Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Dancing… at the Hall?
No. No way. That can’t happen. This is the Troy Savings Bank MUSIC Hall, not the Troy Savings Bank DANCE Hall! This is a SERIOUS PLACE, with acoustics that are famed the world over! YO-YO MA played here, for goodness sake! There’s pictures and everything out in the lobby! And yet, just a few hundred feet from those photos of Yehudi Menuhin and Serge “One Shed” Koussevitsky, we were being told – nay, encouraged – that, if the mood took us, we should “feel free” to dance to the music of Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole. That the mood would take us all (even if only some of us acted on the urge) was pretty much a given.
I mean, come on! This may have been “the Hall,” but we’re talking ZYDECO, baby, and you’d have to have a heart of stone and a soul of custard to not want to get up and get down! And we were faced with one of the best purveyors of zydeco, Cajun and Creole music on the market today. Watson – a cousin of the late NOLA legend Johnny “Guitar” Watson – was a 21-year old Texas wunderkind when he moved to south Louisiana so he could soak the music he loved directly into his pores. He’s 28 now; he’s been nominated for a Grammy four times; he plays fiddle and accordion with equal levels of style and accomplishment; and he’s got a razor-sharp singing voice that slices right through the smothering fog of real life so it can grab you by the mojo and say, “Okay, cheri, you’re coming with me!”
“We’re gonna give you some beautiful, joyous Creole music,” Watson informed us before launching into an opening reel that definitely set the tone for the evening. Bijou Creole has been around as an entity for several years, but the current line-up is almost as new as Watson’s latest self-produced disc “Le Soleil est Leve” (his first self-produced disc). None of that was evident, though, as Watson and his partners showed what kind of a force for good it can be when it’s in the mood… and they were definitely in the mood on this evening. D’Jalma Garnier and Charles Vincent maintained a hellacious backbeat through two searing sets, and Desiree Champagne’s work on washboard just couldn’t be beat. Kyle Gambino’s dance moves meant his sax playing got lost most of the time, but if that was the only blemish on the evening, then the band did damn well. Besides, if we in the audience wanted to dance, how could someone at the nerve center of the music resist?
And there were no excuses as far as the music not being dance-able, because you could dance to whatever they played, be it bouncing jams like “Le Sud de Louisiana,” swirling swamp-fests like “Cochon De Lait” or dark waltzes like “I’ll Live ’til I Die.” And that wasn’t even the darkest piece in the box: Watson described “Pa Janvier” as a song about “a girl with black hair and black eyes, and she died.” He paused to laugh at the expressions he was seeing in the audience, and then detailed her fiance’s abortive attempt to bring her back to life. (Zombie Zydeco! Gotta love it!) And even with those images planted firmly in our brains, the piece was just another waltz that made you want to grab your partner and go for a nice slow spin.
This music wasn’t about solos or virtuosity, even though Watson’s fiddle playing was definitely worth a few small statues. It was about groove and feeling, about reaching that little kid inside you that wants to jump up and down all night long just because it feels really, really good. (We saw an example of that in a gorgeous little blonde girl who was running & dancing up and down the front row when she wasn’t pinned to the foot of the stage, mesmerized by the music.) Watson’s vocals were almost as strong as his commanding stage presence: Even if he was just standing and singing, tuning his violin, working one riff on his accordion or trying to keep his accordion together (“This thing is like Frankenstein,” he remarked off-handedly as he pushed one corner of the instrument back into place), you simply had to watch him.
And there was dancing – not everyone, but a fervent few who collected around the stage near where Gambino was set up. At one point, a woman in a flowing red skirt was teaching one of the ushers how to waltz Cajun-style. But even if everyone wasn’t getting their groove on, you didn’t have to look far to see heads nodding, faces smiling, and couples snuggling to the inherent sexiness of it all. This fun for one, fun for all, and you didn’t have to speak French or know Louisiana history or be an expert in anything except letting your inner human out. Menuhin and Koussevitsky may not have approved of Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole, but then what did they ever do that made you want to dance your ass off?
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The band kicked off its first set with the energy already sky-high, launching into ‘Bye Bye Mon Cour Fait Mal’ immediately and barely pausing for breath between songs. Never straying far from traditional zydeco territory, the band still managed to keep the sound fresh on songs such as ‘Allons Nous-austres,’ thanks in no small part to Watson’s inventive accordion playing juxtaposed with Kyle Gambino’s saxophone. The Cajun murder ballad ‘Pa Janvier’ was a highlight early on in the show, with drummer Charles Vincent and rubboard player Desiree Champagne locking into a sinister waltz groove as bassist D’Jalma Garnier chugged out the song’s basic chords. Watson switched to his fiddle for this song and the next number, but the audience would have to wait until the second set for a more substantial display of Watson’s fiddling talents. The song was one of few Watson and company performed from early on in the band’s career — for most of the night, they chose to stick to Watson’s most recent album, ‘Le Soleil Est Leve.’ ‘Les Blues Creole,’ with a shining sax solo from Gambino, was the first song to inspire dancing in front of the stage, with a small group of women continuing to boogie throughout the rest of the set.”