Pop quiz: How many accordion players does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three — one to screw it in and two to say they could do it better.
In Cajun music and zydeco, the joke would be funny if it weren’t so true. Accordion players are kings, musical quarterbacks who go home with the head cheerleader.
The title of one of Aldus Roger’s classic albums proclaims “King of the French Accordion Plays His Old Hits.” The late Clifton Chenier sported a crown on stage as the King of Zydeco. Rockin’ Dopsie, then Boozoo Chavis each claimed the crown after the previous king’s dignified blood turned cold.
So a battle royal was in order February 1, 2011 when three royal subjects of the Cajun accordion — Wayne Toups, Steve Riley and Wilson Savoy — decided they would play together for the first time. Each brought noble credentials to the session.
In the late 1980s, Toups created “zydecajun,” a fusion of traditional Cajun, zydeco, R&B and southern rock that had young Cajuns, by the tens of thousands, suddenly paying attention to their grandparents’ music. He recorded with PolyGram, a rare feat for Cajun music, and is still living off his zydecajun stardom.
Riley was just emerging as an accordion boy wonder when Toups was rising to the throne. Two decades later, he’s the standard by which other young accordionists are measured. His Mamou Playboys band has pushed the boundaries of Cajun musicianship.
Savoy, Riley’s cousin, and his band of twentysomethings, the Pine Leaf Boys, have electrified Cajun music with four Grammy nominations in the past five years.
Yet on that February night at Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge, there was no battle of squeezebox egos. Toups played the accordion, backed by Savoy on fiddle and Riley on guitar. They unplugged the amps, dropped the drums and played Cajun songs recorded before they were born.
They called the band Courtbouillon, a rich stew often made with tomato sauce, bell pepper, garlic, onion and catfish and served over rice. The music they stirred proved to be just as tasty.
“The music was supposed to go from 7 to 9 p.m., but we didn’t stop until 11:30 p.m.,” said Riley. “[Owner] Dickie Breaux told his wait staff, ‘Let those boys play as long as they want. Keep the doors open and keep the bar open.’
“Finally, we quit. Wilson’s and Wayne’s girlfriends had to carry them to their cars. Wilson said it was the worse hangover he ever had. But I guess it was a good sign of a good time. The next time we got together was in the studio to make a record.”
The Band Courtbouillon, and their self-titled CD on Valcour Records, has struck a nerve with Cajun music loyalists. The 14-song disc, filled with classics and one original about cooking and playing with friends, receives healthy airplay on Cajun radio shows.
Last August, the band was poised to win Best CD and four other Le Cajuns, Grammy-style trophies awarded by the Cajun French Music Association. Swamp pop king and Cajun songwriter Johnnie Allan stole the show, winning most of the major awards that night.
But the Courtbouillon shutout will be soothed by an October 14 appearance at Festivals Acadiens et Créoles at Girard Park in Lafayette, a prime stage for any Cajun band. Since 1974, the festival has honored some of the all-time greats of Cajun, Creole and zydeco music and showcased generations that have followed in their footsteps.
The festival’s tireless dancers are legendary for waltzing in ankle-deep mud or donning bandanas while two-stepping through clouds of dust.
Courtbouillon will be a festival rarity, a band performing without drums, the heartbeat of Cajun dancing. But Savoy has no worries.
“You never see a band at a festival that doesn’t have drums,” he said. “Wayne and Steve are totally against the idea of drums. We have an upright bass. But that bass, when it’s played correctly, can take the place of the drums.
“But it’s interesting, when we played the Blue Moon [Saloon in Lafayette], the dancers came but they didn’t want to dance. They just wanted to watch Wayne. Their eyes were glued to him.
“With this band, seems like it’s more about respecting Wayne, listening to the music. When people stop dancing, they can hear all the intricacies, the soul of it. With this band, I think people pick up on what we appreciate about the music.”
Savoy said the down-home, jam-session feel is the whole point. For each musician, it’s a welcome break from the royal spotlight, a chance to jam with familiar friends and even more familiar music.
“In Louisiana, whenever you have a party, you cook food and you play music. One of the most famous Cajun dishes is a courtbouillon. It’s one of my favorites for sure.
“Friends getting together playing tunes, that’s kind of the feel of the CD. You can almost hear a pot bubbling in the back.”