It's Saturday evening, and Our Lady Star of the Sea parish hall is filled with families enjoying cold beverages and homemade gumbo. The event is an old-fashioned zydeco dance, but the sounds coming from the stage aren't what most people expect at a church event. Tonight, J. Paul Jr. and the Zydeco Nubreedz are treating Catholic parishioners to a night of "nouveau zydeco."
At a venue like this, some traditionalists might expect conventional Creole boogies and waltzes, but the Nubreedz offer an amalgamation of modern R&B, contemporary soul and grinding, chank-a-chank rhythms. And instead of the accordion player being decked out in Wranglers, Tony Lamas and a Stetson, J. Paul sports a baggy black T-shirt and matching black jeans, with his hair neatly tied into braids.
He closes his eyes while he finds a groove on the accordion. Drummer Ronald "Scooby" Worthy bashes out a simple backbeat as guitarist Dino Purvis and bassist Ronald "Weasel" Lewis add tight funk to the mix. Meanwhile, rubboard player "John John" Robinson provides a pulsating rhythm that holds everything in place.
A few older folks enjoy the food and some pitchers of beer at their tables, but the rest of the people in the crowd are on their feet.
"A lot of people can play, but they don't entertain," says 28-year-old J. Paul, who was born Paul Lawrence Grant III. "We try to give people a show that they'll remember. I change up the melodies to make the songs sound different, so people don't hear the same thing over and over. And for real big shows, we'll have a big introduction to get the crowd real excited. And sometimes we put on different outfits. One year we did a show where we all had jail suits, and another time we all had fireman outfits."
Growing up, J. Paul had little interest in the music that would later shape his career. Although he was born in Houston and raised in Conroe, he had no idea what zydeco was until he was in his late teens.
"When I first heard zydeco, I thought it sounded a lot like Tejano," he says. "Around Conroe, I never heard any zydeco. I didn't know anybody from Louisiana. The guy who introduced me to zydeco was Step Rideau."
A minister's son, J. Paul was groomed in his father's church band and was approached by Rideau to play with the Zydeco Outlaws. He served as drummer for the Outlaws for three and a half years. By day he worked for Landmark Chevrolet and learned the triple-note and single-note accordions in Landmark's warehouse.
"I'm fairly musically inclined," he says. "I taught myself the accordion. A lot of it also came from watching other guys play."
Since going out on his own and forming the Zydeco Nubreedz, it's been a steady rise for the aspiring star. Without missing a beat, he secured his first gig the night after leaving the Zydeco Outlaws. "I played a trail ride at some campground," he remembers. "For tips only." Slowly and surely, more shows followed, and now J. Paul and the Nubreedz may well be the hottest zydeco act in town.
Regular appearances at Fifth Ward zydeco club Mr. A's have been jam-packed. The same goes for other clubs like the Silver Eagle and various church functions. But perhaps his crowning performance achievements in terms of gigs were recent performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1998 and 1999. "There was a lot of love at those shows," he recalls. "One year they even broadcast our show on the Internet. I guess they liked us."
The consistent factor at all of these shows has been J. Paul's younger fans. With his suave image and his rejuvenated take on zydeco, he's attracted a demographic that also listens to D'Angelo and Eminem. These include legions of young women who in turn draw their fair share of young men. But the similarities to rappers and latter-day soulsters end there. His updating of zydeco is one of the freshest takes since acts like Terrance Simien and Buckwheat Zydeco first breathed new life into the music back in the '70s and '80s.
His recent records like Phenomenon combine magnetic harmonies and R&B arrangements with familiar accordion hooks. The effect works and the songs stand on their own regardless of genre. Phenomenon is in full party mode until "Love Will Make a Change," which features a dramatic dialogue that climaxes when someone is shot over a woman. The ensuing ballad drops the zydeco vibe for a gospel-flavored arrangement effectively sung by bassist Raymond "Rambo" Williams.
The forthcoming Who Do You Love? (scheduled for release in late August) echoes the previous record's eclectic formula and does so with a funkier approach and tighter production (mixed and mastered by the artist himself). The record finds the Nubreedz are in top playing form, but one of the record's top factors is the front man's voice. With a deep, raspy tone, J. Paul's delivery can sound raw at times but emits the heartfelt qualities found in gospel acts and true bluesmen.
"It's upbeat, up-tempo zydeco done nouveau style," he says of the new record. "Sometimes, a lot of zydeco has a lot of hollerin'. There's no meaning to a lot of songs. [But] I try to write my songs with meaning to get a message across. I write about a lot of personal things that everyone can relate to, but I mix it up with fun stuff, too."
While he is enthusiastic about the pending release of Who Do You Love?, J. Paul still has bigger goals to accomplish. His main mission is to take zydeco music into the same realm as soul and hip-hop. Considering its energy and regional appeal, he doesn't see any reason why the music can't make it onto MTV or mainstream radio.
For this to happen, J. Paul knows he eventually has to hook up with a major label. Such ambitions aren't necessarily out of reach. His sound definitely has crossover potential, and as a performer, his good looks and assured attitude make him an easy face to market.
J. Paul believes his main hurdle is getting people to differentiate his brand of zydeco from stuff like Rockin' Sidney's "Toot Toot."
Meanwhile, he'll take his case to Africa in September as the Zydeco Nubreedz head to Gabon, taking the first ever zydeco sounds to that nation.
"I believe if we get one chance, we could bring zydeco to a national level," he says. "All it takes is just a little bit of airplay to catch on."
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