Kevin Sekhani has fond memories of Mid-South Wrestling. In early 1980s Louisiana and Mississippi, the pro wrestling show was a TV ratings bonanza, leaving all but the true believers wondering if the Fabulous Freebirds had really blinded the Junk Yard Dog with hair-removing cream.
Mid-South may have also planted a seed with Sekhani. If bitter wrestlers who weren’t really mad at each other could nearly sell out the Superdome, what could preachers who weren’t really preachers do? What if these make-believe ministers played and sang music that sounded like Jimmy Swaggart on a Sunday morning but was wild as Jerry Lee Lewis celebrating his sixth divorce?”
Skandor Akbar, Mid-South’s conniving Arabian sheik (who was really from Texas), would be proud of the Mercy Brothers. Just as the wrestlers blurred the lines between athletics and acting, the Mercy Brothers are old-time gospel entertainers, stirring a gumbo of Jesus and honky tonk. Fans aren’t sure if they should shout “Hallelujah” or call for a Budweiser.
Dressed in their tent revival best, the Lafayette, Louisiana-based band sings rollicking “Songs of Faith & Devotion, Love & Despair.” That’s the subtitle of their hit CD, Holy Ghost Power.
But this charismatic clan isn’t made up of preachers. They’re veteran musicians who have played everything from country to zydeco. And they don’t really care if the congregation is saved or filled with sinners—they just want listeners to unite in the spirit of moving music.
“It’s all about the ups and downs of our lives,” said Sekhani. “The Jesus and devil imagery is nothing more than the good and bad, the paths that we choose. The mistakes that we make, the redemption we get from trying to fix those mistakes. That’s the language. As broad as it is, it’s all of our stories.”
The Mercy Brothers’ heavenly shoutin’ and testifyin’ over an earthly beat has parted a Red Sea of success. Only together a year and a half, they’ve enjoyed a blessing of gigs from Tampa to Austin. May 2 marks their Jazz Fest debut.
They’ve cracked the lineup at their hometown’s biggest music events, Festival International de Louisiane and Festival Acadiens et Creole, prime gigs that have been unanswered prayers for other bands for decades. At Festivals Acadiens, a champion of traditional Cajun and Creole music since 1974, bands don’t get a second look without an accordion, fiddle or French singer. The brothers have none.
“That was a tipping point,” said Sekhani, who spent 20 years in Austin as a singer/songwriter. “You play that festival and you know the history of it. It just doesn’t happen and when you get to do it, you want to make sure you do it properly. We left that day feeling good.”
“We left that day feeling we’re good enough for any festival in the country,” added Mark Meaux, lead guitarist. “People want something happy, uptempo, energetic.”
Meaux is familiar with spirited music as the founder of the alternative Cajun band, the Bluerunners. In 1987, they began a 25-year run with a groundbreaking mix of Cajun, zydeco and punk that garnered them a national reputation.
But when Sekhani approached him in 2011 about forming a band of costumed characters acting like tent revivalists, the rebellious Meaux wasn’t sure how to respond.
“It took me a few months to even understand what he was saying we were doing,” said Meaux. “I just couldn’t get it into my head. He said, ‘It’s going to be gospel all of the time with a level of sincerity that makes it work.’ There’s such a wide gamut of how you can slice this thing.
“We’ve gone right down the middle. We’ve been true to ourselves, not mocking and not adhering to anyone’s notions. I watch and people just smile during the show.”
Meaux and Sekhani put their heads together to write all 11 songs on their debut CD. With titles like “Get Right Now with Jesus” and “The Devil’s Food Tastes Like Cake,” the duo reflected on Bill Carter, Bob Dylan and other influences, along with a little self-examination.
“There were songs that I’ve written all throughout my solo career, like ‘My Savoir Sings’,” said Sekhani. “They were the easiest to write for me. But I’d put them on the backburner because they wouldn’t fit on that record. When we sat down and started writing, the ideas just started flowing out.”
“That woke me up too,” said Meaux. “I kept thinking it shouldn’t be this easy. For a while, with every show I was thinking, I don’t know if people are going to understand this. But people get it without fully knowing what it is we’re presenting. Now we’re pretty focused. But early on, seeing what they responded to, helped me understand it.”
The Mercy Brothers are now focused on creating more spiritual music and a possible European tour this summer.
“If you take the time to find parking, find babysitters and chose to come spend the evening with us, then I’m going to give you a show,” said Sekhani.
“People will say ‘I won’t have to go to church tomorrow because I just went tonight.’”