Beasuoleil – the Very Best of Beausoleil (1998)

Beausoleil are perhaps the biggest name in Creole music. They are headed up by Michael Doucet who is one of the finest exponents of Creole fiddle.

This is not music by and/or for hicks. Firstly these guys can really play. Secondly they are not mere archivists but create their own new music that draws on contemporary sounds as well as their Creole roots. And there’s something about those Creole rhythms and syncopations that really makes a body want to get up and cut a rug.

I got this album because I’d read that Richard Thompson likes to have a blow with Doucet when he gets the chance. OK… I’m past being objective about Thompson, but this goes to show how musical discovery can work. You find one interesting guy and then check out the acts that they admire or want to play with. Because of Thompson’s expressed admiration for Martin Carthy I went to a gig by the latter a few years ago. It was one of the finest performances I have ever seen. But enough about Thompson, and Carthy but please note that sometimes one good thing can lead to others.

Doucet was initially a rocker, convinced that Creole music had had it’s day, but way back in the 60s he heard the Unhalfbricking album by Thompson’s then band Fairport Convention (OK, I lied. Sue me). On that album Thompson and Co began to infuse English roots music with rock, but they simultaneously did the same for Creole music with an original song “Cajun Woman” and with “Si Tu Dois Partir”, a French language rearrangement of Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” with Zydeco instrumentation. Doucet was moved to revisit and eventually to revive his home traditions (Doucet and Thompson ended up a mutual admiration society and Thompson gets in a fine guest spot solo on the track “Conja”. And now I will really try to stay on topic).

Like so many great roots musicians Beausoleil are not presenting museum pieces – even when they perform traditional numbers. They present the music as living and vital. There’s a great feel of abandon to many of the tracks. It’s not sloppy, but it hasn’t had all the fun and energy polished the heck out of it either.

If I’m understanding things correctly then a lot of their songs deal with the legends of the Cajun people – a people who are not easily defined but do have a definite and not well documented history. They also get more recent with a tribute song to one of the fathers and greatest evangelists of Zydeco (another Louisiana music form) Clifton Chenier (also name checked by Paul Simon on his Graceland album).

They range from folky acoustic waltzes to electric, rockier numbers. Doucet isn’t the only hot player here by any means. The “other” Doucet, brother David, is a pretty good flat picker and the band constantly kicks rhythmic butt, especially with highly rhythmic fiddle and accordion lines that are reminiscent of Zydeco. The opening “Zydeco Gris Gris” sets a fine example – a folky, toe tap provoking, syncopated fiddle motif overlays a harder rock rhythm to fine effect.

The state of Louisiana has bestowed many musical gifts upon the world and was significant in the birth of jazz and of rock ‘n roll. Michael Doucet and his band are a more recent example of the state’s rich and vital musical legacy. Y’all should check them out – there’s more to American roots music than blues and bluegrass.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

PS: This compilation is dated 1998, though it stretches back into the 70s. It’s not the only compilation by this name, but they’re all on different labels. This one is on the Music Collection International label and is compiled from recordings made for the Rhino and Rounder labels.

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