Zydeco accordionist Andre Thierry rumbles into town for two gigs this week, at Cafe 4212's Saturday zydeco brunch and The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club on Sunday. The soft-spoken Thierry may be based in Richmond in northern California, but he’s all about Houston and the local zydeco scene.
“I’d have to say Houston has the best feel for zydeco and the most dynamic zydeco scene anywhere right now,” says the man who produced two albums for local boy Ruben Moreno. “Houston is the only place I see a solid stream of new blood coming in. New blood brings new ideas, and that’s what zydeco needs if it’s going to remain relevant.
“Louisiana seems kind of stunted right now,” Thierry observes. “The zydeco scene in Louisiana seems stuck in one place, like it’s not advancing any, just repeating the old stuff. That’s the same thing that happened to the northern California scene. My grandmother was promoting zydeco dances in the Sixties and the scene here was really great. She’d book all the big Louisiana bands — Geno Delafose, Wilbert Thibideaux, all the big traditional names.
"But it became more like a country club in a way, a thing for the old folks," he continues. "There was very little new music or new ideas coming into the scene, and the audience just kept getting older as time went by. And no one was thinking about getting young people involved. So now our scene is not nearly as strong as it once was, although I still have half a dozen or so clubs where I gig around the area.”
Thierry regrets that zydeco is being infected with the same disease as the blues.
“I suppose there is nothing wrong with being a purist,” laughs Thierry, “but zydeco purists don’t ever seem to realize that zydeco is an inclusive genre, that its history is one of adapting to new styles that become popular. The zydeco greats like Clifton Chenier, they were always looking for a new tune that the public loved and would dance to. I think adapting new material and incorporating material from other genres and giving it a zydeco treatment is a thing that many Houston bands sort of lead the way in doing.
"And that’s one of the prime causes for new blood to come in, whether it’s young musicians or young fans," he adds. "We all need that new blood if we’re going to keep this tradition alive.
“I came up under the influence of all things Clifton Chenier,” the 36-year-old Thierry explains. “Clifton had no fear — if he liked a blues song he heard, he’d adapt it to his sound. If he liked a rock and roll hit, he’d adapt it to fit his set. People love the old traditional Cajun tunes, but as an artist and a band, you have to bring in some new material and some popular tunes now and then, keep things fresh and interesting.”
Thierry was actually exposed to Chenier when only a tyke of three at his grandparents’ home. According to family lore, Chenier pronounced that Andre was going to become an accordionist. He was playing by the time he was six and had sat in with many of the zydeco legends by the time he formed his band Zydeco Magic at age 12. He recorded his debut album, It’s About Time, in 1999 at age 20.
One thing to note about Thierry: His DIY albums are meticulously recorded and sound like major-label productions. He is currently touring in support of 2015’s Bouncin’ With the Blues. While Thierry’s albums are very modern vis-à-vis recording techniques and equipment, his music maintains a healthy country feel to it. At the same time, tunes like “My Heart Won’t Let You” have a modern pop feel that, sans accordion, would fit most R&B formats. It might also be a turnoff for old-school traditionalists.
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“I think you have to have something for everybody,” Thierry laughs. “And I’d get bored if I just wrote the same old song over and over. I’m a zydeco musician, but that doesn’t mean Clifton Chenier is the only music I like or that touches me somehow.”
While Thierry is all about bringing new blood into the zydeco tent, he has some advice for young bands: Turn it down.
“My biggest pet peeve in the scene right now is young bands that are way too loud,” Thierry laughs. “You play too loud, you’re going to lose some people. That’s just a fact. Volume is one of my biggest concerns at our shows. I want people to hear, but I don’t want them to be running for earplugs or tell me their ears were ringing two days later. That’s not what it’s all about. As an artist, you want people to hear your music, to be able to get the nuances, but you don’t want them to go deaf. It’s about balance.”