2007’s La Louisianne Sessions put Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars on the map. The ambitious album earned them a Grammy nomination as it honored the musical styles that met in Lafayette—Hub City—Cajun, zydeco, blues, rock and swamp pop, each treated as a living thing and not the last, revivalist vestiges of days of yore.
Romero and bandmate Eric Adcock have been playing professionally since their pre-teen years, but it’s still clear when they talk about music and musicians that they remain fans. They were part of Lil’ Band o’ Gold’s tribute to Bobby Charles in 2010, which Adcock remembers as “one of those magic moments in our lives. Roddie is singing ‘Walking to New Orleans’ and I’m chompin’ out eighth notes a la Fats, and I look up on my left and Mac [Rebennack, Dr. John] is playing Hammond B3. That’s surreal for us because these guys are our heroes.”
Roddie Romero: We’ve got a bunch of new songs that we’re almost finished writing; we’re just trying to work out some scheduling issues and logistics before actually stepping into the studio.
What determines when songs get to a point where you think they’re ready to record?
Eric Adcock: You have songs that you are inspired by or in love with, or that pull you and push you a certain way. Roddie and I go through them and clean them up and demo them. You get into the studio with the guys; once you get through hearing it with the whole band, if it’s still rocking and developing into a beautiful thing, that’s a pretty damn good indication that it’s going to be on the record.
It must be strange for a band in that the lag time between coming up with a song idea and getting it recorded could be a year or more, then they tour that material for a few more years. Is it hard to keep finding inspiration in two or three-year-old musical ideas?
Adcock: Playing live with this group of gentlemen, every night it’s different. I wouldn’t consider us a jam band, but at times it becomes that way of playing music—not so much extended solos but more, “I’m going to start this song tonight and see where it goes.”
Does it take discipline to not just let a four-minute song stretch into 10 minutes?
Romero: Yeah, and I think over the years I’ve gotten better at that. There’s a YouTube video of a version of “Hey Pocky A-Way” at a Mardi Gras ball that we did—it’s like 15 minutes long. We’ve gotten away from that quite a bit, but if we’re at d.b.a. or Grant Street [Dancehall] and everybody’s rocking, it’s hard to stop. I think I have a pretty good feel on the crowd and can judge when to cut one loose and start a new one.
Do we see a different show in New Orleans than we’d see in Lafayette?
Romero: I think so. If we play Festival Acadiens, I leave my guitar at home and end up playing my old French accordion and doing nothing but two-steps and waltzes because we can do that. New Orleans has such a great vibe that we can pull out all sorts of music there and stuff that’s really closer to our hearts and things that we’re writing.
I remember seeing a Pine Leaf Boys show at Grant Street where the audience was largely under 25, while the audience for Cajun and zydeco in New Orleans is often over 45 or 50. I was wondering if that’s common.
Adcock: The whole crowd demographic thing is interesting because we don’t necessarily cater to the strict Cajun and zydeco dance crowd. We never think of it that way. In fact, when we play in Canada, which we often do—we have some big festivals coming up—there might be a 16, 17, 18-year-old demographic freaking out on the music just because it’s an energy thing. They don’t have to know who it’s from or what it’s about; they just feel the beat.
Romero: I’ll just cut to the chase: There’s never a set list. In fact, it’s like pulling teeth for everyone to ask me to write one.
Who’s calling the tunes?
Romero: I’m the dictator at that time.
Adcock: Part of being a good front man is to really feel the vibe of the hall, but if I feel like hearing a song, I might ask Roddie to count it off.
How long can you rock a crowd before you realize you’ve got to bring it down some?
Adcock: That depends on the crowd. We recently did a set in Winnipeg; I think we hit them for two hours straight before we did the first ballad.
We don’t take breaks. We were raised in the Clifton Chenier school of performing. I was 13 years old and playing with Lil’ Buck Sinegal, who was his number one guitar player for many, many years, and Lil’ Buck used to tell me how Clifton would say, “If you’ve got to get off stage to take a leak during a show, that’s because you’re not sweating hard enough.” We subscribe to the same motto.
That’s interesting, that you can go fastball after fastball at a crowd.
Adcock: It depends how we’re feeling. Some of this is very selfish as well. If we’re feeling rocking, it’s rocking. I love when we can pull it down and play a beautiful ballad too. Roddie’s got a beautiful voice, and if we want to sing one of our ballads or a slower tune, I think it goes off really well.
Are there certain songs you prefer to sing, certain types of songs that are really fun for you to sing?
Romero: I’m a melody person. It’s how I play my instruments—by melody. It’s why I play slide guitar. It sounds like a voice to me. I’m always thinking of melody. I love to sing an old Sam and Dave tune right up next to an old Tyrone Davis song, right up next to an old French waltz. It’s just about melody and the passion that goes into it.
Adcock: Roddie’s thinking melodically; the band is very rhythmic, so it’s always rocking like a freight train. We’ve got this great new drummer named Jermaine Prejean, he’s fantastic. I play Louisiana piano, which is very rhythmical in the school of Fess and Mac and Cleary—that whole piano junker style. I think it plays a good balance.
I’m always struck when I hear South Louisiana bands singing in French how many singers sounds really twangy, sound really country, and wonder if it is the nature of the songs, the melodies or the singers?
Romero: I think it’s the nature of the singers. Here in Southwest Louisiana, you drive 10 minutes down to the levee, and people are speaking totally differently. The way they interpret French songs—the same waltz, you drive another 30, 40 miles west to Crowley or even up north to the prairie, and it’s totally different.
Does singing a soul song affect how you sing a Cajun ballad?
Romero: It does and I’ve struggled with that for a long time. I was trained in school and high school. I’m always singing through my belly and using my diaphragm and breathing properly. You listen to Iry Lejeune and Lawrence Walker and those guys are whiskey-soaked, playing smoke-filled rooms, singing at the top of their lungs because they didn’t have proper amplification.
When it comes to singing French music, it’s really all about emotion and passion for me. A yelp every so often makes the difference in a song like that. One of my favorite French singers is Jo-el Sonnier. He sings the French music with so much conviction, so much passion, that I get frissons—goose pimples—every time.
For me to sing a French waltz, it’s not so much thinking about if I’m going to hit this note or am I going to hit it. It’s opening a door to my ancestors.
When you started singing songs in French, did you connect to them the same way you would connect to a song in English?
Romero: At the beginning, no. I started when I was 13 years old, playing in bars. At that point it was basically memorizing songs. As I got older, I realized my folks are getting older and that their generation is pretty much the last French-speaking generation. My dad’s first language was French. Growing up, it was always French music playing in the house. Later in life I realized it’s really important. This next record might have a French song or two on it, we don’t know yet.
I love the version of “Good Hearted Man” being half-English, half-French.
Romero: That’s the cool thing about that music, especially Clifton Chenier. He took rock ‘n’ roll and made it French and made it zydeco. Now there’re a lot of people that don’t know that’s a Fats Domino song. To them, it’s a Clifton Chenier song.
Adcock: That song is what happens when you cross the Atchafalaya Basin and Clifton Chenier meets Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. When we were younger, journalists struggled with our identity: Are you traditional? It’s not really important. When we play traditional Cajun music, we try to really do it justice because we believe in our heritage. We’re a Louisiana roots band that likes to rock ‘n’ roll, but we also pay homage the best way we can to our ancestors.
That seems essentially honest because if you’re making music in the 21st Century, rock ‘n’ roll has been in the air your entire life. To try to do something that reflects your heritage without reflecting rock ‘n’ roll is really lying about who you are.
Adcock: I’m sitting in my living room right now that’s literally blocks away from where Bobby Charles was born and raised and wrote, “See You Later, Alligator”. That’s rock ‘n’ roll; it’s always been around.
Romero: When I was nine years old, I got to sit in and play accordion with Warren Storm, first generation rock ‘n’ roller right there playing swamp pop.
I grew up on the main street—Johnson Street in Lafayette. It was the country 36 years ago, and the city grew outward. I remember going to the country, which was about five miles away—my cousins’ farms—and listening to French music and my grandpa playing French accordion. I remember growing up and meeting up with Eric because he lived in the neighborhood behind me, and us going to El Sid O’s and listening to Buckwheat [Zydeco]. Then Eric’s playing with Lil’ Buck Senegal, and it’s just this amazing menagerie of music.
One of the things I think is fascinating about Lafayette is that even if you’re in the middle of town, you’re less than 15 minutes from the country.
Romero: My house where I grew up—there are four houses on this street. It’s the only gravel road in the heart of Lafayette, and there’s an acre garden right next to my house where I grew up. And across the pasture there’s a McDonald’s and Main Street.
Let’s close this with a Warren Storm story. I love Warren.
Romero: I’m sometimes the 12th man of Lil’ Band o’ Gold. We’re playing for one of Sam Walton’s granddaughters or great granddaughter’s weddings. We show up at the Lafayette airport and Warren Storm’s got his granddaughter’s Barney purple roll case, he’s got a Saints cap, and he’s ready to go. They start checking him at the security, and they pull out this hair spray that’s 12, 14 inches tall—an old time hairspray that you’d get at a barber shop. They confiscated all of his hair products. We finally get to Arkansas and he’s just frantic. We had to stop at the first convenience store to find hair spray and hair products. It was so endearing to me that this 70-something year old guy is still ready for rock ‘n’ roll. Just beautiful. He’s got an amazing voice. To hear him sing “Tennessee Blues,” man. That’s one for the frissons.
Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars play French Quarter Festival on Saturday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m. on the OffBeat Cajun/Zydeco Showcase Stage at the Aquarium Plaza.