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Rotation

Keith Frank, the hottest attraction in zydeco clubland, captures the dance-hall groove.

Boozoo Chavis and the Magic Sounds
Who Stole My Monkey?
Rounder

Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band
Live at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki
Shanachie

In Robert Mugge's 1994 documentary The Kingdom of Zydeco, accordionists Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque vie for the zydeco music crown left vacant by the 1987 death of Clifton Chenier (a onetime Houston resident). As the movie explores the friendly yet highly avid rivalry between the two, it compares and contrasts the music and attitude of both the seasoned veteran (Chavis) and the younger and talented upstart (Jocque). The unspoken point becomes the fact that both artists deserve royal stature, and how the continuing vitality of zydeco as it enters its second, third and further generations is rooted in a unique union between tradition and contemporary currency.

No other place in America is more steeped in regional and ethnic traditions than the Cajun country parishes of southern Louisiana, which are the birthplaces and homes of zydeco music. Yet at the same time, zydeco at its best continues to live outside the sometimes constrictive notion of folklore, thanks to the primary realm in which the music is made: the Louisiana dance halls where the spirit of the fais do do rules. Quite simply, you've never truly heard zydeco if you haven't enjoyed the energy and sweat of a packed show at Louisiana joints like Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, Richard's in Lawtell, the Habibi Temple in Lake Charles or El Sido's in Lafayette, to name some of the most notable venues. To witness zydeco's biggest stars in the music's truest context is to understand how it acts as the cultural counterpart to church, transmitting a sense of spirit, community and shared experience, and how it offers transcendence from the vagaries of day-to-day life. At its most potent, live zydeco sparks an infectious feeling of joy. Just like good boudin and crawfish étouffée, the full flavor of zydeco can be tasted only in Louisiana.

The corollary to all this is that zydeco recordings are, for the most part, a disappointing approximation of the real thing. And this isn't merely the eternal struggle to capture the evanescent and ineffable spirit of inspired music on tape, or these days, in digital bytes. Zydeco recording budgets are limited by the very nature of the music's audience share, and rarely if ever has a zydeco act tracked with one of those few skilled recordists who can bring life to the highly artificial process of making records. It's a tribute to zydeco's inherent élan that the music has traveled so far from the Louisiana borders at all, and the primary forces in spreading the zydeco gospel have definitely been the evergrowing popularity of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the domestic and overseas tours by zydeco's top acts.

Given all that, Boozoo Chavis has fared rather well on the recording front. He re-emerged in 1991 after three decades of musical semiretirement, releasing an eponymous album on the American Explorer series started and sadly abandoned by Elektra Nonesuch Records. After scoring zydeco's first genuine hit song in 1955 with "Paper in My Shoe," Chavis was instrumental in setting zydeco's canon until he put music aside for a successful career training racehorses in 1961. Due credit for reviving and enhancing Chavis's profile goes to Terry Adams of NRBQ, another musical act whose records never quite approximate its beguiling charm as the best bar band in the universe. The initial spark was the song "Boozoo, That's Who!" on the 'Q's 1989 album, Wild Weekend (the band's best studio outing), which featured Chavis on his own tribute. The albums Adams produced for Chavis, beginning with the American Explorer comeback, and followed by Boozoo, That's Who! on Rounder in 1993 and Hey Do Right! on Antone's/Discovery in 1996, are among the most vital studio waxings by a zydeco act.

That said, the latest release from Chavis, Who Stole My Monkey?, might sound at first blush like just another Boozoo album, which in and of itself is just fine, thank you. His warm and mellifluous accordion trots merrily through this 16-song set, strong on dance-floor grooves that his band, the Magic Sounds (which includes sons Charles and Rellis Chavis), plows into like the loamy soil of Cajun country. But such departures as a solo accordion/voice rumination on Big Joe Williams's "Baby Please Don't Go," which is pure bluesy pleasure, and a zydeco romp on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bottle Up and Go" make clear just who zydeco's Delta country cousins are. And the inclusion of two cheeky X-rated dance-floor favorites, "Deacon Jones" and "Uncle Bud" (sample lyric: "18, 19, 20 years ago, Uncle Bud beat the shit out of Cotton-Eyed Joe"), help make this disc an essential Chavis release. Although the uninitiated might still be advised to begin with 1994's Live! At the Habibi Temple (also on Rounder), the Chavis charm is certainly in ample supply on his latest.

 

Among the regular clubgoers in Cajun country, 25-year-old accordionist Keith Frank is probably the hottest attraction. But up until now, his full charms haven't been readily accessible beyond the Louisiana borders, as he limits his gigging pretty much to the local stomping grounds and has recorded a number of albums that don't quite capture the mercurial, almost narcotic effect of his groove-heavy zydeco. The son of zydeco veteran Preston Frank, Keith plays with his younger sister Jennifer on bass and little brother Brad on drums, and their schooling restricts the band's travels to nearby realms. Although Frank scored a regional hit with his catchy cover of "Movin' On Up" — yes, the theme song to the TV series The Jeffersons — and recorded material by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Fats Domino and Bob Marley, Frank's infusion of soul and funk flavors into zydeco hasn't quite translated on his studio releases.

Live at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki is the disc that finally delivers Frank's mesmerizing magic to the world at large. As Frank and his Soileau Zydeco Band perform 17 infectious, hip-shaking cuts, you can almost see the lines of dancers flowing to and fro as they do the zydeco shuffle, and nearly feel the dance floor at Slim's sway and bounce to the rhythm of hundreds of bodies in graceful motion. The bulk of this set is hard-core zydeco club music, a driving collection of deep and aerobic numbers that go straight to your butt-shaking soul. The band keeps the tempo at a simmering pace while Frank's sweet accordion runs curl and swoop as he sings with the exhortations of a musical preacher. Rather than exploring his inspired fusions with a variety of other musical modes, Frank sticks to the full course of Louisiana musical treats, closing with a single pop music cover, Keith Sweat's "I Want Her." This is truly a record that inspires listeners to pump up the volume and groove, and a crowning achievement that opens up the zydeco pantheon for the presence of three deserving kings.(Rob Patterson)

Verbena
Into the Pink
Capitol

There's something a little ridiculous about being in a rock band. There are only so many poses that can be struck with a guitar, only so many emotions that can be conveyed over three chords and only so many things that haven't been done to death by the millions of rock bands that have come before.

Verbena proves that power trios can still matter. Not in a super-revolutionary way, but just enough to point out that part of the beauty of rock and roll is making old sounds seem vital. Passion means a lot. The group's second record is a swaggering, sweating 40-minute blast of big guitars, open-throttle drumming and male/ female-intertwined vocals. Into the Pink delivers the kind of sweet, bludgeoning rock that results from owning a deep record collection and relying on songwriting instinct. That it was produced by ex-Nirvana/Foo Fighter Dave Grohl is worth noting, less for the cool factor than for the raw sound of Pink.

Verbena owes a debt to Nirvana's metallic pop, but there's more to the band than that. It isn't a direct copy or grunge lite (and besides, its members aren't from Seattle; they're from Birmingham, Alabama). Yes, Verbena sings about anger, liquor, sex and confusion, but any rocking alternative band is going to show signs of owning Nevermind. "Pretty Please" is based on a circular four-note guitar run with a stuttering drum beat that goes rhythmically against it, similar to the inverted metal riffs that Kurt Cobain was fond of. And at the chorus, drummer Les Nuby's flailing is a dead ringer for Grohl's straightforward pulsing kick drum and loose-limbed cymbal bashing. But "Pretty Please" is dark and thrashing, with the harsh-sweet vocal interplay between Scott Bondy and Anne Marie Griffin giving it more of a classic rock feel (think Fleetwood Mac on battery acid). If anything, the group owes as much to the Sex Pistols as the Nband. There is the song title "John Beverly" (Sid Vicious's real name) and the boots-marching sample that begins the title track (which is what the Pistols did to introduce "Holiday in the Sun"). It's as if Verbena wants to preempt criticism by showing that it knows something about pregrunge rock history, lest some wiseass record store clerk or critic denounces it as "Nirvena."

What really makes Verbena stand out are the dynamics of the record and the occasional new wave references. The album opens with a piano and vocal piece, "Lovely Isn't Love," which is choked with subtle "ooh"s from the background singers and Bondy's sounding world-weary. It sounds like the kind of piano ballad a '70s rock band might throw in for crossover appeal. But placed in context of Pink, it's a brooding foreshadowing. "Baby Got Shot" rolls up and down, what with Bondy's guitar coming in like a muscle spasm. "Submissionary" bangs like something by The Fall, with angular guitar chords bouncing off the walls. Pink closes on a down note, the strum and vocal duet between Bondy and Griffin, "Big Skies, Black Rainbows," bringing it full circle, from the quiet piano to full-tilt rock and back down again. Verbena has crafted a solid album, as opposed to a collection of songs.

 

Rock is simple and primal. Verbena is simple and primal. Whether howling, whimpering or begging for love, this is a band intoxicated on the power of its songs and a firm resolution to be important. (David Simutis)


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