C.J. Chenier
@ The First Avenue, February 10, 1998


C.J. Chenier
First Avenue
Photo © 1998 by Ray Stiles
All rights reserved
I have seen C.J. Chenier three times this past year at First Avenue (last January 1997, August 1997 and February 1998). Every show was very similar in content but a little different in intensity. This last show was good but not as exciting as compared to the previous two and especially the August show, which was spectacular. C.J. is carrying on the great Zydeco tradition of his legendary father Clifton Chenier, playing music that combines a wide and entertaining variety of musical styles Ė Zydeco, R&B, blues, swamp pop and country.

Zydeco music is characterized by the distinctive sound of the accordion (either button or piano accordion) and rub board (a wash board like instrument usually worn like a vest over the front of the body with the distinct sound made by the musician rubbing two spoons over the tin ridges). Many Zydeco players today use the button accordion but C.J. plays the more versatile and fuller sounding piano accordion (harder to master as well).

There are several reasons why these shows are so much fun. First there is the excellent piano accordion playing of Chenier accompanied by his strong, soulful, resonant vocals. Then there is the always entertaining antics of guitarist Harry Hypolite Ė dancing, playing his triangle, mugging for the audience. He also is a direct link to the history of Zydeco. Harry, besides C.J., is the last remaining member of Clifton Chenierís band that is still playing with C.J.

I also like the variety of music that C.J. plays. He isnít restrained by a narrow definition of Zydeco, often incorporating many different musical styles into his performances and recordings. In fact, if you listen to his last two Alligator CDís you will have a pretty good idea of what the content of his live performances will be like. The band almost always starts out with a couple of straight ahead blues numbers like "Got My Mojo Working" and "Big Leg Woman" sung by Harry who also plays some stellar classic blues guitar. Then C.J. takes the stage, straps on his piano accordion and launches into a funky version of "The Thrill Is Gone." Chenier is a master at taking a well know song and infusing it with that Zydeco flavor making it all his own.


Harry Hypolite
First Avenue
Photo © 1998 by Ray Stiles
All rights reserved
The triangle then comes out with Harry playing it between his knees and around his heard while he does his little two step to the "Louisiana Two Step." It didnít happen at this show but at the last one (August 1997) the whole band must have been in an extra special mood because each musician was getting into their own little dance steps with Harry leading the performance Ė they were all having a great time and it was a gas watching Harryís antics.

There is always some super R&B with songs like "Stand By Me" "Got You On My Mind" and "Richest Man." C.J. will always introduce the Hank Williams swamp/country classic "Jambalaya" with "lets take a trip way down on the bayou where the crawfish got soul, the alligator sings the blues, and we make love all night long." And then of course there are the great Zydeco dance numbers like "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" and "Bon Ton Roulette." And the good times definitely do roll at these shows. You can count on the band closing with a rocking version of "Caledonia" usually followed by the Elvis song "Teddy Bear" for an encore. At the show I mentioned from last fall we even got a second encore with the Roy Orbison song "Iíve Got A Woman."

Watching the dancers in the audience is also a fun and big part of these shows. These people take their dance steps seriously and you can tell they have put in many long hours practicing. The dancers were swinging, swaying, and swooping with their twists, turns, tosses, bobs and weaves. This was the Louisiana version of American Band Stand.

Local Cajun/Zydeco favorites Karl Smelker and the Swamp Sextet opened the show with some Louisiana swamp pop and nice slide guitar.

Mailbox E-mail Ray Stiles at: mnblues@aol.com

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Copyright © 1998 by Ray M. Stiles
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.