The Louisiana band born from now-defunct Red Stick Ramblers are working on a 21st Century version of swamp pop.
In Lafayette, the audience for a Cajun/zydeco dance is a social event, not a way to work off the stubborn final five pounds. Around the country, a subculture of zydecougars doing “zyderobics”—as The Revelers’ guitarist Chas Justus puts it—has developed that supports the band as well as many bands from southwest Louisiana, but they do so by turning dances into workouts.
“The whole Cajun/zydeco community has been really supportive over the years, but that’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “We’re trying to get in front of different people.”
Justus is talking around the irony that many Cajun bands are making music with swagger, pop hooks, energy, and traditional roots, but any cool that might accompany it is dampened by sweaty people in headbands and gym shorts who seem to think “zydeco” is Louisiana French for “step class.” Cajun dancers create a compelling energy, but they’re daunting at the same time. “They’re all serious dancers and they know something you don’t, which can turn people off,” Justus says.
These days, The Lost Bayou Ramblers, Feufollet and The Revelers are working to expand their audiences beyond the dancers. “We’re sort of a gang,” Justus says. Lost Bayou Ramblers have succeeded in New Orleans partly by playing d.b.a. and One Eyed Jacks—venues not known for Cajun/zydeco—and by finding ways to transpose traditional sounds to modern rock instrumentation. Feufollet, on the other hand, has become a pop machine, covering material as different as Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” and The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains,” all the while writing songs that show those influences without selling out their roots.
The Revelers will play Jazz Fest’s Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage at 11:15 a.m. Friday, and in ways they’re the most conventional of the three bands. The band arose from the ashes of The now-defunct Red Stick Ramblers, and it has chosen to make swamp pop its hallmark—a sound nowhere nearly as deeply rooted as Cajun or zydeco, but its Fats Domino-at-the-fais do do—as more than one Lafayette musician has described it to me—is hardly au courant. But they don’t pick up the legacy from such artists as Warren Storm and Don Rich who have been carrying the swamp pop torch. Instead, they’ve tried to go back and approach the sound the way its originators did. “We play French music, then we start getting more into R&B and rock ’n’ roll,” Justus says. “‘Let the Good Times Roll’ [from Play the Swamp Pop Classics, Vol. 1], I know that from Bobby Bland, B.B. King and Clifton [Chenier]. I think the original intent of swamp pop is that we’re trying to play rock ’n’ roll and R&B, but we came from a French background. It’s like the spirit of swamp pop.”
That spirit is fundamentally rock ’n’ roll as its about self-expression first, with loyalty to culture and tradition a distant second. Most of the songs on their new Get Ready album are in English because that’s the language most of the songwriters are most comfortable in. Blake Miller contributed four songs written in Cajun French because that’s the language in which he’s most musically fluent.
“French is right there with English as his first language,” Justus says. “He didn’t listen to English music growing up. None. I sing Cajun songs, but I don’t feel comfortable writing Cajun songs; he can sing English songs but doesn’t feel comfortable writing in English. I think he tried once but wasn’t feeling it.”
Throughout Get Ready, The Revelers conjure up a honky tonk that never existed. Miller’s “Pus Whiskey (No More Whiskey)” is a drinking song that sits comfortably next to Justus’ “Single Jeans” about a woman whose pants say as much as the look in her eye does. “Play it Straight” lays out the sort of wisdom honky tonk specializes in, courtesy of Feufollet’s Kelli Jones-Savoy, and Eric Frey’s “In the Proof” namechecks Wall Street and the dirty nature of business en route to a tear-in-the-beer ballad.
The hybrid sounds on the album and Play the Swamp Pop Classics, Vol. 1 is intentional, and one of the things Justus takes pride in. “We’re a hybrid of R&B and everything about southwest Louisiana,” he says, and his models are Santana and particularly the Texas rock-country freak hero Doug Sahm and the Tex-Mex hybrid he played in late in his career, The Texas Tornadoes.
“I love Doug Sahm,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as like Doug Sahm because that’s arrogant to say, but I play blues-based guitar, some fiddle. I sing a lot of English songs and play with this accordion player and do a lot of different kinds of projects aside from this group.” Sahm’s influence is largely conceptual, but Blake Miller’s accordion on “In the Proof” owes more to Texas Tornado Flaco Jimenez than anyone from Louisiana.
While The Revelers is a relatively new name, the group has been together in one form or another for a few years now. The group began when one member of the Red Stick Ramblers—Justus didn’t specify which one—“went civilian,” which brought the Ramblers to a standstill. The Revelers began as a side project, and if people would pay enough, the Ramblers would take gigs, then book Revelers dates around them. But the decline was on. “We weren’t playing enough to be what we were. We weren’t playing enough to remember the arrangements. We weren’t rehearsing anymore. We hadn’t put out an album in three or four years.” On the other hand, The Revelers were developing their repertoire and getting better gigs. The band members appeared on Treme as the band behind Lucia Micarelli’s Annie, and they decided it was time to let The Red Stick Ramblers name go before they ruined it.
They played their final show at The Blackpot Festival in 2013. They helped found the festival, so it seemed appropriate, but Justus wasn’t sure it was necessary. “I never was one for breaking a band up and having an official break up,” he says, half-joking. “Bands just stop. I’m not one to make a big deal about yourself. Just stop playing.”