When I first moved to Louisiana and heard someone utter the term “swamp pop”, I was confused to say the least. I had questions. Was swamp pop just local music from which all the artistic integrity and meaning had been extracted so someone could get filthy rich? I pictured Miley Cyrus on a sparkly pink fan boat singing about her unrequited love for crawfish etouffee. Was there a top 40 countdown hosted by Dick Clark's cajun doppelganger for this sort of thing?
Now, several years later, I still don't know much about it, but I have at least been able to extricate my jaded view of contemporary “pop” music and all the images that it conjures from the reality of the situation. Obviously, one has almost nothing to do with the other.
When a friend gave me a copy of Lil Band O Gold's album Promised Land, it had no artwork or liner notes, and it came with no convenient introduction or genre labels. When I listened to it a few times, I was drawn to the warmth and realness of the songs, but I wouldn't have affixed any label to it other than to call it a great cohesive rock and roll album on the traditional side. I had no idea what exactly it was, but I loved what I heard. There was all the elements of early rock and roll, a whole lot of blues, some soul, a little boogie woogie guitar and a healthy dose of honky tonk piano. I was immediately reminded of artists like Tab Benoit, Bobby Charles, and Dr. John, and I knew for sure that this band was from Louisiana. They just had that Louisiana thing, something completely intangible, but impossible to miss when you hear it. Mostly it sounds like the best of times with family and friends plus an accordion. When I did a little bit of research, I had a Eureka moment. Aha! So this was swamp pop.
Lil Band O Gold is a Lafayette based nine piece swamp pop super group whose lineup reads like a who's who of the genre. They formed in 1998 out of a casual collaboration between singer/guitarist C.C. Adcock and singer/accordionist Steve Riley, who then enlisted the talents of legendary drummer Warren Storm. They then rounded out the lineup with the addition of saxophonists Dickie Landry, David Greely and Pat Breaux, bassist Dave Ronson, and pedal-steel guitarist Richard Comeaux.
When I attempted to break the music down into it's component parts, I marveled at just how many musical traditions this band was holding up on one album. I wondered how so many different types of competing styles and sounds could coexist in one band without sounding unnatural. I started thinking of something I had heard years before in the the film The Last Waltz (which I think is quite possibly the best music film/documentary ever made). In an interview where filmmaker Martin Scorsese is asking the late great drummer Levon Helm about his Arkansas upbringing and the music that influenced him personally, Levon seems to stumble upon the simplest possible explanation of how a complicated synthesis of cultural elements can yield an entirely new and distinct genre. The conversation went something like this:
Levon: Bluegrass and country music ... if it comes down into that area and if it mixes there with the rhythm and if it dances, then you've got a combination of all that music ...
Scorsese: What's it called?
Levon: Rock and roll.
After considering, I realized that swamp pop made a little more sense to me through this filter. Following professor Helm's theory, the traditional Cajun and Zydeco music of Lafayette and Lake Charles drifts towards New Orleans, mixes with that city's storied rhythm and blues traditions, and you arrive at the same place Levon did: Rock and Roll.
Lil Band O Gold bring their immaculate Louisiana encompassing Rock and Roll to the Manship Theater on Friday August 10 at 8pm. More info and tickets available by clicking here.
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