Houston Music

Step Rideau & the Zydeco Outlaws

In recent decades, zydeco has emerged to mingle on the margins of the mainstream. Its delightfully funky washboard rhythms and accordion riffs are regularly featured at festivals, certain mega-restaurants, and clubs all over (and well beyond) the Gulf Coast. The strength of the sound is obviously its inherent danceability. The weakness is its repetitive and often simplistic lyrical content -- but then again, that same charge could be levied against practically any form of dance music, right? But whatever its merits and shortcomings, zydeco is appreciated by a wider range of people today than ever before.

A new generation of black Creole zydeco players has embraced the signature soundtrack of their cultural ancestors: Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque. In the absence of this now departed Holy Trinity, the younger breed is keeping the music alive while also taking it in new directions, often fusing the zydeco licks they inherited with elements of hip-hop, reggae and rock. A few, however, have updated and urbanized the sound while simultaneously defining themselves as traditionalists. And one of the best of these is Houston's own Step Rideau.

With 14 tracks clocking in at more than 56 minutes of playing time, Rideau's latest CD confirms his maturity into a zydeco stalwart for the 21st century. The song selection includes ten originals plus four numbers that reach back to Chenier, Chavis and John Delafose, another famous patriarch. The lyrics offer no surprises, touching broadly on familiar themes such as dancing, partying, eating, loving and traveling. But nobody listens to zydeco for its verbal poetry anyway. Instead, it's ultimately all about the groove -- and these guys get it right.

Rideau's studio band -- consisting of guitarist-bassist Stan Chambers, rubboard percussionist Rudy Chambers and drummer Jean Paul Jolivette -- is exceptionally tight. Chunky strokes from the rhythm section and absolutely brilliant soloing and sonic effects on electric guitar vividly accentuate the contemporary vibe, while simultaneously conjuring up the perfect complement to the old-school glories of Rideau's intelligent mastery of the accordion.

But apart from their impeccable instrumental performances, these musicians distinguish themselves by being unusually melodious vocalists -- at least for a zydeco band. Rideau's lead voice has mellowed into a soulful, slightly gravelly tenor, and he fuses it splendidly with the backing harmonies of Jolivette and Stan Chambers. Unlike many zydeco bandleaders, Rideau is truly a singer, not just a shouter.

Of special note, on this record Rideau sings in both French and English, often within the same song. Years ago, back when Clifton Chenier was the reigning king of the genre, such bilingual vocalizing was the norm. But among today's younger zydeco artists -- most of whom grew up watching MTV and listening to rap -- the unique patois of their ancestors has generally disappeared. Yet thanks to Step Rideau and his talented band of Zydeco Outlaws, a natural articulation of the classic zydeco sound survives.

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Roger Wood
Contact: Roger Wood