No translation necessary

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, live at the M FA, September 26, 2009
By JON GARELICK  |  August 31, 2009

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Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys — named for their home town in southwest Louisiana — play music for dancing. But the crowd in the MFA's Calderwood Courtyard was slow to get to its feet last Wednesday night. For a change, there was perfect weather — warm and moist, but no rain, and every once in a while a refreshing breeze blew through the tendrils of the big willow tree in the corner of the yard. Riley at one point asked whether everyone was feeling all right — because the last crowd they'd played for back home was up and "yelling at us. Usually for songs they wanted to hear. Sometimes we played them."

But the Playboys plugged away at a set list that was both dancehall punchy and elegant, as if there were no contradiction in the terms. A few years ago — say, 10 — I thought Riley was straining to be relevant, trying to rock just a bit too hard between the trad Cajun and Creole numbers. But these days, his band's music seems to have reached an equilibrium. Several times on Wednesday, he'd start on just diatonic accordion with David Greely's fiddle and Kevin Dugas's triangle (or, as Riley called it, " 'tit fir" — "little iron"). Then Brazos Huval's bass would come in while Dugas moved to the trap set and Sam Broussard picked up his guitar and the lilt of the music turned into a thump.

But a good thump. Huval had plenty of lyrical, dancer's glide in his electric bass, and Dugas's detailed fills ands rolls were like greasy steel bearings that kept the music moving forward effortlessly through waltzes, two-steps, rockabilly, swamp pop, and even a bit of French-translated Texas swing ("You Can Knock, But You Can't Come In"). And Broussard had a flair for sweet and subtle electric-guitar lines. Occasionally Riley and Greely would double on fiddles, or sing the French lyrics in harmonized refrains.

And about that French. Most of the time, the songs needed no translation beyond the titles: "Let's Talk About Drinking, Not About Marriage," or "The House with Two Doors." ("I'm sure someone's coming in one door while someone else is going out the other," my wife opined.) From the more contemporary numbers and originals, the set list stretched back through Louisiana Cajun and Creole music's long history, with songs by storied writers like Dennis McGee and Dewey Balfa. And there was one — "La danse de Mardi Gras" — that Greely guessed after the set probably goes all the way back to pre–New Orleans France. By the time the Playboys got to that one, during the encore, everyone was dancing.

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  Topics: Live Reviews , Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Steve Riley
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