Steve Riley

Ragin’ Cajun

Philip Gould

Steeped in tradition: Louisiana accordionist Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys offer Cajun songs celebrating the bayou country’s fertile musical soil. They perform next week at the Powerhouse Brewing Co. in Sebastopol.

Young’uns embrace the bayou country’s old ways

By Greg Cahill

“It’s weird because we had a long talk about this the other night,” says singer, accordionist, and fiddler Steve Riley, during a phone call from his home in Mamou, La. “it’s like the bands around Lafayette play Cajun music in a slightly different way than folks in Mamou or Eunice. The rhythm is a little more, uh, squared off; there are more corners. For us, it’s more like a wave–it’s rounded off a little bit more.

“You have to listen really closely to tell the difference.”

There’s no question that Riley, 26, is into Cajun music–really into Cajun music. Not the slick swamp-pop played by young bloods like Zachary Richard or Roddie Romero, who Riley complains is aspiring to be the Michael Jackson of Cajun music, but the authentic down-to-bayou sound crafted by such Cajun legends as the late Dewey Balfa and D. L. Menard.

Riley is to Cajun music what Space Hog is to ’70s-style hard rock, neo-traditionalist Dwight Yoakum is to country, or rebopper Wynton Marsalis is to jazz.

“It’s the music that moves me,” says Riley, who plays a single-row, 10-button diatonic accordion made by his cousin, Marc Savoy, a legendary Cajun music revivalist. “I’ve played rock ‘n’ roll before and it just doesn’t do anything for me. I get a kick out of just playing guitar, triangle, and accordion. I love that traditional stuff.”

Riley has recorded with everyone from Cajun great Michael Doucet to Paul Simon. His five albums for Rounder Records, including 1995’s La Toussaint, resonate with the sounds of the past, establishing him as the pre-eminent young Cajun revivalist. They feature covers of classic tunes by Balfa and Clifton Chenier. And sometimes Riley even plays the Old Man, the fiddle Balfa used on most of his legendary recordings. Those tracks ring with an eerie likeness that even fool close friends of Balfa’s into believing the master has returned from the grave.

The musical similarities between Riley–who studied with Balfa for nearly eight years–and Balfa is uncanny. Riley recalls: “Dewey told Peter [Stone] and me, ‘Man, I got to cut out teaching you guys, because you all sound more like me than I do.'”

At 15, Riley first met Balfa–whose appearance with the Balfa Brothers at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival kindled the Cajun music revival–at a house party one night. The two hit it off immediately. Even then, Riley was an up-and-coming musician who had picked up the accordion at age 7 and had long admired Balfa’s lively bare-bones arrangements.

Their relationship went far beyond academic interest. “When I was young, my grandfather died. I was closer to him at the time than to my own parents. It was a real hard to lose him.” Riley says. “Dewey reminded me of him. He really cared. He was kind and gentle. He always made time for me.

“He had a big heart and was very giving.”

Balfa recognized that Riley had a soft spot for his old-timey sound, but he also instilled a love for experimentation. “He gave me this huge background and put me on the right path. He said, ‘If you want to go down a side road now and then, go ahead.’

“So we can play a song like ‘Choo Choo Choo Boogie,’ but we’ll always come back to the traditional songs. It’s the music closest to our hearts.”

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys perform Saturday, March 30, at 9 p.m. at the Powerhouse Brewing Co., 268 Petaluma Ave. (Hwy. 116), Sebastopol. Tickets are $7 advance.

From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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