claims, because when you’re away from home it feels more like work. You can concentrate on the job at hand without worrying about the busted plumbing or crying kid at home. The challenge, though, was how to differentiate this release from the 21 albums that came before it. This is always the hurdle for acts with an identifying sound: If listeners already have an album with that sound, why do they need another?
“It’s like that quote from Rolling Stone: ‘Ho hum, another great Richard Thompson record,’” says Michael. “How could they say that? But that’s what you’re facing. Why do another BeauSoleil record when the record industry’s collapsing? So you push yourself into territory you’ve never been before. You record with people you haven’t recorded with before. I wasn’t worried about them throwing us off because we’re so strong. We always have a groove, so when people come in they get absorbed into that groove, like spice absorbed into the gumbo.”
Michael wanted more songs in English this time, but he didn’t want to translate traditional Cajun songs into English. Instead, he wanted to take pre-existing English songs and Cajunize them. Bobby Charles’ “I Spent All My Money Loving You” was a natural because Charles’ swamp pop was merely a new extension of Cajun music, just as BeauSoleil’s music has been. J.J. Cale may be from Oklahoma, but his music has always had a swampy tinge. And “Little Darlin’” was almost a Cajun song already.
“Our ancestors came down from Nova Scotia with a fiddle,” declares Joel Savoy, the Red Stick Ramblers’ ex-fiddler and current head of the Grammy-nominated Cajun label, Valcour Records. “Eventually they met up with German people who played the accordion and they added that to Cajun music. Then they met some Texans who played country swing music, and they added that, too.
“Now that a lot of people are coming to Louisiana to learn Cajun music, they get caught up in preserving Cajun music as it is rather than letting it become what it wants to be, which will always be a product of what’s happening in Louisiana at the moment. Michael can play just like any of the old masters he learned from, but at the same time if he wants to add something to his improvisation, he can draw from all those things he has in his head from a lifetime of listening to all kinds of music.”
“It’s gone beyond, ‘Oh, let’s play another traditional song,’” Michael says. “That’s been done. I did all that work in the ’70s, reestablishing this tradition and that’s great. People think these songs just fell out of the sky, but a lot of work went into them—and there’s still a lot of work left to be done in continuing to develop our music and our history. It’s not like we said, ‘This is the concept; let’s do this.’ You just sit back and see what happens. When you do that, it just opens up.”
Michael’s point is a crucial one: Allowing new influences into Louisiana music is not the unnatural, gimmicky thing to do; keeping them out is. If you’re a virtuoso fiddler you don’t stop yourself from playing bebop changes or Haitian syncopation just because earlier Cajun fiddlers didn’t. If you’re a virtuoso guitarist like David, you don’t stop yourself from playing lead breaks just because Cajun guitarists never did that before. If you’re a virtuoso drummer like Tommy Alesi, you don’t stop yourself from adding embellishments to the primary thump out of fear some dancer will lose track of the counting he or she learned at a Cajun dance camp in West Virginia. If Cajun music is meant to reflect the people of South Louisiana, it has to change as those people change.
“If you add a jazz solo or a funk beat to a Cajun or zydeco song,” David argues, “you’re not betraying the music. You’re adding to it. That’s how you serve the music. You don’t encapsulate it in a certain time; you help it grow. Texas swing wasn’t a part of Cajun music until musicians in the 1930s started adding it, and before long everyone was doing it. It’s not leaving the past behind, it’s adding to it. Not every idea works. When I’m playing solo, I tell myself, ‘Let’s see if this works.’ If it works, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you finish the song and move on.”
When bringing new influences into a tradition, however, it is essential that musicians follow the principle of addition rather than substitution. If you substitute a new practice for an old one—substituting “Quiet Storm” R&B for 6/8 ballads, say, or “Dirty South” rap for carnival street chants or jazz violin for Cajun fiddle—you often lose far more than you gain. But if you keep the old as you add the new—and do the necessary work to make the two blend, then you’ve made a step forward. If you tackle a terrific piece of Americana such as Julie Miller’s “Little Darlin’” and invite Natalie Merchant and John Sebastian to add vocals and harmonica respectively, it’s necessary to hold on to what you had before: the push-and-pull of Tommy’s two-step beat, the swampy drone of Michael’s fiddle and the springy bounce of David’s guitar breaks. That’s just what BeauSoleil does on Alligator Purse.
That’s also just what it did when it played the “Grand Reopening” of the New Orleans Mulate’s after Katrina on April 27, 2006. It was Mitch Reed’s first show with the band as the official new bassist and second fiddler (replacing Al Tharp, who was devoting himself to his first love, old-time Appalachian music—the band’s first roster change since 1989). Filling out the line-up were the Doucet brothers, Billy Ware, Tommy Alesi and button accordionist Jimmy Breaux. Michael wore a loud, blue-print beach shirt and faded jeans; his shiny bald dome was flanked by two snowy tufts above his ears and anchored by a pointy white goatee. Behind him was the restaurant’s famous logo: a painting of the early-1980s BeauSoleil when the Doucet brothers had darker hair and more of it.
The sextet quickly demonstrated how they could appeal to active dancers and seated listeners at the same time. Surrounding the dance floor on three sides were tables where diners, mostly out-of-towners, sat entranced by the dizzying solos from the Doucet brothers and Jimmy Breaux.
Standing just outside of the kitchen door off to the band’s left was Bob Dylan. He slouched within his jacket, his curls stuffed inside a brown stocking cap, as if no one would recognize him, and standing next to his longtime bassist Tony Garnier. His Bobness didn’t join the dancing, but he seemed as mesmerized by a Cajunized
“Baby, Please Don’t Go,” as the tourists lingering over their bread pudding.
The song, an old blues that Dylan himself had often played early in his career, had slowed down so all those minor-key chords had time to bleed into the forlorn cry of first Michael’s high-register fiddle and then his voice: “Baby, please don’t go back to New Orleans; you know I love you so.” Jimmy’s button accordion squeezed out the droning, hypnotic riff, while Michael played jazzy lines on top. For all the deliberate tempo and ominous harmonies, however, Tommy, Billy and Mitch still delayed the beat a split second and then pounced on it with a syncopated snap, keeping the couples moving on the floor. How many other bands could satisfy dancers, tourists and Bob Dylan all on the same song?
“Last year we played this gig at Nunu’s in Arnaudville, north of Lafayette,” David says. “I was sitting there eating gumbo after the gig, and this guy came up to me and said, ‘I never listened to you guys before. I thought you just played that traditional music that no one likes.’ I had to laugh because we’d just played a bunch of traditional tunes on traditional instruments. Sure, you borrow licks and ideas from other music, and you blend those in with what you already know. It’s always going to sound a little Cajun, because you inevitably put yourself into it and you’re a Cajun.
“People don’t know why we sound different, but that’s why it is. When you learn a song, you don’t have to play it the way you learned it. It wouldn’t have been as fun for the past 35 years if we had just played the songs the way we’d learned them. I don’t think the guys before us played the songs the way they learned them. You can’t tell me Dewey Balfa played songs the way he learned them. Or Nathan Abshire.”
BeauSoleil is doing what Cajun musicians have always done: they’re listening to the radio in their heads and turning it into new Cajun music. But it has a different playlist than the radio in Dennis McGee’s head or D.L. Menard’s head. The radio in their heads plays rock ’n’ roll, Caribbean music, jazz, swamp pop and more, so why shouldn’t they make Cajun music with Garth Hudson and Roswell Rudd or with a Bobby Charles song?
“The cats I learned to play from—Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot—are gone,” Michael points out. “We paid homage to them for years—we were the first modern Cajun band to record a Dennis McGee song, to play an Amede Ardoin song, to play zydeco—but we’re getting older; we’re speaking in English now. The world here in Louisiana has changed; it’s not the same place it was even 30 years ago.”
It’s a measure of the way the Doucet brothers think that when they heard a version of “Les Oignons” by Don Vappie, they immediately heard the connections between this New Orleans street chant in Haitian French and Michael’s own composition, “Valse a BeauSoleil,” a blues waltz in Cajun-French. If John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful could play harmonica on the latter for the new album, why couldn’t jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd play on the former?
After all, Rudd had been a Dixieland revivalist before playing with such avant-gardists as Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. Rudd understood how Dixieland contained the potential for free jazz just as Michael understood how South Louisiana’s dance halls contained the potential for concert music. They got along so famously that Rudd invited BeauSoleil to play on two tracks for his next album. It’s these unexpected connections that keep the band pushing forward into new music rather than resting on familiar ways. They can try anything because they never have to worry about their essential identity.
“Bands are not just the type of music they play,” insists David. “It’s how they play. Michael Pillot told us, ‘You’re known as a Cajun band, but you play a lot more than that.’ We do, but we’re still a Cajun band because that’s how we play. Michael may like Caribbean music; Tommy may like jazz; Jimmy may like country; I may like old-time acoustic music, but when we play together, we sound like a Cajun band because we play this other music in our own way. We can have John Sebastian singing backup on a rock ’n’ roll song that Michael translated into French, and it still sounds Cajun. How cool is that?”