I still wasn’t convinced Gordon Gano, singer of my favorite band of my youth, Violent Femmes, was really going to play with my favorite Cajun group, Lost Bayou Ramblers, until the fiddles started playing the “Blister in the Sun” riff right there before me at the Blue Moon in Lafayette. Those quarter-century-old folk-punk tunes mix surprisingly well with the even deeper antiquity of Cajun music when filtered through the Lost Bayou Ramblers, now in their 12th year of rattling the preconceptions of how Cajun music can sound. Louis (fiddle) and Andre Michot (accordion) started the Lost Bayou Ramblers in 1999 after years of playing in their father and uncle’s group Les Freres Michot. “It was a thing we did, playing with the family band,” says Louis Michot. “I didn’t really know what Cajun music was or what kind of place it has until I was a teenager.”
A prevalent notion is that Cajun music is a continuum that chugs along defiant to the times, but like anything else, it goes in and out of style. Michot explains, “We all played and knew Cajun music, but we didn’t necessarily like it or not like it. We all liked Metallica and Guns N’ Roses and that’s what we played when we played music. The Cajun music was a thing we did with the family and saw it as old people music. We’d kinda make fun of it.”
An epiphany occurred when one of his rock drummer friends sat in with the band on triangle and then on the kit. “We saw how much rhythm it had and how it would make people dance,” he says. “We started to realize how powerful it was. “
That experience sent Michot into Cajun music’s past to find its feral side, citing a late-in-life recording of Joe Falcon, who recorded the first Cajun single “Allons a Lafayette” in 1928. Cajun Music Pioneer (Arhoolie) captures Falcon live in 1963 at the Triangle Club in Scott, Louisiana. “It’s one of the most nasty, awesome things you’ll ever hear,” offers Michot. “When we started listening to those old recordings, we wondered why no one was covering that old, raw, throwdown music where you can tell they don’t give a shit about anything; they just throw it down. It’s not so clean or pretty. It doesn’t have that ‘folk music’ quality. It’s more like punk rock or rock ‘n’ roll.”
Michot recalls, “We were at d.b.a. one night about three years ago, we had been doing ‘O Bye’ from our first album (Pilette Breakdown). When we’d get to the breakdown part we’d do different songs, like this one White Stripes song and sometimes ‘Blister in the Sun’. We were doin’ that, and suddenly this guy climbs up on stage and he’s like, ‘You mind?’ and I said, ‘I guess not.’” Enter Gordon Gano.
“I was in town and had played a show with the Ryans at Tipitina’s and I kept extending my stay,” says Gano.
“I definitely recognized his voice,” Michot says. “We did the first part and then we were lost. We’d never tried to play the whole song, and he goes ‘Okay, first thing, you’re in the wrong key. You gotta get in G.’ So we do that and he tells us the chords and we work through the whole song, right there, live. That’s how we met Gordon.”
When Gano joined them at the Blue Moon Saloon, the packed house knew the numbered list in “Add it Up” as innately as they did the two-step. The rattling hormonal longing of the Violent Femmes’ early songs and the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ rambunctious take on their fathers’ music both have that same nervous joy.
The thing that stuck out the most that night at the Blue Moon was how well Gano hung in there on the fiddle. An orchestra student in high school, Gano’s fiddle made the occasional appearance throughout the Violent Femmes catalog. “Usually it was very specific to a couple of songs,” he says. “And then, through the years I was a member of an amateur chamber music group in NYC. I’d always hope I’d get that second violin part because I pretty much couldn’t really do the first violin part.”
Michot has nothing but praise for his accidental band mate. “He’s one of my favorite fiddle players to play with because I don’t do much of the Cajun twin fiddle thing with all the harmonics and counterpoint and all that. He plays it so raw and plays exactly what he wants to play, which works great with me. It’s what I do.”
Michot also waves off any suggestion of cultural dissonance in this phase of the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ development. “I’m a firm believer that Cajun music is not so much a manifestation of a bunch of people isolated out in the country but something that comes from a worldly people that are tapped into the times and are always renewing what they do to match what the rest of the world does. A lot of people want to romanticize and say that it’s some guy who can’t read and write up on his porch, which is nice and romantic, but the reality is much more interesting. It is American music, and when we play ‘American Music’ with Gordon, it hits the nail on the head.“
Michot does, however, point out concession to his heritage. “You know Gano is a French name,” he says. Gano’s family changed the spelling when they came to America, though his sister Cynthia Gayneau has reverted to the old spelling on her recordings. Gano says, “I was told if I just put an X on the end, it’d be perfect.”
At French Quarter Fest: Saturday, April 9, 2:15 – 3:45 p.m. Capital One Riverside Legacy Stage.