[29 October 2007]
Here’s to Made in the Shade, a foot-tappin’, energetic standout by the Red Stick Ramblers. Midway through the opening title track, lead vocalist Linzay Young confirms what you already know—you are in a place where Texas swing, Cajun music, and N’awlins jazz mix and mingle (“it comes from Opelousas / and it’s made in the shade”). When he adds that “chances are / my back pocket’s got a little thirst aid”, you have no doubt that beverage is white lightnin’. The Red Stick Ramblers offer you a drink and tug you onto the dance floor.
In the tracks that follow, the band delves deeper into its Cajun roots. It introduces an accordion and French lyrics to mask murderously dark details in original ballad “Les Oiseaux Vont Chanter”, and later returns to two sprightly Cajun covers, which offer the album’s most upbeat, danceable, and lively tunes. Fiddler Kevin Wimmer studied under late Cajun legend Dewey Balfa and well-showcases his lessons here. Meanwhile, the influence of like-minded peers Hot Club of Cowtown—who effortlessly merged Bob Wills’ Texas swing and Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz—shows up on “Some of These Days”, “The Cowboy Song”, and the Wills cover “Don’t Cry, Baby”.
Made in the Shade was recorded and co-produced by old-time music luminary Dirk Powell, who also happens to be Balfa’s son-in-law. Though Powell served in Cajun traditionalists Balfa Toujours with Wimmer and his wife, it is his old-time influence that’s most prominent on “Katrina”, a grittily upbeat fiddle and frailed banjo lament that damns the hurricane. The album also benefits from Powell’s warm and sprightly recording, as he eschews the rawer recording techniques he employs on old-time releases.
The syncopated dance strut of Clifton Chenier’s “Hot Tamale Baby” fits the group like a glove and creates a formidable party atmosphere. Despite the success of this and five other covers across 12 songs, Made in the Shade notably demonstrates the group’s increasing comfort with their own songwriting.
The album closes with an original—a ten-minute instrumental called “The Smeckled Suite” that is likely the most boundary-pushing, avant-garde track that Sugar Hill Records has recently released. A jazzily free solo guitar line leads into a skeletal and anticipatory march, which melds into an eerie waltz before bursting into a bustling, fiddle-led, amped-up two-step. It’s both heady and danceable.
Aside from the mood diversion of this last track, the album is sequenced superbly, much like one of the Rambler’s live shows. It is meant to create a festive atmosphere, one that celebrates a variety of enjoyable (and very danceable) roots music. If this five-piece isn’t scheduled to enliven your town soon, you can’t go wrong with Made in the Shade.