Father Emmanuel Domenech, the Catholic missionary who in the 1840s was the first-ever French visitor to the Bayou City, was singularly unimpressed by what he found. "Houston," he wrote in his journal, "is a wretched little town composed of about 20 shops, and a hundred huts, dispersed here and there, among trunks of fallen trees. It is infested with Methodists and ants." (Listen, Padre Frog, it may be a shithole, but it's our shithole, comprendez-vous?) Lucky for us, his Cajun cousins have always held the city in somewhat higher esteem -- but then they were already accustomed to the ants, if not the Methodists.
Beginning with the oil boom and continuing through the postwar era, Cajuns streamed into town in such numbers as to make Houston home to likely the largest Cajun population outside of Louisiana. Unlike the Creoles, though, many of whom settled in the Fifth Ward's Frenchtown enclave and established their own parish churches, the Cajuns dispersed all over town. Aside from a few restaurants and Pe-Te's Cajun Bandstand, KPFT's long-running South Louisiana music show, Cajun culture focal points are few and far between. Cajun cooking may be widespread in Houston, but despite the best efforts of Huey Meaux's local Crazy Cajun label, Cajun music has never entered even the fringes of the city's mainstream the way that Creole zydeco has.
For a weekend, at least, all that will change. Clear Channel's Cajun Invasion brings to town an interesting mix of Cajun and Creole bands -- some time-tested, and others new on the scene -- along with the requisite gumbo, crawfish and jambalaya.
The Clear Channel Cajun Invasion
Garden in the Heights, 3926 Feagan
Friday through Sunday, April 5 through 7; 713-880-1586
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For devotees of Cajun music, Doug Kershaw and Jo-El Sonnier scarcely need introduction. Kershaw, the alligator hunter's son whose fiddle skills earned him the sobriquet "the Cajun Paganini," scored big hits with "Louisiana Man" and "Diggy Diggy Lo" in the 1960s. While everyone knows "Houston" was the first word spoken from the moon (take that, Father Domenech!), few recall that the first song ever played on the moon was a recording of "Louisiana Man." Accordionist Sonnier had a critically acclaimed, though ultimately disappointing, five-year run on the Nashville major-label circuit in the late '80s and early '90s. As a sideman, Sonnier has been summoned to the studio to shake a little squeezebox cayenne on records by Mark Knopfler, Neil Diamond and Elvis Costello.
Also on the bill are several aspirants to Kershaw and Sonnier's realm. Barry Badon, Sean Vidrine and Damon Troy are all barely-drinking-age bandleaders who've been playing since they were in grade school. Badon's Bayou Boys Band leans toward the swamp-pop edge of the spectrum, while Vidrine's Swamp Fyre Band draws inspiration from Steve Riley and Wayne Toups. Troy was recently written up in the Louisiana music monthly Offbeat as "The Cajun Elvis." As columnist Herman Fusilier wrote, Troy "is not the bloated, drugged-out Elvis who overdosed on the toilet," but rather "the baby-faced, hip-shaking, make-the-girls-scream-and-mama-sweat 'Hound Dog' Elvis."
Louisiana's Kingfish is an older group specializing in "zyde-country," while Chris Ardoin and Double Clutchin' are one of the Pelican State's finest straight-up zydeco bands. Denton's Brave Combo is the wild card. They'll likely use the Cajun-ness of the event as a springboard for their outlandish polka-based sonic creations.
All told, it promises to be a party that could get even a Methodist to dance like he's got ants in his pants.