There must be tremendous burdens associated with becoming a certifiable cultural institution. BeauSoleil, the Michael Doucet-led Cajun band from Lafayette, Louisiana should know—they have an NEA National Heritage Fellowship and a shelf-full of Grammy nods as proof. (Doucet has a hand in two of the five Zydeco or Cajun Grammy nominations this year, for instance.) And like another cultural institution they frequently bump up against—Garrison Keilor’s A Prairie Home Companion—the band must balance progress with politeness, must be representative but not derivative, must feel familiar instead of simply nostalgic. On Alligator Purse, the band’s first album for the venerable Yep Roc label, BeauSoleil finds that balance. They’ve created a record that is both Cajun to its core and something else entirely.
The instrumentals, like the set’s opener “Real Cajun (451 N. St. Joseph)” and its closer “Valse á Thomas Adroin”, put the Cajun tradition in center-stage. But for such a definitively Cajun band, BeauSoleil lets the tradition reach in a number of different directions. “Marie”, for example, shows the band at work against an R&B horn section. And a cover of J.J. Cale’s “The Problem” boldly conflates the sounds of the west coast and the gulf coast. Throughout the record, in fact, BeauSoleil proves Cajun music’s versatility by offering it as a matrix through which run strands of country, blues, rowdy folk, and jazz.
The best example on the new record is probably “Rouler et Tourner”. The song, most recently revived and revised by Bob Dylan on 2006’s Modern Times, is actually a cover of a cover of a cover of an ancient blues, in French. And it’s a fine example of how the folk process works in the postmodern era. The fiddle handles the looping guitar figures and Doucet’s slurred vocal show how much can actually be gained in translation. Listening to this track, it’s clear that the band’s rugged earthiness and its quick flexibility, not its penchant for traditionalism, are its greatest assets.
In addition to BeauSoleil’s core line-up, Alligator Purse features a number of guests. Natalie Merchant adds harmonies to the Julie Miller song “Little Darlin’” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian makes an appearance, as do upstate New York heavy-hitters Artie and Happy Traum and the telecaster wizard Jim Weider. The most remarkable guest spot, however, goes to Garth Hudson, who contributes an introduction to “I Spent All My Money Loving You” that sounds like a more sagacious, more subdued version of the Band’s seminal “Chest Fever”, As with most of what he plays, that brief appearance becomes a thumbnail history of the shape of North American music. But this is BeauSoleil’s record and they themselves have plenty to teach, so they seize back the song with a steady beat and a snaky assurance.
This record is a repository of Cajun tradition, and as such it would be a fantastic introduction to Cajun music. But it is also a subtle, respectful revision of the form. In other words, it spreads its scope wider than any single genre and finds something interesting and meaningful at nearly every turn.