[29 May 2009]
In 1976, Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, Jr. did something he’d previously spent his entire musical career shunning. The R&B organist and former band leader with 15-piece funk ‘n’ soul outfit Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers started to play zydeco, first on organ and later accordion. But, then, how could he refuse the offer to join the genre’s undisputed king, accordionist Clifton Chenier’s band. Their partnership would last the next two years and reintroduce Dural to his roots. “When I went with Chenier, it really got to me, like I was running away from my roots by being ashamed to play accordion, being ashamed to speak French ... I’m just glad I woke up,” declared Dural during an interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Don Snowden in 1988. Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, during the 1950’s, when speaking Cajun French was banned in schools and traditional Creole music was, like his father’s beloved accordion and washboard, only ever played at home or at family gatherings, young Stanley must have been acutely aware of the stigma attached to his Cajun heritage. As Dural explained back in 1989, “Well, I’m Creole, and in Creole culture music is only ever played in the house, at family reunions, weddings, etc. The way I play it now, on public stages and stuff, was unheard of. It was Clifton Chenier that opened people’s eyes to that.”
Lay Your Burden Down marks the 30th anniversary of Dural’s band Buckwheat Zydeco and their first studio album in four years. The record also sees the return of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin to the producer’s chair, a position he first took up for them back in 1994 on the excellent Five Card Stud. So it’s no wonder that these 11 tracks, five originals and six covers, find old hands like bassist Lee Allen Zero, drummer Kevin Menard, guitarist Michael Melchione and trumpet player Curtis Watson in a celebratory mood and ready to party hard. But, then, that’s nothing new for a band who take their infectious zydeco influences and—like Chenier, who grafted country blues and early R&B onto the traditional sound of rural Southwest Louisiana—cross-pollinate it with gritty soul, reggae, jazz, and high-energy funk-rock to such great effect.
The mood is set from the off. When Buckwheat Zydeco take Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s contemporary blues retelling of the Mississippi River flood of 1927, “When the Levee Breaks”, and turn it into an energised dose of hard-edged R&B fueled by the feisty interplay between Dural’s pulsing Hammond B3 organ and the guitar work of special guest, former Chenier band member Sonny Landreth, all bets are off. Especially as the song gets flipped on its ass at the end and turned into a furious accordion two-step by Dural.
What follows is an album of highlights with only one flat moment. “Back in Your Arms” is a light-weight reggae reinvention of a Bruce Springsteen tune that even the Boss didn’t consider fit for initial release, saving it for his “previously unreleased” box set Tracks in 1998. Compare this with “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah”, a lively, skanking reggae-meets-zydeco reinterpretion of a Jimmy Cliff original and you begin to wonder whether 10 tracks might not have been enough.
But even though the other covers provide gems like the bluesy, downbeat title-track originally cut by Gov’t Mule, it’s the originals imbued with emotion that really stand out. “Don’t Leave Me”, a soulful heartbreaker with a delightful zydeco groove purely bounces along on stabs of sweet southern horns (with guests Berlin playing baritone sax and Trombone Shorty on, well, trombone—nice solo!), while the funky-zydeco, finger-poppin’ boogie of “Ninth Place”, co-written with his manager Ted Fox, professes unbridled love to an unnamed object of desire. The album closes fittingly with the languid, after-hours instrumental “Finding My Way Back Home”—the perfect way to end a great party.