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Despite a Split Musical Personality, Zydeco's Keith Frank Is Ready for Fun at Long Beach Fest

June 22, 2000|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's no wonder Keith Frank often thinks of himself as two people. He's a serious-minded traditionalist and an unpredictable renegade.

A native of Soileau, La., the singer-songwriter-accordionist began playing professionally at age 4 in his father's Family Zydeco Band. When the elder Frank got a plant job working nights and weekends in 1987, Keith assumed the leadership role and renamed the group Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band, although it still included sister Jennifer (bass and vocals) and brother Brad (drums and vocals).

For his 1998 release, "Live at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki," Frank's appreciation of the music's lineage surfaced with guest appearances by scrub board player Joe "Chopper" Chavis and guitarist Scott Ardoin, descendants of Boozoo Chavis and Amade Ardoin, respectively. He also paid tribute to his father, Preston, with a moving version of his dad's "Why You Gonna Make Me Cry?"

Yet at the same time, Keith Frank--who headlines this weekend's Long Beach Bayou Festival at the Queen Mary Events Park--is among the leaders of the new wave--or nouveau--zydeco movement.

Along with Geno Delafose, C.J. Chenier and Terrance Simien, the soft-spoken 28-year-old brings a contemporary exuberance to the music by mixing in not only healthy servings of R&B, rock, soul and blues, but also reggae, hip-hop and pop.

Frank's new album, the aptly titled "Ready or Not" (Shanachie Records), is typical of this paradox. In addition to covers of zydeco standards by John Delafose, Rockin' Sidney and Little Bob, the collection features unlikely versions of Katrina & the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine," Bob Marley's "Don't Worry" and Lil' Bob & the Lollipops' classic "I Got Loaded."

Frank acknowledged in a recent interview that his self-described "split-like personality" forced him to form a little musical side project called the Creole Connection.

"It's my alter ego under an assumed name," he said by phone from his home in Lake Charles, La. "The Creole Connection features the same players as my Soileau Zydeco Band, only it's the real deal--we play traditional zydeco music. We sing about 80% of the songs in French, too.

"We started in January and we get together about once or twice a month. It's a chance to play in the style I was brought up with. It's definitely not like when 'Keith Frank' is up on the marquee. . . . Our set is geared toward more of a traditional crowd."

Frank, at least the genre-busting one making his California debut this weekend, likely will focus on rowdy, party-minded dance music with little concern about offending purists. Sometimes, he says, his Soileau Zydeco Band isn't even sure what's coming next.

"Zydeco music has changed a lot since I started playing many, many years ago, and I pretty much just do what feels right to me at the time," Frank said. "I play the kind of music I like to listen to. I don't have anything against any particular style of music. . . . I've been known to throw in a few excerpts from rock songs."

Frank undoubtedly has stretched the music's boundaries to its limits.

"Some people in other parts of the country aren't that familiar with zydeco, and I like to give them something they're familiar with, that they can identify with," he said. "In concert, I might sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' or 'Movin' on Up,' you know, 'The Jeffersons' TV show theme. There's also a medley of '50s pop and soul songs on my latest album."

Frank feels he's moving the genre forward. But Barry Ancelet, a professor of French and folklore at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, expressed dismay in a 1997 interview with The Times over the direction zydeco is heading. For example, of Frank's novelty single from 1996, "Going to McDonald's," he said, "I'm sorry, but that's an impoverished culture."

When asked for his reaction, Frank sighed. "The whole thing behind 'Going to McDonald's' was I had an instrumental song that I was looking for some words to," he said. "So I'm playing at this trail ride on a Friday night, and instead of eating the cowboy stew, this guy comes in with a bag full of McDonald's [food]. I was kind of hungry and said to myself, 'What the hell. . . . I'm going to write about this.' I think it's good to surprise people once in a while."

Ann Savoy, a musicologist and singer-guitarist in the tradition-steeped Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, understands what Frank is trying to do.

"Keith comes from a long line of great musicians. . . . He's very much a roots musician from this area," she said by phone from her home in Lafayette. "I saw him play with his father, and he still plays occasionally with his Uncle Carleton. At the same time, he's trying to blaze his own trail, and I think he's found his own voice."

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