Clifton Chenier may not have invented Zydeco, but most aficionados will agree that he was the undisputed King of the music during his lifetime. Gargantuan chops on the accordion and an aptness for adroitly blending the ingredients of the genre (Creole, Cajun and Blues) into a wholly personal pastiche assured his ascendancy to the throne. Fortunately Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie label was on hand during much of the monarchy to document his abilities in a variety of settings. Playing Norman Granz to Chenier’s Charlie Parker Strachwitz organized a multitude of recording dates for his friend, but unlike Granz he left complete creative control to his Chenier. Live albums (culled from shows in Switzerland, San Francisco), concept dates (an album of Blues, another of French tunes) and strait rocking studio sessions were all released by Chenier under the Arhoolie imprint.
As might be expected quality varied from release to release and in later years some of the youthful verve of his earlier prime had faded. This disc resurrects a concert date from this twilight time in Chenier’s career, but from the opening Creole rocker “Mon Fait Mon L’ide” it’s abundantly clear that Zydeco King still rules with regal confidence and conviction. The sounds of Cleveland Chenier’s spoons on corrugated washboard metal kick up a sawdust storm of rhythm and C.J. Chenier’s alto wails ecstatically on top in fine R&B roadhouse form. The master sets the buttons of his instrument to blistering and the heat doesn’t let up to until a surprisingly sudden end. “You Got Me Crying” knocks the pace down a few notches into a slow boil of percolating drums and swirling accordion fills. The lull is shortlived however as Cleveland’s wickedly conceived eggbeater rhythms whip the tempo back up on “Wrap It Up, Baby” and Clifton barks out a rousing vocal that sets the rest of the band to whooping. Tracks like “Zydeco Rock” and “Ay-Ye-Yie Zydeco” are pure unshaven rhythm full of prickly sonic stubble and foot-stomping momentum. On the rolling shuffle “You Don’t Have To Go” Chenier does his best Howling Wolf croon and the band locks in with a loose groove behind him. “I Got the Blues” stretches out past the seven-minute mark on a “Mannish Boy” rhythmic riff and simple improvised lyrics. Pouring water onto the smoldering coals C.J. throaty horn offers up sympathetic counterpoint and the band settles into another dusky groove.
Overall Chenier’s live recordings are a mixed bag, but this one taped in his hometown definitely ranks alongside Live At St. Marks as one of his most raw and redoubtable. Spit and polish are largely abandoned in favor of far more persuasive pathos and emotion and the end result is program that rocks jubilantly from beginning to close. In addition the clarity of the recording brings each of the instruments and the band as a whole into a nice balance with audience reactions left into the mix as a gauge of how well Chenier fans will no doubt snap this off the racks in droves, but those new to Zydeco are advised to follow suit. Seventy-eighty minutes with the King of Zydeco is time well spent.
Arhoolie on the web: http://www.arhoolie.com
Personnel: Clifton Chenier- vocals & accordion; Cleveland Chenier- rubboard; C.J. Chenier- alto saxophone; Robert Peter (St. Judy)- drums; guitar & bass unidentified. Recorded: April 28, 1981, Lafayette, LA.