Cajun is not a genre that I often explore, but if Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are representative of the contemporary Cajun scene, I’m missing out on some great music. Part of my reluctance to hear more Cajun is the French language/accordion combination. It’s a double whammy in terms of my musical prejudices, because I’m rarely in the mood for songs sung in French, nor do I often feel like instigating a kick-up-your-heels accordion party. But I forget that accordion does not necessarily equal hoedown. Accordion can be moody, bluesy, mysterious, existential, cynical, and debonair. Steve Riley’s accordion effortlessly wanders this kind of diverse and shifting mood terrain. The title Happytown suggests a Zydeco party album, but this CD actually explores musical and emotional registers that I associate more with folk-rock artists like The Band, The Cowboy Junkies and Richard and Linda Thompson than with the Cajun/Zydeco scene.
“Gros Jean” (Big John) is an example of the broadening of genre boundaries that Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys achieve so successfully on Happytown. Guitarist Roddie Romero opens the tune with a carpet of reverb-saturated, Celtic-influenced electric guitar. As the bass, drums and vocal kick in, we enter a field of tonal coloration that is remarkably close to Richard Thompson’s grimly beautiful “Calvary Cross”. Between verses, David Greely’s fiddle parts lift the tune to higher emotional peaks with stern, fatalistic harmonies and a powerful, richly textured sound.
Romero, Greely and Riley are all outstanding, generous players who complement each other beautifully and never compete for the limelight. All three could easily be bandleaders in their own right and the diversity of the Mamou Playboys’s sound stems from the fact that the band has three such tasteful soloists. Riley’s accordion is used much more sparingly and effectively than in most Cajun/Zydeco bands, where the accordion is the main lead instrument. On “Les vigilants/The vigilantes”, the band builds a hypnotic, ambient arrangement from an inverted Flamenco-sounding riff played on acoustic guitar, fiddle and electric slide over bass and drums. When the accordion finally ripples in almost at the fadeout, I felt a chill at the sheer rightness of Riley’s timing, and the spare authority of his musical statement.
Other standouts are the sweetly melancholy accordion/fiddle duet on “Mes enfants/My Children” and the old-time acoustic Creole feel on the guitar and fiddle driven “Patoutville”. Kyle Hebert on bass and Kevin Dugas on drums are a wonderfully solid rhythm section, tight and driving, yet thoroughly relaxed and unobtrusive. If you want to open your ears to the rich traditions of Cajun and Creole music and at the same see how the future of Cajun is being shaped by some of its most talented young practitioners, I highly recommend Happytown.