You don't have to be an authority on zydeco music to appreciate where Li'l Brian Terry is coming from. Neophytes to the genre should have little problem adjusting to Terry's well-slung hash of accordion-based strains, old-school funk rhythms, discreet splashes of reggae and sweet soul vocals spiked with the occasional hip-hop turn. The Crosby-bred singer/accordion ace and his backup quartet, the Zydeco Travelers, specialize in an eclectic rural/urban fusion that revels in the present while it toys with the past, resulting in a sound that is, by turns, backwoods basic and slickly cosmopolitan. Put simply, the Travelers are messing with tradition -- and you can still dance to it.
It's somewhat fitting, then, that Terry, though proud of his small-town roots, chooses to be affiliated publicly with the urban sprawl of Houston, which he immortalizes night after night in the Zydeco Travelers' simmering, slack-grooved live staple "H-Town." As you might expect, Terry's unorthodox melding of old and new hasn't exactly thrilled zydeco purists. "Z-Funk," from the Travelers' recent Rounder debut of the same name, even takes a stab at rap, albeit a tame one. Still, hard-liners would have to credit this charismatic 23-year-old with injecting some much-needed innovation -- not to mention a little fresh blood -- into zydeco's twin hubs of East Texas and Louisiana.
Terry's mix-and-match ideals are merely the inevitable product of an upbringing awash in the full spectrum of black music. Over the years, Terry has dabbled in a bit of everything, from the accordion mastery of Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco, to the funk essentials of James Brown and George Clinton, straight on through to the street-smart swagger of '90s rap/hip-hop standard-bearers Snoop Doggy Dogg and the Fugees. His initial schooling in accordion came during summer vacations spent at the Eunice, Louisiana, farmhouse of cousin Geno Delafose, another of zydeco's finest players. Learning the Geno way wasn't always easy; Delafose was prone to angry outbursts when Terry wasn't quite on top of his lessons. Tutor and student even came to blows in one instance, though Terry says he was on the receiving end of most of the punches.
Terry took the button accordion skills he learned at the Delafose farm back to his bedroom in Crosby, where, with old Chenier and Buckwheat records as his guides, he taught himself piano accordion. At 13, Terry formed his own group; by age 15, he was holding down steady work at Houston's Continental Zydeco Ballroom. To celebrate high school graduation, he had the image of Buckwheat's accordion tattooed on one arm, literally etching his future in ink.
It was Buckwheat himself who convinced Terry to send his demos to Rounder, though it took more than seven years for the label to appreciate what they were hearing. Rounder, it seems, was skeptical of Terry's newfangled approach to zydeco and hardly blown away by his early attempts at songwriting. Enter Buckwheat Zydeco bassist Lee Allen Zeno, who came in with the production credentials and seasoning necessary to lend grounding to Terry's wide-eyed melding of divergent elements. Z-Funk, co-produced by Zeno, is the culmination of that collaboration. And while the CD's material is wildly inconsistent, Terry's potential looms in every track, and his enthusiasm echoes along every blind alley.
Indeed, you could do a lot worse than choosing Terry and his Zydeco Travelers as your escorts through a zydeco legacy that's been short on leadership of late. It appears that Terry is primed and ready to fill that leadership gap. Some might argue that he's already done it.
-- Hobart Rowland
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Li'l Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers perform at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 31, at Billy Blues Bar & Grill, 6025 Richmond Avenue. Tickets are $8. For info, call 266-9294.
Trans Am -- Developmental psychologists say our basic neuro-wiring is in place by the time we reach early childhood. If that's the case, then it's possible to view the latest generation of prog-rock as a futile attempt by its makers to unlearn all the classic rock and television theme songs ingrained in them from infancy. Good luck. One thing the Maryland instrumental trio Trans Am has going for it is that its members don't try to deny their less-than-hip collective unconscious. Rather, they incorporate it into their mix of analog and digital keyboards, bass, guitar and drums. Hell, they even flaunt it. Moreover, Trans Am knows enough about good old-fashioned rock music to include plenty of hooks, and the band never underestimates the importance of a funky drum and bass groove. But then, that's just their human instincts kicking in. At Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, Friday, May 30. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7. 862-3838. (Roni Sarig)
Who Night -- What do the bands playing the Who Tribute Night -- Jinkies, St. Vitus Dance, Rosebud, 747 Bombers, Under the Sun and Rudebega -- have in common? Not a thing. They don't even agree on whether or not the Who is a very good band. Luckily, the Who have a big enough repertoire that these bands can pick a palatable niche from the Townshend catalog without much stylistic overlap. Some people balk at the idea of bands doing covers and tributes, but how often do you hear local bands playing music by the same composer? Seeing these groups iron out their differences with Townshend music as their only weapon should give a little more insight into not only the bands, but the durability of the music itself. At the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam, Friday, May 30. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. 225-0500. (Gerard Choucroun