Steve Riley &
the Mamou Playboys,
Bon Reve
(Rounder, 2003)

Every summer my family and I rent a cottage about 20 minutes east of Dorset, Ontario. And for the past number of years there's been a wonderful waterside restaurant in Dorset that we stop into for lunch when we head to town for supplies. The Fiery Grill serves New Orleans fare and always sets the requisite atmosphere with recordings of infectious Cajun music. So the moment Bon Reve hit the CD player my kids knew this was Fiery Grill music. It commands your feet to tap, your shoulders to sway, your pulse to quicken.

Bon Reve is more than a terrific Cajun confection, though; it's also a musical journey and a history lesson. Among the 17 tracks assembled on this disc are songs originally recorded by such Cajun pioneers as Belton Richard, Denis McGee, Austin Pitre, Aldus Roger and Alan Lomax. But Steve Riley and his band of talented musicians make each of the songs shine anew through their improvisations and their palpable passion for this musical form.

If there is a weakness to be found on Bon Reve it is the studio cleanliness of the recording. In particular, I dislike the way the drums have been stripped of their emotion. They're way too clean. This music comes from the swamps, and from the heart. At times this recording too obviously comes from the studio floor. Riley's accordion playing and both Riley's and David Greely's fiddle work seem much less affected by this problem and as these instruments form the foundations of most of the songs the album doesn't suffer unduly. But I do find the songs work better while I'm listening from the kitchen and a meal is sizzling on the stovetop than they do through the headphones I'm wearing as I write this.

Among the best tracks are "Oh, Mam," a cover of a beautifully simple tune penned by Creole fiddler Carlton Frank, and "Bon Reve," one of the handful of original compositions that demonstrate the Mamou Playboys deserve their own place alongside Cajun music's greats. Then there's "La chanson de Savoy" -- first recorded in 1934, it's a stunning a cappella piece in haunting three-part harmony. "Evangeline Waltz Two-Step" is a cover of a Lawrence Walker waltz reimagined by David Greely as a lively two-step. And "Vini Jilie" is an amazing hybrid concoction; a pre-Civil War Creole slave's poem married to a Denis McGee guitar melody and a vocal line composed by Mamou Playboy guitarist Sam Broussard.

Bon Reve is a spicy, delicious assortment of musical flavors. It's filled with superb musicianship and wonderful melodies. And the main question I'm left with at the end of the disc is, when are they coming to town?

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 12 June 2004

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