When a lean, lanky black man wearing a two-piece magenta outfit and wielding an over-sized gleaming white accordion steps onto the stage, you can rightly expect the man has attitude to go along with the ensemble. If this apparition didn’t knock you out, the music was about to.
Straight outta Louisiana, CJ Chenier proceeded to light up the stage at Johnny D’s in Somerville last Thursday night. What his Red Hot Louisiana Band - washboard, percussion, guitars - lacked in their own colorful fashion statements they made up for in energy. They played in technicolor.
Know this about zydeco and Cajun music. It’s upbeat and infectious. Even when the songs are in Creole, jubilant or lachrymose, you understand the sentiment and feel compelled to dance to them - whether your’re wiggling in your chair or dancing jam packy on Johnny D’s little dance floor.
You sweat, you begin singing in Creole, you dance with every partner you can find. That ain’t hard because it seems like every zydeco fan in a hundred mile radius has shown up. They’re party people of the first order. The hell with the fact it’s a Thursday night - we’re talking CJ Chenier. We’re talkin’ zydeco royalty.
Most of these zydecoholics will get home in the wee hours and show up late for work or on time and shuffle across the parking lot in a Chenier beat since the music has a shelf life of several days.
Another thing to know about zydeco and Cajun music. Zydeco is a syncopated eight-count partner dance with lots of room for improvisation and self-expression. You don’t have to be a champ to get out and dance to it. The beat is so insistent that you move with it, sort of like being in the second line in a New Orleans parade. I danced with two women who didn’t know zydeco from zabaglione. And we had fun.
Zydeco is a form of American roots music that evolved in southwest Louisiana in the early twentieth century. Accordion and washboard (Frottoir) were all that was needed to produce waltzes, two-steps, blues and rock and roll. Since then, drums, guitars, fiddles and such have been added to the bands but the tang of Louisiana is at the core of the music,
The bang tonight comes from the guy with the big grin, one gold tooth prominently glinting in the spotlight as he sings and shouts out to the crowd. CJ (Clayton Joseph) is the Creole son of the late Grammy Award winning Louisiana musician Clifton Chenier, the man who brought zydeco from rural Opelousas, LA to nationally broadcast programs on PBS.
Before accepting his father’s 1978 offer to join him, CJ spent his early years in Port Arthur, TX playing his saxophone to everything from James Brown to John Coltrane to Motown. By the time he took over for his ailing father in 1985, he’d learned accordion. He can squeeze the daylights out of it for a joyous two-step and caress it slowly for a hold-on-tight smoky blues number.
The next time the little 300 capacity Johnny Ds wants to fill the house, all they’ve got to do is invite CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band. The local zydeco community, along with people who just want to ‘laissez les bon temp roulez,” will do the rest.