The last time the Lost Bayou Ramblers released a live album, they had never collaborated with Hollywood starlets, Barack Obama had yet to be elected president, there was officially a war going on in Iraq, the Saints had only watched the Super Bowl on television, and you could have paid under $3 for a gallon of gas. Today, it is a different world. And today, the Lost Bayou Ramblers—who released their second live album, Gasa Gasa Live, last month—are a different band.
Aside from the literal changes in line-up—Chris Courville and Alan Lafleur replaced by Eric Heigle and Korey Richey on drums and bass, respectively—the once ultra-traditional Cajun band with an incredibly rustic sound has begun its progressive phase.
Vocalist and fiddler Louis Michot calls their last studio effort, Mammoth Waltz, “possibly the most progressive Cajun album ever.” It’s an odd bookend to Vermilionaire, their previous release. Though some of it is contemporarily penned—songs about losing Louisiana written by the band—Michot pegs it the band’s most traditional record.
“We’ve naturally evolved as a band over the 15 years we’ve been playing, and constantly bringing new material and live arrangement to the shows, and we’ve had nothing but a positive reaction from crowds,” says Michot. He’s putting it lightly: widely acclaimed by critics, Mammoth Waltz features collaborations with Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes and Scarlett Johansson and is—aside from a Grammy nomination for 2007’s Live À La Blue Moon—likely their most successful venture. “We received many comments from people that they were ready for something fresh and innovative, that’s not trying to tiptoe out of tradition, but boldly playing the Cajun music we wanna hear,” Michot explains.
This month, they return home for Festivals Acadiens et Créoles after touring extensively. Typically a bastion of traditional music, the festival is also popular among younger Cajun fans. This should put LBR right at home with their set list of roots and cutting-edge sounds.
“We play Festivals Acadiens like we do any other show, with a set ranging from stripped-down accordion/fiddle tunes, to Mammoth Waltz extended psychedelic originals, to covers of (The Who’s) ‘My Generation’ in French, and who knows what else we might create on the spot,” says Michot.
The set should, therefore, sound like Gasa Gasa Live. Despite pulling songs from their other studio albums, its strongest focus is Mammoth Waltz as it features four of its cuts. Though the other tracks include distinctly more traditional material—aside from originals, Cajun favorites such as “Pine Grove Blues” show up—they are cast in a new light.
The line on LBR has always been a Cajun punk-rock band, a somewhat misleading label. Instead of out-of-control noise for the sake of noise, they were a musically gifted and vigorously energetic Cajun band that did employ a raw and unpolished approach. With Gasa Gasa Live, that tag is no longer relevant at all. If you have to compare them to a rock genre, it should now be Cajun acid rock a la Jimi Hendrix’s live endeavors in line with Axis Bold as Love.
Though much of Gasa Gasa Live is rooted in the deep tradition LBR is known for, it does depart from Pilete Breakdown and Bayou Perdu, their first two records. Courville’s minimal drum kit is gone, in favor of more rock and roll drums. Lafleur’s upright bass—once a staple of their live show as he and others members climbed on it as they played—was replaced by Richey’s electric bass. The brothers Andre (accordion) and Louis Michot still couple their instruments together, but there are interesting updates and departures here and there, such as distorting effects on both. Throughout, there are hints of tremolo as Cavan Carruth now plays an electric guitar instead of the acoustic he once favored. Older LBR shows had a greater focus on fiddle and accordion, whereas in this performance Carruth’s guitar and Richey’s bass play broader roles.
A prime example is “O Bye/Bluerunner.” On the first album, the band presented a live, scratchy and bare-bones version of these two cuts, welded together by a Courville drum breakdown. While Gasa Gasa’s version maintains the call-and-response spirit, as it turns into “Bluerunner,” it does so in entirely different skin. Heigle’s drums would sound more at home on a reel-to-reel tape of John Bonham’s live sessions and the guitar, which seems to have been scratching at its kennel door throughout the first eight songs, finally breaks loose. The unmistakable fiddle lick of “Bluerunner” can’t be missed, but this time it stands with distortion-drenched guitars and drums deep into a solo.
Though it seems like a sea change for a band that was once so fervently anachronistic, Michot assures purist fans that even at its wildest, LBR is still a traditional beast. “Even our most progressive songs are still rooted in Cajun styles that are now rarely played, so old school that they’re not even seen as traditional any more,” he says, “hence the mammoth roaming the modern Cajun prairie, extinct in his own land.”
The Lost Bayou Ramblers perform at Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in Lafayette on Sunday, October 12 at 1 p.m.