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It’s a good-sounding summer for Snowmass

Stewart Oksenhorn

Zydeco music tends to sneak up on people. Zydeco’s central instrument is the accordion, whose lackluster image only begins with its association with polka. The music has a relatively short history, dating back just 50 years or so, and was born in a culture, the Creoles of Southwest Louisiana, that was hardly the best place from which to launch wide recognition. Zydeco is often sung as much in French as in English – the name zydeco itself comes from les haricots, French for the green beans served at the parties where the music was first played – and the English of Southwest Louisiana can seem as foreign a language as French.But with its peppy beats, exotic charms and the exuberance common to its top performers, zydeco also has a tendency to be infectious.Case in point on both of these counts is C.J. Chenier. As the son of Clifton Chenier – the man who shaped the style, coined the term zydeco and brought it out of Creole country – C.J. Chenier would be in perfect position to catch zydeco fever at an early age. But it was, in fact, a slow time coming. The younger Chenier grew up mostly with his mother, while his father spent the majority of his time as a road musician. Port Arthur, Texas, where C.J. lived, was just far enough from the heart of zydeco land that the music took no hold in his consciousness.”When I first started playing music,” said Chenier, a saxophonist in his youth, “I was into the funk, like Kool & the Gang, Parliament. I didn’t know much about zydeco. It was never on the radio. It had no exposure in Port Arthur.”In the late ’70s, Chenier, then in his early 20s, got an unexpected call from his pops. The elder Chenier invited C.J. to take the saxophone position in his Red Hot Louisiana Band and come on the road with him. “I was a little hesitant, because I had never been anywhere,” said Chenier.Soon enough, hesitance was replaced by enthusiasm, as Chenier witnessed the effect zydeco had on audiences.”When I started playing with my dad and I saw the people, and how much fun they were having, that’s how I got into it,” he said. Musically, it was a challenge for Chenier to switch gears from funk to zydeco. “In the beginning, it was a little rough. It all sounded the same. But after a year, it started to come easy.”In 1985, Clifton began feeling the effects of diabetes. He responded by grooming his son to replace him as a zydeco torchbearer. That meant C.J. had to switch instruments (it being written in the Creole bible that all zydeco bandleaders play the accordion). Chenier began playing opening sets for his father to sharpen his accordion skills; when the zydeco pioneer died in 1987, Chenier inherited the Red Hot Louisiana Band. By that time, he had given up the saxophone in favor of the squeezebox.”I love the instrument,” said Chenier from a tour stop in Pennsylvania, his Bayou upbringing apparent in his thick Southern accent. “There’s so much you can do with it. It’s so versatile. I tell people not to categorize the accordion so much. It’s not just polka. You get out of it what you put into it.”What Chenier has put into the music is his love of energetic, flamboyant funk. His take on zydeco is summed up in his song “Zydeghost,” the opening track on his most recent CD, 2001’s “Step It Up!” The tune is punctuated by James Brown-ish “heys” and “oows,” while the lyrics implore listeners to join in the groove. It’s a bigger, funkier sound than his father’s zydeco.”I love my dad’s music and play it all the time,” said Chenier, who performs on Fanny Hill in Snowmass Village on Thursday, July 9, as part of the Snowmass Free Summer of Music Series. “But I grew up in a different era and have different influences.”In altering the direction of the music, Chenier says he is only continuing his daddy’s work. “He took it from where it was, just in Louisiana house parties, and made it into what it became,” said Chenier, who lives in Houston. “He added the boogie and guitar and the saxophone and made it something different.”Clifton Chenier just missed the zydeco expansion for which he was largely responsible. In 1987, the year he died, came the release of “The Big Easy.” The film, along with the prominence of chef Paul Prudhomme and the growing reputation of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, created a stir for all of Louisiana culture. Artists like Buckwheat Zydeco joined Chenier as nationally touring acts bringing zydeco to blues festivals and rock clubs.”A lot of people started to hear it because a few bands began to travel around,” said Chenier, who has performed at the Chicago Blues Festival, San Diego’s Street Scene and Milwaukee’s Summerfest, and played on Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” and toured in Simon’s band. “Ten years ago, a whole lot of people recognized the word zydeco. And now, a lot of people really know what zydeco is all about.”The music is now in something of a lull. No younger zydeco artists have come to prominence in the wake of Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco and Terrance Simien, and refreshened the music. Chenier sees that as an expected result of the quick rise of the music. But he also believes zydeco will rise again.”When it started to pick up, it got bum rushed. Everybody wanted it,” he said. “And now it’s taken a little pause. But it’ll come back, because it’s such great music.” The Bayou is, as always, well-represented in the Snowmass Free Summer of Music Series.New Orleans funk band Papa Mali plays July 10. July 22 Kermit Ruffins, a New Orleans trumpeter and singer in the mold of Louis Armstrong and a founding member of the Rebirth Brass Band, brings his brand of old-school jazz to Fanny Hill. Taking his turn the following week, July 29, is Eric Lindell, a New Orleans-based r & b player. And the week after that is Marcia Ball, the long-legged singer and boogie-woogie pianist who was raised along the Texas-Louisiana border.The series should hit the peak of its decade-plus existence on Friday, July 2, when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performs. The Dirt Band, featuring Woody Creeker Jimmy Ibbotson, has been in high gear in recent years, with the release of the acclaimed third volume of its “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” series and the re-release of the original “Circle” album in an expanded form. The Dirt Band continues its roll with the upcoming September release of “Welcome to Woody Creek,” recorded at Ibbotson’s home studio.Rounding out the Snowmass series are Jackie Green, a young blues-folk singer and guitarist roughly in the mold of Keb’ Mo’ on July 15; rock band Barbara Cue, with Widespread Panic drummer Todd Nance on July 17; the outstanding Irish-American group Solas on Aug. 12; hip-hop duo M.E.K.A. 54, featuring drummer Alan Evans of groove band Soulive, on Aug. 14; San Francisco Latin-funk group Los Mocosos on Aug. 19; and Colorado bluesman Otis Taylor on Aug. 26. The Dirt Band’s concert on Fanny Hill kicks off not only the Fourth of July weekend, but also Michael Martin Murphey’s WestFest. The long-running festival, dedicated to country music and the culture of the American West, comes to Snowmass Village for the first time July 2-5.Along with rodeo and Western art exhibits is a music lineup that features Hal Ketchum, Allan Harris, Katie Rae Davis and R.W. Hampton on Saturday, July 3; Michael Martin Murphey with the Pueblo Symphony Orchestra, Suzy Boggus, Sweet Sunny South and Rodeo Cool on Sunday, July 4; and Crystal Gayle, Doc Mayer and Ryan Murphey on Monday, July 5. Other concerts of note coming up: Latin percussionist Poncho Sanchez performs in the Glenwood Summer of Jazz Series in Two Rivers Park on July 15. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band headlines the Massive Music & Movies event in Snowmass on July 16. Hit & Run Bluegrass play the Bluegrass Sundays series on top of Aspen Mountain on July 18; also featured in the series are the Flying Dog Bluegrass Band (July 25), Chatham Country Line (Aug. 1), Steep Canyon Rangers (Aug. 22) and Matt Flinner (Aug. 29).Carbondale Mountain Fair, July 23-25, brings a lineup of the Gourds, Halden Stafford & the Hi Beams, the Motet, Cabaret Diosa, Moses Guest and more to Sopris Park.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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