Exiting at University Avenue on I-10 towards Lafayette is like driving into an Austin time capsule, filled with memories from before when the city fell under the siege of twee taco cannons, eye poppingly expensive real estate and explosive population growth. Traffic is light. Houses are charming, colorful, single-family affairs. There's not a Torchy's for miles and miles. It's heaven, bayou style.
And like Austin a few decades ago, Lafayette has a music scene that still feels local. With a population holding steady around 120,000, a low cost of living and the institutional support of the large University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the city is fertile soil for Southern creatives of all (not tiger) stripes. On any given night, as the sunlight starts to slip below the Vermillion River, strands of Christmas lights twinkle on in the city's neighborhood bars and the sounds of washboards and accordions bring out the warm, welcoming residents onto the dance floor.
For Houston music lovers who want to spice things up Louisiana style, Lafayette is the perfect sonic weekend getaway.
Public radio station KRVS 88.7 offers visitors their first few notes of South Louisiana sound on the drive in. Programming like Dirty Rice, Born on the Bayou and Funkify Your Soul feature music with a distinctly Gulf Coast flavor, one that's percolated from a few centuries of swampy exile. Don't be surprised if you suddenly hear French over the airwaves; 30 hours a week of KRVS's programming is dedicated to the French language, a testament to the region's commitment to its multifaceted francophone heritage.
But for all of its history of isolation, Cajun and zydeco music is meant to be shared, and meant to be shared live. Lafayette will always have someone squeezing an accordion on a stage on any given night, like the Lost Bayou Ramblers, who play at Feed & Seed Lafayette on April 23, or the Pine Leaf Boys, who play at Artmosphere on April 22 (you can check out more bands by visiting the Cajun French Music Association Web site). Dancing is a must. "It has a rhythm and a beat that makes you want to get on your feet and dance, and smile while you're dancing." says Helen Pulnik, president of CFMA. "It's an infectious feeling when you see everyone jumping up on the dance floor."
"Lafayette is the heart of Cajun, creole, zydeco culture," said Dr. Gerd Weustermann, executive director of the Acadiana Center for the Arts. "We're deeply invested in music here." Weustermann would know. The center, which boasts 60,000 square feet of performing-arts space and puts on 120 shows in a season, is committed to preserving Louisiana's indigenous culture and connecting it to the contemporary art world at large. While the center offers a wide range of dance, theater, and musical performances worth seeing, perhaps most touching is "Soul Survival" (May 19-20) which was initially developed in response to the last year's tragic movie-theater shooting. As part of its "Louisiana Crossroads" series, the show combines gospel, soul and zydeco for a reflective, spiritual evening.
Those who want to see a more experimental side of Lafayette music will find it in the ethereal ambient sounds of Brass Bed, who have raised their national profile through performances at SXSW and NPR's Tiny Desk. "Some people might think that people only love Cajun/zydeco music, and that's not necessarily true," says Peter DeHart, Brass Bed's drummer. "The spectrum for liking different types of music has grown in this city, and the city has a natural appreciation for any music that has quality." The band's upcoming album, In the Yellow Leaf, comes out today, with their record-release show at none other than the Feed & Seed.
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Wax hounds will find friendly faces and expert curation at Lagniappe Records, self-proclaimed purveyor of "vinyl, tapes, and shit." Lagniappe specializes in world, Cajun and zydeco records, but carries a smart selection of rock, indie, punk and country records as well. If you like, the owner's cockatiel Agnes will perch on your shoulder and keep you company while you browse. The store's upcoming Record Store Day celebration (April 16) will feature the Taco Sisters air stream food trailer and a keg from Bayou Teche Brewery.
If you can duck out of Houston from April 20-24 without risking a layoff, Festival International de Louisiane is a must-see music and arts event celebrating the French cultural heritage of South Louisiana. Now in its 30th year, the festival boasts breathtaking diversity in its performing acts, from Ghanaian roots reggae artist Rocky Dawuni, EDM Yemenite singers A WA and Quebec folk band Les Poules à Colin. And unlike some other festivals we've heard about, this one is completely free (though you can buy passes for front-row seating and fancy bathrooms). For the most immersive Lafayette music experience, book a room at the Blue Moon Guesthouse, whose back porch opens up onto none other than the Blue Moon Saloon, another great venue for Lafayette roots music. If you're broke, the guest house offers hostel-style beds at the dirt-cheap price of $18 a night, but private rooms are available as well. Be warned: some rooms are adjacent to the saloon, so if you're not fond of two-stepping while brushing your teeth, consider booking elsewhere.
And finally? Make sure you eventually come on back home, lest Lafayette meet the fate of another idyllic town about three hours away.