I saw Dizzy Gillespie play in one of the last concerts of his life; I saw R.E.M. in the MIT gym on their Fables of the Preconstruction tour; I was even there at the Apollo for “Rapmania” in 1989 when the crowd booed L.L. Cool J and cheered Third Bass. But by far the coolest concert I ever attended was seeing Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocques in a battle of the zydeco bands at the Rock’N'Bowl in New Orleans. Just to see these two legends of modern Cajun music, with their whipcrack bands and their huge ornate accordions and their love of entertaining—and to see them BOTH in one night—it was a religious thing.
But Beau Jocques died in 1999, and Boozoo passed last May. These two charismatic zydeco ambassadors were hugely important, and their deaths hit Looziana pretty hard. Fortunately, a couple of big stars have risen to the occasion. Buckwheat Zydeco released two albums in 2001 to fill the gap, and is dropping another in February. But this album under consideration was clearly the most significant zydeco release of 2001, especially considering its source, perpetual underachiever Terrance Simien.
Simien, whom most people know from his appearance in the Dennis Quaid/Ellen Barkin “movie” The Big Easy, is the perennial “next big thing that never was” of zydeco music. He’s got a voice from God, an easy hippie-fied stage presence, and a smooth-fingered way with his accordion; but he also has a six-year hole in his recording career, and has not been nearly the relentless road demon that Buckwheat Zydeco has proven himself to be. Everyone outside his dedicated group of “Beadheads” had kind of given up hope in Terrance really ever breaking through until this record hit the decks.
Quite simply, The Tribute Sessions is completely unnecessary. What it is is a 69-minute disc where Terrance Simien takes us through his musical influences, including Cajun vets like Rockin’ Dopsie and Clifton Chenier as well as other musical giants like Sam Cooke and Bob Marley. In between sweet bayou-flavored cover versions of songs by these artists, Simien just talks, telling how he came to know these artists, why he loves them so, and sometimes relating personal anecdotes about those that he’s met along the road. This would be pretty crucial if selected by Bob Dylan or James Brown or Prince—hell, even Madonna would benefit from this approach, as it might remind her why she wanted to make music in the first place. But Terrance Simien? A guy who has only released three previous albums? Who needs this?
Well, also quite simply, you do. The Tribute Sessions shows Terrance Simien to be a charming and talented fellow who started out as a music fan just like the rest of us. He talks about hearing Rockin’ Sidney’s “My Toot Toot” on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 and you can feel the delight in his voice; I actually chuckled at his story about laying down under a truck with Canray Fontenot to escape the blistering heat of the Zydeco Music Festival in Plaisance, Louisiana; and it’s touching to hear his eulogy for Beau Jocques: “I told the guys and they all felt the same, this real empty unbelievable sort of feeling”. Then they launch into a jumpy funky version of “Yesterday” that nails the whole call-and-response rock and roll feel of Beau Jocques and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers—still the tightest band I’ve ever heard—perfectly. A great approach to talking about your heroes . . . and a really wonderful tribute to a great American artist who should have sold more albums than Limp Bizkit.
The most fascinating part of these reminiscences are ones you wouldn’t expect. The image of the young Terrance Simien running around as a child singing “Bring It on Home to Me” is pretty hilarious: “I used to try so hard to sound like Sam Cooke, and you can only imagine how much I didn’t sound like Sam Cooke, being nine, 10 years old”. And then Simien goes and pulls off one of the greatest Sam Cooke impressions this side of the young Rod Stewart in a sexy version of “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day”. And the revelation that the Band is Simien’s favorite band ever, and that his greatest musical compliment was getting to meet and record with Rick Danko, would mean nothing if he didn’t prove it by pulling off a gorgeous six-and-a-half minute version of “It Makes No Difference”, with elegaic accordion work and soaring harmony vocals by longtime collaborator and co-producer Danny Williams.
So so what if Terrance Simien hasn’t really paid enough dues to do this record? It’s still one of the best things you’re ever going to hear. Not only is it a great window into the soul of a very talented man, it also shows the depth and range and gypsy spirit of a man who just might be the Next Big Thing after all. I only hope that that comes to pass—Simien is too good to be an underappreciated cult figure. We need him more than that. This disc is a kick-ass first step.