LONG BEACH — It wasn't broken, but organizers of the annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival nonetheless managed to fix it by throwing a couple of new spices into this year's recipe.
At opening day Saturday in Rainbow Lagoon, New Orleans-bred pianist and singer Marcia Ball became the first non-Cajun or zydeco act in the fest's nine-year existence. While her blues and R&B-laced music technically doesn't fit the title, its rollicking spirit and unmistakable regional origins were entirely appropriate to an event designed to celebrate the music of Southwest Louisiana.
Over the years her voice has grown deeper and duskier, which helped her bring a palpable ache to a bluesy ballad such as her own "Find Another Fool." On upbeat tunes built on infectious street-parade rhythms, she proved again that no one is doing a better job of carrying on the tradition of such Crescent City piano greats as Professor Longhair and James Booker.
In fact, Ball probably came closer than anyone to lyrically spelling out the appeal of the many styles of Louisiana music that were offered under cloudy skies on an ideally cool afternoon.
In "Mama's Cooking," a song she pulled from her 1989 album "Gatorhythms," she was ostensibly singing about home-cooked food, but the sentiment applies equally to these forms of music: "There's lots of people in the world today/They try to drink their cares away/But if they knew how happy they could be/They'd be askin' mama for her recipe."
The fest's other newcomer, the genre-stretching Beau Jocque & the Zydeco Hi-Rollers, closed the show. What kind of music does a 6-foot-7, 270-pound singer-accordionist such as Beau Jocque play? Anything he wants, of course. And that's just what he did, sprinkling his sound with sonic textures that help it stand apart from the zydeco crowd.
At times, he would call a break in the middle of a typical zydeco two-step, during which drummer Steve Charlot hopped on the mike with some bouncy rap verses. The five members of his band--especially six-string bassist Chuck Bush--provided granite-solid funk, rich soul and even occasional dollops of hip-hop rhythm in finding a new take on this younger, blues-based sibling of Cajun music.
Both branches of that musical tree were well represented by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, which made its fourth appearance at the festival and staked its claim as quite possibly the smoothest Cajun band there is. That's smooth in the sense of graceful, not slick.
The quintet's seamless rhythms--the driving zydeco groove plays an increasingly prominent role--and elegant two- and three-part harmonies are icing on a cake that would taste just fine without any. His band also is developing into a valuable source of new material.
Exhibit A is "Katherine," a song written by Playboys fiddler David Greely for the band's forthcoming album, "La Toussaint." A sadder-but-wiser tale of lost love with a nifty O. Henry twist at the end, the tune should be an instant addition to the standard repertoire.
Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie is essentially the same Eunice Playboys band that played this fest for several years under Geno's late father, John.
Yet, less than a year after his father's death, Geno Delafose, who for several years was being groomed to take over, already is putting his stamp on the band, and not just with a new name.
He has a lighter, thinner voice than his father's, which works in his favor on waltzes because of the extra plaintiveness it brings. His tenor is somewhat less effective, however, on the chugging, blues-based zydeco two-steps that his father powered with a deep, rich baritone.
His largely tradition-minded approach was a good complement to Beau Jocque, who peppered much of his band's set with back-of-the-throat growls and yelps that showed more in common vocally with the elder Delafose.
But Delafose the Younger also had a trick or two up his sleeve, including his reworking of the Blasters' "Marie, Marie" as a zydeco number, and an almost unrecognizable yet entirely fitting treatment of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya."
The Southland-based Brand-New Old-Time Cajun Band was stronger than ever opening Saturday's bill. (The only difference between Saturday's and Sunday's schedules was the openings acts. Sheryl Cormier & Cajun Sounds was slated to get things going on Sunday.)
The group got dancers hopping on the portable dance floor from the moment the music started at noon. And the crowd was delighted when the band's accordionist, Louisiana transplant Charles Boulet, handed the instrument over to 12-year-old Patrick Sauber, son of fiddler Tom Sauber, to squeeze off a couple of tunes with admirable dexterity and youthful abandon.