The Best of Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers
Rounder Heritage Series 1166
Give Him Cornbread / Boogie Chillun / Gonna Take You Downtown / Going To The Country / Tighten Up / Damballah / Slide And Dip It / Cisco Kid / Yesterday / Knockin' On Heaven's Door / Richard's Club / Just One Kiss / Do It All NightAndrus Espré, aka Beau Jocque, died of a heart attack in 1999, at the age of 47. He's credited with inventing 'the contemporary zydeco sound', and this CD is drawn from four of his six CDs for Rounder, with the addition of two previously unissued live performances. The contemporary zydeco sound, as heard here, consists of accordion-led funk, with scarcely any French language lyrics, and none of the traditional dance rhythms. This may not sound promising to many readers, but it's true to the point of banality that musicians play what's hot with their audiences; Chris Strachwitz had a hell of a time persuading Clifton Chenier to record the old-style French music alongside the rhythm and blues which the Louisiana dance hall audiences wanted. That was in the sixties, and since then mass culture, via records, radio and MTV, has not exactly become less influential on local traditions. So it is that on this disc there's a Bob Dylan song, and a Boogie Chillun learned from ZZ Top, not John Lee Hooker, alongside the Boozoo Chavis-composed closer and Damballah, Beau Jocque's chant about the voodoo snake god.
The mix generally favours the bass and drums. The latter are usually played by Steve Charlot, and feature the 'double kicked' beat, with eight quaver strokes played in each 4/4 bar. The bass player is Chuck Bush, and the notes rightly say that 'the thundering, fluid lines he created for each song were unlike anything heard before in zydeco.' Bush is also described as 'the band's secret weapon,' but anything less secret it would be hard to imagine. These guys are a superb funk machine; the trouble is that they're not serving in a worthy cause; Beau Jocque was a fine accordion player, but only on the final two, live tracks, is his playing far enough up front for this to be apparent. On some tracks, the band is augmented by a keyboard player, and this leads to some unpleasantly soupy textures, and the use of slushy, 'advanced' chord voicings; the low point comes when the keyboardist produces a synthesised flute solo on Knockin' On Heaven's Door. Beau Jocque's voice was a narrow-ranged, grinding growl, sometimes reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf; it's perhaps advisable to stress that 'reminiscent' means only that his voice reminds one of Wolf, not that he's in Wolf's league as a vocalist or, indeed, an artist.
Which brings me to the major problem with this CD. Despite much talk in the notes of heritage and roots, Beau Jocque's nouveau zydeco seems to me to have almost nothing, apart from the presence of accordion and rubboard, in common with the music of Amédé Ardoin and Clifton Chenier, let alone that of near-contemporaries like Rockin' Dupsee and John Delafose. Its sound, and its aesthetics, have far more in common with rap and rock, and in the same way that Shania Twain and Garth Brooks make rock music that's marketed as country music, this is rock music called zydeco. That's not, in itself, a reason to dismiss it out of hand; I've been known to listen to a little rap myself, and to black rock bands like Fishbone and Living Color. The trouble is that Beau Jocque's music is coarse and bombastic, and its funk grooves are ultimately numbing rather than cathartic. In other words, and depending on your prejudices, it's either an unsuccessful, or a very successful, synthesis of rock and zydeco. Either way, it's not likely to have much appeal for readers of these pages.
Chris Smith - 13.10.01
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