The carnival barker voice that begins the new BeauSoleil album, Alligator Purse, suggests the music that follows is a genuine and rare commodity.
“Folks, this is genuine Cajun breakdown music as heard in Evangeline Country. Let’s go, boys.”
What follows is two minutes of what BeauSoleil (pronounced bo-so-lay) does best: crisply authentic Cajun music that is traditional to its two steppin’ bones but performed with an acoustic zest that continually keeps the music fresh and vital.
The tune, 451 North St. Joseph St., is one of the earliest recorded tunes by one of the earliest recorded Cajun fiddlers, Dennis McGee. The man making the strings sing in BeauSoleil is Michael Doucet (pronounced doo-say), a friend and protégé of the late McGee and easily the most tireless, visible and popular Cajun artist of our day.
To hear one generational master of Cajun music so devoutly and lovingly paying homage to another is pretty powerful stuff, especially in age where Cajun culture, as with most any appealing ethnic heritage, has been co-opted and commercialized.
To Doucet, the commodification of Cajun artistry is all but inevitable in the 21st century as ethnic boundaries continually shrink.
“It is what is it is,” said Doucet, who brings BeauSoleil back to Lexington for a Monday performance for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “In the 1900s, all of the civil parishes in Louisiana had their own style. You could always tell where someone came from.
“Today, that regionalism has almost totally gone away, even though 22 of the parishes still have some Acadian ancestry. Everything is almost totally homogeneous now.”
Well, maybe not everything. Remember, that voice at the onset of Alligator Purse promises “genuine” Cajun music. And on that count, the album, as did the previous 28 recordings BeauSoleil has cut over the past three decades, delivers the goods.
While Alligator Purse‘s Cajun heart is solid, there are also shifts in the BeauSoleil game plan this time in terms of concept, repertoire and even the musicians that make up the record.
In addition to traditional two steps and rich Doucet originals, the album shifts course slightly to include songs by Americana favorite Julie Miller and the veteran Tulsa song stylist J.J. Cale. Helping out the six member BeauSoleil lineup is a series of guests that include Natalie Merchant, folk/pop pioneer John Sebastian, The Band’s Garth Hudson, avant garde trombonist Roswell Rudd and, in one of his final recorded performances before his death last summer, guitarist Artie Traum (in an exclusively choral role).
“We have been introducing a lot of people over the years to this vast repertoire of Cajun music,” Doucet said. “This time we just wanted to have fun. So I kind of went back to some to my teenage years – not just to the French music, but to some of the rock as well as soul and swing origins of swamp pop.”
Miller’s Little Darlin’ is the most immediately infectious of the contemporary entries. Its ripe fiddle stride might reveal an Appalachian accent to Kentucky ears. But once a percussive shuffle kicks in behind the harmonies of Doucet and Merchant, there is no mistaking the land BeauSoleil speaks of.
“When I first heard Little Darlin’ I thought, ‘Wow. Julie has been listening to Cajun music.’ Some of the ballads we play tell everything – the good, the bad, the whole story. But with some of the French songs, a lot of the innuendos can be tough to translate. But there’s no need to translate anything on this one.”
Rudd takes BeauSoleil a mile or two closer to New Orleans on Les Oignons, a tune cut by, among others, the great Crescent City clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet in 1949. Rudd was introduced to Doucet, along with Merchant and several of the other Alligator Purse guests, in 2005 at a benefit called Build the Levee designed to help victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“He was kind of reticent at first,” Doucet said of Rudd and his involvement with Alligator Purse. “He didn’t want to rehearse much. But in the studio, we had the best of times.”
While these sounds, songs and friends make Alligator Purse a worthy addition to a remarkably consistent recording catalog, the full joy of BeauSoleil is never fully unleashed until it locates an environment with a stage and a dance floor.
“There is always that exictement,” Doucet said of when a BeauSoleil concert commences. “But for me, it’s never better than when people are dancing. When everyone is involved in this big, swirling room, it just lets you loose. And as long as people keep digging it, we’ll still be doing it.”
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet performs at 7 p.m. Monday at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.