Bas Clas: Back to Work

Geoff Thistlewaite of Bas Clas. Photo by Dwayne Fatherree.

Geoff Thistlewaite of Bas Clas. Photo by Dwayne Fatherree.

The Beatles in Hamburg in ’61. The Stooges’ 1967 Halloween debut at their State Street house in Ann Arbor. The Velvet Underground’s living room gigs in Austin, documented on Live ’69. Certain rock milestones bestow a lifetime of bragging rights on those lucky enough to be there.

For rock fans in Cajun country who danced to the different drummer of Bas Clas—the Cajun term for “low class”—that milestone came in 1978, when the band’s first gig at Lafayette’s Grant Street Dancehall got them banned from the club.

“All our friends from Mamou and Eunice and Opelousas and the surrounding countryside were so excited we had a gig in a big place,” recalls lead guitarist Steve Picou, who co-founded Bas Clas with brothers Donnie and Mike in 1976. “They all showed up wearing porkpie hats and danced on the pool tables and had a ball.”

The management was not amused. “He didn’t like the look of our crowd or the sound of our band,” which channeled Elvis Costello and Talking Heads at a time when most Lafayette artists were rediscovering their two-step roots. “He said, listen, I’m going to pay y’all not to come back. And he gave us $400 not to play the next gig.”

Bas Clas quickly regrouped at the college dive Mother’s Mantle, where overflow crowds proudly flaunted their status in freshly-printed t-shirts: “Banned from Grant Street. We had too much fun.”

Thus began a seven-year stint of Monday Night Madness gigs, which migrated from club to club on Lafayette’s college strip until the band’s self-released single “Serfin’ USA”/”Physical World” garnered rave underground music press and national college radio play. Then the oil bust hit and Bas Clas lit out for Atlanta, seeking fame and fortune.

The band came excruciatingly close twice. Initially championed by industry icon John Hammond, whose enthusiasm fell on deaf ears, Bas Clas appeared bound for glory when powerhouse manager/promoter John Scher took up their cause and scored a major EMI publishing contract.

When a corporate takeover sabotaged that deal at the eleventh hour, the band threw in the towel. Donnie stayed in Atlanta and Steve moved to New Orleans, where he put his guitar on ice for nine years and took a behind-the-scenes job with the Louisiana Music Commission.

During that long hiatus, most people in New Orleans had no idea that a guitar hero lurked inside the mild-mannered state employee who worked with his colorful LMC boss, Bernie Cyrus.

It’s no secret anymore. Bas Clas is back with a vengeance. Armed with a new CD, Big Oak Tree of freshly recorded songs from Dockside Studios, the band rocked a 2,000-plus crowd at its first-ever appearance at Festival International in Lafayette this year.

 

When the Picou brothers took the Scene Malibu stage with bandmates Geoff Thistlewaite (bass) and Ted Cobena (drums), and a bevy of special guests—saxophonist Dickie Landry, accordionist Roddie Romero, Eric Adcock on B3—the prodigal sons were greeted like conquering heroes by Bas Clas survivors and fervently embraced by new converts.

Like their recent live shows, the CD is no nostalgia trip. It captures a band at the height of its power from the opening track, which throws down the gauntlet with “Allons Danser.” Driven by Steve’s Cajun-inflected guitar riff, which sounds uncannily like a fiddle, the song is spiked with trail-ride “yippee yippee ti yays” and commands you to dance. But “Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler” it’s not.

Loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, the song mocks “them safe behind their castle walls / laughing at the world,” along with the clueless dancers who “close their eyes as the band plays more.” Penned by resident wordsmith Donnie Picou at the height of the AIDS crisis, it’s as relevant today as the gulf between the masses and the gated one percent.

“We want people to have a good time, but we also have something to say,” Steve says. “I feel like if you’re going to be that loud with all that power and wattage behind you, you really should say something important.”

Even the band’s gentler songs get under the skin. In “My Louisiane,” Bas Clas comes full circle to its Louisiana roots. But though it invokes childhood memories under the “big oak tree,” it also mourns the passing of “Maw-Maw,” a natural occurrence. It’s an elegy for a way of life felled by development, like the dead live oak on the back of the CD cover.

“Back to Work,” the final track, is easy to take at face value: A farmer surveys his fallow field after a bad season, and vows to “get back to work!” Bas Clas is doing that now, and hits the studio again in August. “But it’s not just about us,” says Picou. “It’s about getting back to The Garden.” Indeed, the song invites listeners to “join us in the fields and dig your hands into the dirt.”

I’m in.