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Swamp Thing

Out of the soup of southern Louisiana comes a collection of Cajun all-stars with an indescribably sweet sound

If there's any word in the rock lexicon that's tattered, debased and long overdue for retirement, it's "supergroup." But to the folks who follow music from the Louisiana coast, specifically between Lake Charles and Lafayette, no other term better fits Lil' Band O' Gold.

The band, after all, gathers together some of the best players from the southern Louisiana scene. Singer and accordionist Steve Riley is probably the sharpest neotraditionalist in Cajun music today, known worldwide for the spirited music of his Mamou Playboys. Likewise, singer and guitarist C.C. Adcock enjoys a career outside this Lil' Band O' Gold, thanks to a six-string style that you might describe as Stevie Ray Vaughan steeped in Cajun roux. Drummer and pop-rock crooner Warren Storm may be little more than a footnote outside bayou country, but in Louisiana, where generations grew up to his hits and club performances, Storm is a legend of the 1950s swamp-pop scene. Even the six other players in this old-style "show band" all have hefty résumés: Sax man Dickie Landry left behind his Gulf Coast roots to move to New York, where he was a key figure in the 1980s art-music movement, playing with Philip Glass, the Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson; he even became a renowned visual artist on his own. Bassist Dave Ranson has recorded and toured with Sonny Landreth as well as John Hiatt as a member of the Goners.

What this potent aggregation has brought back to life is one of the most swoon-inducing regional genres from the not-too-distant past: swamp pop, which sprang up in Louisiana in the 1950s as the southern equivalent of the then-popular doo-wop style of the East Coast. But since swamp pop was a minor movement outside of a swath from San Antonio to Biloxi, where show bands injected it into the hearts of impressionable young listeners, explaining the sound to neophytes is not easy.

Lil' Band O' Gold: The Traveling Willburys of Cajun music.
Brian Ashley White
Lil' Band O' Gold: The Traveling Willburys of Cajun music.

It's one of those things that fits the old saw you know it when you hear it. "There's been so much discussion about it, it's not even fun to discuss. It can get so stupid," laments Adcock. It's the sound of first love and virginity lost; it's youthful heartache so strong that it's almost a sensual pleasure. It's a song that hooks your imagination, sung sweetly and played with a languid authority that resembles the intense yet lazy wet heat of a bayou summer night. It's a gumbo made from pop, rock and soul, spiced with regional Cajun and zydeco sounds.

Swamp pop has been defined by some according to rhythm -- especially the quick one-two-three keyboard hits known as triplets -- but Adcock begs to differ. "I think the pop part of it is the most important definition," he says. "Up until now, I think a lot of the people who have tried to figure out what it is, they always try to define it by the beat. They always wanna talk about that triplet, 6/8 Fats Domino thing. I think what's more important is the pop thing. There's a certain melody, a certain pop sweetness that just strikes a deep chord with people down here on the Gulf Coast. It's that melody and those voices, which is probably the same thing that struck people on the East Coast with doo-wop. But it's a different flavor, different set of rules, different melody and a different sound. So I think if you were going to look for the Holy Grail or the Rosetta Stone of swamp pop, you have to look for the melody, and not necessarily the beat."

Lil' Band O' Gold's self-titled debut consists mainly of swamp-pop standards, but it also includes a number written by Cajun music pioneer Dewey Balfa, as well as a tune Adcock co-wrote with Willy DeVille and a number by Tom Waits and Keith Richards. Though he calls the group "the cover band I always wanted to hear after drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels," Adcock believes Lil' Band O' Gold will rely more on its own compositions for a follow-up album. "I think what you are going to see next is more original music coming in," he says. "That'll be interesting to see because we have three generations of players in this band from all sorts of different backgrounds and influences. Yet we're all very much alike and come from the same place."

South Louisiana, Adcock feels, offers plenty of fecund soil in which to plant the seeds of this new swamp pop. "There's so much of a story here, and you can hear it when you're hanging out on the roadside at some joint, or eating dinner at your favorite place," he says. "There's a lot of stories to be told. It's just a lush landscape. Musically, I think that happens, too. I think that there's a whole new story to be told."

When Adcock and Riley were still in the early stages of forming Lil' Band O' Gold, finding just the right pieces for the ensemble, they knew where to turn for the heart: the Four Seasons Lodge, a VFW-style hall in Lafayette, where Warren Storm plays his weekly gig. "We wanted to do this band that could play all our favorite stuff. 'Let's do the white soul thing, all them songs we really want to play. Let's focus more on a vocal band, where we can really do some great songs and sing some great songs.' So who are you going to get to do that? Well, you have to get Warren."

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