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Jazzfest Day Three: Old-school zydeco (coming to MD soon)

May 1, 2013

“Since they call me old-school,” C.J. Chenier told the Sunday afternoon crowd at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, “I’m going to do some real, old-school zydeco.”

Chenier, who comes to Maryland’s Common Ground on the Hill Festival July 14, is touchy about the “old-school” tag, because he’s actually one of the more innovative zydeco bandleaders around these days. Unlike most of his competition, he writes actual songs with verse-chorus-bridge structures and strong melodies that he then fleshes out with his two-handed piano accordion playing and a band that includes a tenor saxophone and congas.

But that’s not the style in South Louisiana’s dancehalls now; the dancers prefer hip-hop-flavored grooves and chants with one-handed button accordion riffs. Don’t get me wrong; some of those bands are really exciting, but many of them grow tedious after four songs because they’ve only got one trick.

Chenier is the son of the most famous figure in zydeco history, Clifton Chenier, and he played several of his dad’s songs Sunday with convincing authority. But he also showed off his own songwriting, incorporating New Orleans R&B and swamp-pop into his father’s style.

The result was a show that never grew tiresome, because he could deliver not only the high-powered two-step dance numbers like “Bow-Legged Woman,” but also 6/8 R&B ballads like “Richest Man,” 12-bar blues like “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and 4/4 rock’n'roll like “Rosemary.” A tall man in a black porkpie hat, gold-cross earrings and purple pants, Chenier manhandled his huge black accordion with the red bellows to pump up old-school songs like “Zydeco Boogaloo” with both boogie and hooks.