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Big Music Feature

Swamp Fever

Are These les Bon Temps for the Local Zydeco Scene?

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele

Big Music Issue 2001

Sweet Emotion Ryan Shelkett, Happy at Last | By Anna Ditkoff

Swamp Fever Are These les Bon Temps for the Local Zydeco Scene? | By Brian Morton

Local Heroes Musicians Pick Their All-Time Favorite Baltimore Bands

Unleash the Oriole An Open Letter to Sisqó | By Vincent Williams

All About Artscape Your Guide to the Best of the Fest | By Lee Gardner

By Brian Morton | Posted 7/11/2001

On the face of it, it seems ludicrous to suggest that Baltimore has anything in common with Louisiana, except maybe politics. (Albert Eisele, the editor of the Capitol Hill insider newspaper The Hill, reportedly once said Maryland has the most corrupt political system outside of that swampy state.) But the truth is known to a select few. They gather every odd weekend or so across the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan sprawl, in smoky little bars, in Fells Point waterfront pubs, in the rarefied air of the Barns at Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia, at the American Legion Hall in Rosedale, and on a college campus in Catonsville. They gather to master the simple rhythms and complex dance steps of the Creole music of the Louisiana backwater--zydeco.

Less than 10 years ago, Baltimore was almost a hub for traveling zydeco bands, and the local scene was strong and vibrant. Now, some zydeco fans say the music is on the wane locally. They complain about shoddy--or worse, carpeted--dance floors and tiny bar venues with exorbitant drink prices and floor-to-ceiling cigarette smoke. At the same time, other zydeco buffs say there are too many bands playing too many gigs, that the market suffers from oversaturation. The truth may be somewhere in between.

The Baltimore-New Orleans kinship is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Both are port towns with lots of wrought iron, Catholic roots, and majority-black populations. And the mid-Atlantic teems with Afro-Caribbean roots-music-oriented yuppies, both black and white, with a yen for zydeco's energetic style of dance--an audience that has proven to be a magnet for the traveling kings of Creole music. In the early to mid-'90s, local fans of zydeco's accordion- and rub-board-driven rhythm could see road warriors like Roy Carrier and the Nightrockers three, maybe four times in the space of a long weekend--after one of the late, lamented Gumbo Jams held at fairgrounds in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, fans could head downtown to Harry's in Mount Vernon or uptown to the New Haven Lounge in Northwood, then close out the weekend on Sunday night at Fells Point's Cat's Eye Pub, where dancers' feet would bow the floorboards in time with the drummer.

Zydeco was everywhere. TV-ad directors loved the punchy, happy music. Marc Steiner acknowledges the zydeco flavor of the opening music for his radio talk show on WJHU (88.1 FM). Zydeco dancers looked forward to the unofficial Sunday afternoon "zydeco spot" each July at Artscape, whose organizers over the years had brought up C.J. Chenier (son of the legendary Clifton Chenier), young gun Geno Delafose, upstarts Lil' Brian and the Zydeco Travelers, and even war-horse Beau Jocque.

If Baltimore and New Orleans had become linked by music, it was probably the new technology of the Internet that proved the key factor. Jeremy Rice, then a graduate student in the biomedical-engineering department at Johns Hopkins University, started sending out a regular e-mail listing which zydeco bands were playing where in the area; eventually his mailing list grew to 400 to 500 people. With the mass e-mails, Rice became a semi-impresario of the local zydeco scene, even though his roots extend only as far as Bel Air, a far cry from the humid climes of Southwest Louisiana where zydeco was born.

Years ago, Rice says, he went to see the Cajun band Filé at the 8 x 10 Club and, after a trip to Louisiana, "got bit by the bug." He co-taught dance classes at the Barn Theatre at Catonsville Community College. He worked behind the scenes to get more bands booked locally, and to increase regional visibility for all kinds of roots music. But recently, he says, the area's zydeco scene "has lost its focus."

Rice, who has since moved to New York to work for IBM, still has hopes for Baltimore's zydeco scene: "I see what's happening, but I don't know if I'm pessimistic about it." But he notes the challenge of booking bands in clubs that expect to turn a profit on alcohol sales--the extremely active zydeco dance crowd is notorious for preferring water to beer or mixed drinks, the kiss of death for a bar or nightclub.

Some nightclubs, because of the poor alcohol sales and young nightclubbers' attraction to other types of acts, quit booking zydeco altogether. Kelly Lane, a bartender at the 8 x 10 during the mid- to late '90s when the Federal Hill venue regularly booked Cajun and zydeco acts like Steve Riley and Terrence Simien, agrees: "[Zydeco dancers] are nice people. There's never a problem with the zydeco dancers. They're nice and they're happy and they're dancing. But you can't make any money when you're serving water."

"Economically, it's hard to make it work," Rice acknowledges. "I suppose they could sell [bottled] water, but the problem is that in many cases they also have to raise the cover, which drives people away, since nobody is going to pay that extra money to see a band they've never heard of before."

And there lies another of the problems at the heart of booking zydeco bands: With the exception of Stanley Dural Jr. and a small number of second-tier acts--C.J. Chenier, Geno Delafose, the bands of father and son Roy and Chubby Carrier, and perhaps Rosie Ledet, "the Zydeco Sweetheart"--very few zydeco musicians are nationally known. But a universe of other zydeco acts regularly pass through the region. Legend Fernest Arceneaux has played the Cat's Eye, as has Willis Prudhomme. Thomas "Big Hat" Fields worked Harry's. And the late Wilson "Boozoo" Chavis, who died of a heart attack May 5 while on tour in Austin, Texas, played sets long into the night at the 8 x 10 and, later, at the American Legion Hall in Rosedale. With the passing of giants like Chavis and Beau Jocque, a newer, younger crew of zydeco artists reared on both Creole classics and hip-hop is taking their place, but without the ticket-selling cachet of a famous name or 30 years of touring and recording experience. Youngsters on the circuit such as Lil' Malcolm Walker may be the hottest thing in Louisiana towns like Opelousas or Lawtell, but he is a relative unknown to area dancers who may not make the pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival each year to scout the latest up-and-comer.

One homegrown act embodies zydeco's current transitional phase. In 1995, Baltimoreans Brian Simms and Michael Hershfeld formed Gumbo Junkyard, a band that performed such zydeco standards as Clifton Chenier's "Mama Told Papa (Party Goin' On)," Chavis' hit "The Motor Dude Special," and the Hank Williams song "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)," which was turned into a kind of zydeco anthem by Chenier. Gumbo Junkyard even rated a mention in New Orleans-based writer Michael Tisserand's highly regarded 1998 book The Kingdom of Zydeco (Arcade Publishing), although the author got the bands' roots wrong when he described them as "a group of Peabody Institute graduates."

But accordionist/keyboardist/lead vocalist Simms never saw Gumbo Junkyard as purely a zydeco band--he moved the band into swing territory by adding to the mix Louis Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" as well as a thumping medley of Louis Prima's "Wanna Be Like You" and the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Hell." The band began working on its own songs and reworked them over the years until it had more than just a zydeco appeal. Simms believes this move alienated the band from hard-core zydeco fans; Tisserand's book notes that "for a zydeco musician, crossing the line is considered a risk." Even in Louisiana, established zydeco acts such as Geno Delafose and Terrence Simien were penalized by fans for deviation from the classic style--Delafose for playing too many waltzes, Simien for his lightning-fast pace.

"Baltimore had [in Gumbo Junkyard] a zydeco band that would cater to [its] every whim," Simms says while relaxing between sets at the Belvedere's 13th Floor. He understands that Gumbo Junkyard filled a need between visits from the Louisiana bands--"but we found we couldn't rely on the zydeco crowd."

Since then, the band has changed members, focus, and its name. The original members are gone except for Simms and sax player Trevor Specht, and the band recently released a new CD under the name Junkyard Saints. While two tracks on the album, Jes' Like Your Mama Told You, could be considered zydeco--"Scrapple and Rye," which Simms calls a "zydeco-funk hybrid," and "Chicken-Leg Girl," a classic zydeco rave-up, fleshed out with Motown-style horns--the rest ranges from Latino to ska to big band swing.

"We've gone off into different directions," Simms acknowledges. But the band still maintains a healthy number of zydeco songs in its sets and regularly attracts "about 20 members" of the zydeco community he says. (The Saints will fill the traditional Sunday-afternoon zydeco slot at this weekend's Artscape, playing the Gordon stage.)

But promoter Tony Kosowski rejects the notion that zydeco's on the wane locally, even though he too has had his troubles.

Kosowski was the man who brought zydeco to Harry's (which recently relocated from 1200 N. Charles St. to new digs across Biddle Street). "I remember that damn place in January," he recalls of Harry's mid-'90s zydeco heyday. "We had snow falling, the air conditioning was on, and people were out in the street, it was so crowded." Finding Harry's too small for his growing events, Kosowski joined the Engineers Club at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion in 1998 to book dances there through his company TK Promotions. The dances were a raging success among the dance crowd, who swung and spun through the mansion's elegant interiors and across the hardwood ballroom floor.

But while the shows brought in good money, the Engineers' Club proved a less-than-ideal host. Kosowski says it was hard to schedule touring bands because of all the weddings held at the mansion, many booked more than a year in advance. The final straw, he says, came when he began advertising his shows in local newspapers. Apparently it just wouldn't do for the stodgy Engineers Club to be throwing its doors open to the dancing riffraff, some of whom brought gym bags with extra shirts to replace those doused with flying sweat. When the club's members began complaining, Kosowski began looking for another room for his bands. He believes he's found the place in Severna Park, the big air-conditioned Columbian Center on Ritchie Highway, where he's booked Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Cha's, contemporaries of Buckwheat Zydeco, to play next month.

But the biggest hurdle to sustaining the local scene, at least from a business standpoint, may not be purist crowds and recalcitrant venues so much as the ubiquity of the hard-touring musicians. "People can see a band in Glen Echo [in Montgomery County], and then downtown and at a festival," Kosowski says. "The market's getting saturated." He contends that bands are shortchanging themselves by taking many low-paying gigs instead of a few dances that would guarantee higher payoffs.

As a promoter, of course, Kosowski has every reason to make such a case: What the musicians do affects his bottom line. But he may have a point; one band can whistle-stop through town at a staggering pace, making it hard for anyone else to fill a room. The Baltimore Folk Music Society regularly puts on dances at Catonsville's Barn Theatre. And come July 14, the touring juggernaut that is Roy Carrier returns for a swing through the area that starts at Glen Echo Park's Spanish Ballroom and ends with gigs in Baltimore at the Cat's Eye and LA's Nightclub in Brooklyn.

The argument over whether there is too much or too little zydeco in the area will continue to rage, but the clearest sign the pulse of the music is still beating is the number of people who can teach the moves. With its complicated eight count and knee-buckling pace, zydeco dance, while never easy to learn, has no shortage of local tutors, including Baltimorean Tricia Restivo, Greenbelt resident and Cajun transplant Norm Helmold, and Ben Pagac, a Laurel resident who was the first in the country to sell and distribute an instructional video on the subject. Pagac can be found at many of the area dances, and his video is even sold at the Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl in New Orleans, considered the modern Mecca for zydeco music. But both Rice and Kosowski say the Baltimore-Washington region isn't far behind, an opinion borne out by the number of bands coming through the area and the size of the crowds still coming to see them.

"You know, The Wall Street Journal just did a piece on zydeco. It just keeps growing in popularity," Kosowski says. "Right now the crowd is mostly 30 and older. We need to concentrate on the younger people. Once they get into it, it will keep growing."

Upcoming local zydeco shows include Buckwheat Zydeco at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on July 12, Alligator Zydeco at Boordy Vineyards in Hydes on July 14, Roy Carrier and the Nightrockers at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point on July 15 and LA's Nightclub in Brooklyn July 19, and Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic at LA's on Aug. 3. For more information on local shows and zydeco in general, check out www.cajunzydeco.net.

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