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Zydeco's future in good hands

Step it Up!
Step it Up!
By C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band

Alligator Records: 2001

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The Tribute Sessions
The Tribute Sessions
By Terrance Simien

AIM Trading Group: 2001

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These reviews first appeared in November 18, 2001 edition of the American Reporter.

As heir to his late father Clifton's crown as zydeco king, C.J. Chenier came into the public eye with a heavy load of expectations. They are expectations he has more than lived up to.

Perhaps it be heresy to say so, but C.J. Chenier is a better singer than his father, and is becoming a better accordion player.

Lord knows his music swings more than his father's. Still deeply rooted in the French dance figures of old New Orleans, C.J.'s next-generation zydeco has a swamp boogie shuffle ready-made for dancing. On most tracks, the beat is at least half-again as fast as anything his dad recorded, but it's not just speed – there are strong influences of both Caribbean dance and American R&B here that make the Red Hot Louisiana Band one of the best dance bands going.

As a songwriter, C.J. isn't half bad, either. On his latest release, "Step it Up," the younger Chenier shows he has an ear for penning accessible tunes likely to help him consolidate his considerable gains among non-zydeco fans. Eight of the thirteen songs are originals from his pen; only one, the last ("Johnny Can't Dance") is by his father.

Partnering with Fred James and Mary-Ann Brandon, who run the small Appaloosa Records blues label, on six of the eight tunes,. Chenier has turned out new classics like "Let's Agree to Disagree," "Zydeco Mardi Gras" and "Turn Around and Say Goodbye" – songs likely to start showing up on others' recordings and play lists.

With now seven albums released in the 14 years since his father passed, C.J. has shown that the family legacy is in safe hands.

     ~ ~ ~

Terrance Simien first came to national attention with an appearance in "The Big Easy," the Dennis Quaid vehicle set in New Orleans and mostly remembered for a very naked and quite lovely Ellen Barkin.

But possessed of a beautiful, even chilling voice, Simien used his break as an opportunity to establish an international career – one that has seen him combine traditional French Louisiana traditions with more accessible pop forms (much as C.J. Chenier has done) to help bring zydeco to a broader audience.

Two years ago, his first studio release in a half-decade – "Positively Beadhead" – showed Simien at the very heights of creativity. Thus, his latest release – a tribute to those who inspired him – is a bit of a disappointment.

Not that Simien has lost any of his talent or commitment, but hearing him perform a baker's dozen covers just isn't as rewarding somehow as hearing new material from him.

Still, you have to admire his absolutely impeccable taste in choosing whom to pay homage. From zydeco giants like Rockin' Sydney, Clifton Chenier and John Delafose to R&B legend Sam Cooke, from country pioneer A.P. Carter to reggae's Bob Marley, Simien chooses only the best for inspiration.

What can get kind of, well, annoying is the fact that between each tribute is a spoken introduction from Simien explaining a bit of why this particular song was included, and who inspired it. Not exactly a party album with that feature, you know? (Then again, one of the very first box sets – a career retrospective from Bing Crosby issued more than forty years ago – had a similar format. On that collection – a real box full of 45s, by the way – Bingo introduces each song before performing it. In retrospect, it's a nice touch that fleshes out Bing's singing with a bit of the passion behind it.)

The best part of this tribute is that Simien sings the songs of his heroes in his own style. Cooke's "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" isn't done anything like Cooke would have done it, but is turned into a slow Louisiana dance tune. (Although Simien puts a heartbreaking tremor into his voice for this song that DOES remind one of Cooke!) Similarly, with The Band's "It Makes No Difference," the song is transformed into a zydeco tune – and, again, Simien manages to capture the essence of Band bassist/singer Rick Danko's high, sweet voice.

Which makes his nod to Marley all the more remarkable. While reggae and zydeco both share an Afro-Caribbean heritage, the back beat is distinctively different. Yet, somehow, Simien and his band manage to combine the reggae and the zydeco into a cohesive, syncopated shuffle.

But that's also a fair description of this whole album, and in fact of Simien's music: He takes everything around him, gives it a zydeco twist – and then makes you want to dance to it.