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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Cajun Persuasion

March 19, 1993|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — One way to go about preserving something valuable--a song, a piece of art, a culture--is to describe to everyone within earshot how important it is, and exhort people to do everything they can to save it.

That route can be dicey, though. If your description is less than gripping, your exhortation less than persuasive, what seems significant to you might elicit a giant "so what?"

A better, more certain method of preservation: Do it yourself.

Unfortunately, Cajun rocker Zachary Richard took the first approach throughout most of his 95-minute show at the Coach House Wednesday, and his overt save-the-fragile-Cajun-culture campaign consumed far more resources than it saved. The few times he just played his heart out were far more effective.

In a few songs from his current "Snake Bite Moan" album, from which the bulk of the set was drawn, Richard gets a good grip on what makes Cajun music and culture so vital and worthy. "Sunset on Louisianne" skillfully sketches a family over three generations of change, from rural trappers to oil-industry laborers to college-educated kids bent on reclaiming their lost heritage.

At the Coach House, though, the keyboardist from Richard's five-man band added a portentous, pretentious synthesized organ intro--just to make sure we all understood that what we were about to hear was Mighty Important.

For all his expertly informed introductions and stories about what inspired various songs (he has a degree in history from Tulane), Richard only intermittently displayed the poetic talent to get his point across.

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In the ballad "Cote Blanche Bay"--which he dedicated to Jean Lafitte, whom he credits with saving French culture from being stamped out by the British 200 years ago--Richard's worthy intentions were sunk with overloaded metaphors.

Other songs were dotted with regional references--sucking crawfish heads, magnolia leaves, hot file (gumbo)--but Richard should know (especially on St. Patrick's Day) that such references alone have as much to do with being Cajun as green beer has to do with being Irish.

As a lyricist, Richard aspires to be Cajun music's Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner, writing about the richness of his people and the land in which they live. He's got an elastic, wonderfully smoky voice capable of great expression. As a musician, however, he appears content to be the next John Mellencamp.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to stretch the boundaries of a traditional folk style by incorporating other, more commercially successful elements. Beausoleil, whose leader, Michael Doucet, used to fiddle for Richard way back when, is a great example of how that can be done. The eclectic group fuses the bittersweet flavor of traditional Cajun two-steps and waltzes with the melodic invention of rock 'n' roll and improvisational freedom of jazz. The Band was another outfit that skillfully molded various American folk strains into a unique musical vision without violating the source material.

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But Richard's musical settings only rarely transcend generic three-chord rock. He couldn't have failed to notice that the only time a substantial number of people abandoned their chairs for the dance floor was when he came closest to playing traditional two-steps. The lyrics of such songs often are as simple as "I went to the dance last night and if I get another chance, I'll go back tonight." What they may lack in intellectual sophistication is more than compensated with a spiritual joy that's impossible to reduce to mere words. Now there's a tradition worth preserving.

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