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Cajun in the Pocket 

BeauSoleil's Gitane Cajun is its first album of all-new material in five years. On the road, the band is still finding new audiences after 30 years together.

Like a bunch of grannies getting in a van."

According to BeauSoleil's David Doucet, that's how the band travels. After so long together -- 30 years in some cases -- he says band members know how to pack and what to pack, but that doesn't make it easier or more graceful. In recent years, for instance, the hassles of going through airports have become particularly annoying. "It makes us want to take a bus, which we've never done, but we won't," he laughs.

BeauSoleil is on tour after the release of Gitane Cajun (Vanguard), its first album of all-new material since 1999's Cajunization. Talking by phone from Minneapolis, where he's walking through a parking garage, Doucet laughs and says the five-year interval between albums is "because we're lazy. Really, who wants to work that hard?

"It's hard to do," he says more seriously. "It's intense, and it's no easier than it was." The album was recorded in six days at Dockside Studios in Maurice, La., with brothers David and Michael Doucet and Lil' Band O' Gold's David Egan, and the tensions are the same. "When you stand up to play a song, that's the proving ground," he says. "And if you're worth a shit, you want to play better than you did the last time."

Though Michael, the face and voice of the band, wrote the majority of the album's songs, David found some of the traditional songs including Lawrence Walker's "Lena Mae." "I'm the traditional guy; that's my role," David says, talking with obvious relish about flipping through old 78s and 45s for songs to revive. "I want the old songs to continue. People need to hear the old stuff."

In the case of "Lena Mae," he discovered accordionist Jimmy Breaux's stepfather was on the original session: "He said the song was written in the car on the way to the studio." BeauSoleil's version, which features Asleep at the Wheel's Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar, adapts the song with its rock 'n' roll structure into something clearly Cajun.

"You have to work in the idiom," David says. "You have to play certain rhythms and certain melodies in a certain way. It's difficult for me to consider playing in other styles."

Still, the band's hardly obsessive about being "traditional." "'Traditional' means absolutely nothing anymore," David says. When playing Canray Fontenot's "Malinda" in Tampa, Fla., he remembers, Michael decided that a Cuban progression would fit between the verses. "It sounds to me a bit like (the theme to) I Love Lucy," he laughs. Listeners won't hear that on first listen; BeauSoleil's hardly abandoning Cajun, but on the Gitane Cajun version, a Cuban rhythm is suggested by Billy Ware's wood block percussion part.

When the band's not on the road, David Doucet performs a weekly gig at The Columns Hotel with BeauSoleil bassist Al Tharp on fiddle and banjo. "I love to do it," he says. "Once I was in Hawaii and went in this place that looked like the Milan Lounge and saw a guy playing Hawaiian steel guitar. He just stood there, played and got drunk as hell. That's what I wanted to do -- just sit there and play guitar." The duet shows began two years ago in the back room of the Kingpin on Sunday nights before moving to The Columns, whether there was an audience or not. "It's this special thing I do. It's like taking the music apart. I work on how to make an acoustic guitar sound like an accordion."

In those shows, it's clear that Doucet's a student of the guitar. Every song comes with a story or an explanation, and rather than hide his tricks like a magician, he tells the audience who taught him the song and what's interesting about it. His explanations have a professorial attention to the details, but there's also a fan's enthusiasm for sharing his passions. He takes pride in the subtleties of guitar playing and wants listeners to understand them. For instance, he explains, "I'm a rhythm guitar player at heart. I like to vary from the rhythmic pattern part way through a song then get back to it."

Playing with his brother Michael, he concedes, makes that easier: "I've played with him the longest." David contends that not everybody can play together, but "we have no problem sliding into the pocket. The trick is finding out where the pocket is. That's what 20 years of playing together will do." When the band started in 1975, it was in the forefront of reintroducing Cajun music to the world. Things changed, he says, "when Paul Prudhomme started burning those fish." The late-1980s fascination with Cajun culture has long passed, but Doucet proudly says that people are still coming out. "With the economy, people are picky about what they spend money on." The next night the band plays Deadwood, S.D., for the first time. "It's amazing the business is still going strong after all these years."

click to enlarge "You have to work in the idiom," David Doucet (right front) of BeauSoleil says. "You have to play certain rhythms and certain melodies in a certain way. It's difficult for me to consider playing in other styles." - RICK OLIVIER
  • Rick Olivier
  • "You have to work in the idiom," David Doucet (right front) of BeauSoleil says. "You have to play certain rhythms and certain melodies in a certain way. It's difficult for me to consider playing in other styles."
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