Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Ragin' Cajuns

Steve Riley and the Bluerunners

By Tristram Lozaw

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Since the resurgence of Cajun music in Louisiana in the '80s, most attempts to mate the indigenous form with interloping modern pop styles have felt as slimy as snake oil and have been equally as effective. True, Beausoleil fiddler Michael Doucet was a dynamo in his efforts to re-ignite the form in the '80s and early '90s. He was one of the first to give Cajun music a visceral kick by adding electric bass, a full drum kit, and other rock devices. But Cajuns have to tread carefully when they cross over to the wrong side of the musical Mason-Dixon line, because attempts to rock the music outside its traditional boundaries have more often than not homogenized the life out of it and created incompatible fusions filled with workaday boogie and hotshot riffing.

Until now. Two crossbred Cajun-rock gems have sprung from Louisiana parishes this year: Bayou Ruler by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, and the Bluerunners' To The Country (both on Rounder). These albums use rock's aggressive edge to amplify Cajun's rhythmic locomotion without drowning out its weathered rural grace.

Riley's view of Cajun as a continually evolving music has led him to involvement in a string of projects. He's played zydeco accordion on Geno Delafose's La Chanson Perdue; he switched to drums for Allons Danser, the new CD by Cajun pioneers Bois Sec Ardoin and Balfa Toujours. (It's fitting that he and his band have been chosen to host the Roots & Rhythm Festival at this weekend in Rhode Island. Delafose and Balfa Toujours will also perform.) But he's reserved his best efforts for the new Mamou Playboys disc.

Producers C.C. Adcock and Tarka Cordell (son of Denny) help move Bayou Ruler beyond the electric stomp of Riley's 1995 release La Toussaint and past the Acadian tributes of 1997's Friday at Last to full-tilt "Gulf Coast French rock and roll." The guitar flash of Jimmy Domengeaux, Adcock, and Louisiana legend Li'l Buck Senegal, along with Riley's animated squeezebox and David Greely's fluid fiddle, create a vibrant rock/Cajun hybrid. "My True Love (Voyage d'amour)" features a dancehall groove that's a down-home cousin to krautrock's metronomic beat, with the rhythmic tinkle of a Cajun triangle taking the place of krautrock's synth blips. The Playboys' urge to boogie takes over on "Clin d'oeil (The Wink)," which ventures close to bar-band fodder. But on "Mama Told Papa," the band turn a Clifton Chenier chestnut into a convincing rocker. And "Let Me Know" puts a little Mamou prairie swing in the step of a ZZ Top-style blues riff.

Whereas Bayou Ruler positions Riley as a rocking power from Cajunland, the Bluerunners' To the Country uses rock elements to push Cajun forward more than any album since Beausoleil's 1991 Cajun Conga. Early this decade the Bluerunners were amazing as Louisiana punks applying hardcore energy to Cajun traditions. But their music grew gratingly generic as it became more punk and less Cajun.

On To the Country they set the balance right again. Rather than having to choose between being a rock or Cajun band, they clearly want the best of both worlds. In their case that means adding electric lap steel and slide guitar to the trad instrumentation of fiddle and squeezebox. It's a haunting textural combination that allows them to wed melancholy melodies to a sturdy rhythmic backdrop. It adds bite to the smooth waltz of "Rhode Island." And on "Landslide" it makes the Bluerunners sound the way the mid-era Stones might have if they had actually been from the South.

Not everything on To the Country works. The band stumble, for example, when they try to add horns to the mix. But like Riley and his Playboys, the Bluerunners are proof that Cajun music can take root in rock-y soil and grow.


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