Correction to This Article
-- A Feb. 27 Weekend article incorrectly referred to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as Smithsonian/Folkways Records.

BeauSoleil Dishes Up Musical 'Gumbo'

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By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 27, 2009

BeauSoleil won the Grammy for the best zydeco or cajun music album earlier this month, but it was for an album they had never heard. The winning disc, "Live at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival," was recorded during the band's set last April and released with its approval but not its involvement.

"No one in the group heard the record," BeauSoleil's Michael Doucet, 58, said shortly before the awards show. "It was on iTunes, and then all of a sudden it was nominated for a Grammy."

He chuckled at the strange ways of the music industry, but he was much more interested in talking about his solo album, "From Now On," which had also been nominated for a Grammy. The latter disc, released by Washington's Smithsonian/Folkways Records, showcases BeauSoleil's founder, lead singer and fiddler on seven unaccompanied tracks, five duets with BeauSoleil's Mitch Reed on second fiddle and six duets with New Orleans jazz guitarist Todd Duke. The stripped-down project makes it easier to hear the intricacies of Doucet's playing.

"From Now On was a blast," he said. "Unlike a band project, you don't have to teach anyone else the song. . . . You can just record whatever you feel like doing. With Beausoleil, I teach the song to David," he says of his kid brother and guitarist David Doucet, 51, "and then we bring it to the group. What you hear on 'From Now On' is that early stage of a BeauSoleil record, before David and I take the songs to the other guys. In that minimalist setting you hear more of the nuance, more of the fingering on the strings. There are no additives. It's pure rain or lightning."

David Doucet is BeauSoleil's secret weapon. Because his older brother's fiddle leads are so brash and blazing, David's quieter instrument can often be overlooked. But every BeauSoleil song reaches a point where David sneaks in a springy, lilting guitar break. He has revolutionized Cajun guitar in much the same way Clarence White and Tony Rice did bluegrass guitar.

"The first thing you learn about Cajun guitar is getting the rhythm right," David explains. "It's a dance music, so the rhythm guitar has to be spot on."

It's easier to hear that when David does his weekly Monday show at the Columns Hotel in New Orleans with BeauSoleil's former bassist Al Tharp. Beneath the 14-foot ceilings and amid 11-foot windows, the two men play guitar/fiddle duets with minimal amplification for an audience sitting in armchairs on an Oriental rug.

The understated music they make is a far cry from the wild dance music that BeauSoleil makes at outdoor festivals or venues such as the Barns at Wolf Trap, where the sextet makes its annual visit Thursday. When David treats the Columns audience with the old Cajun standard "Parlez-Nous a Boire" ("Talk to Us of Drinking"), the title of a 1991 BeauSoleil album, the melody jumps out of his acoustic guitar with rhythmic tension.

And when BeauSoleil played the Barns at Wolf Trap a year ago on Valentine's Day, the Doucet brothers, dressed in jeans and boots, compensated for their bald domes with David's white beard and Michael's pointy gray goatee. They were joined by their longtime rhythm section of drummer Tommy Alesi, rubboard and triangle player Billy Ware and button accordionist Jimmy Breaux. Reed, who replaced Tharp on bass and second fiddle in 2006, was the first newcomer since 1989.

The "Bosco Stomp" kicked off with Michael's insistent fiddle riff and his yelping French vocal, sending couples spilling out onto the wooden dance floor. But after the first chorus, David's guitar solo leapt forward, taking a different path through the harmony with each run of eighth notes. That spurred his brother into an even more aggressive fiddle solo.

The healthy competition continued even when the band slowed down for "Valse à BeauSoleil." The lovely waltz melody was first articulated by Michael, the composer, but was soon picked up by Breaux's accordion, which stretched some notes and squeezed others, and finally by David's guitar, which surrounded the central melodic line in flurries of harmonizing notes.

Both songs can be heard on BeauSoleil's new album, "Alligator Purse" (Yep Roc). The project features a bevy of guest artists: The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian plays harmonica on "Valse a BeauSoleil"; Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs sings a duet with Michael on Julie Miller's "Little Darlin' "; the Band's Garth Hudson adds organ to the Doucet-Bobby Charles collaboration "I Spent All My Money Loving You"; and jazz legend Roswell Rudd plays trombone on "Les Oignons." Amid all the other elements, you can hear a sterling guitar solo from David Doucet on every song.

"Alligator Purse" is a very different BeauSoleil project, for the sextet is joined by non-Cajun artists. But when Michael was asked whether he was worried the band might lose its identity amid the famous guests, he laughed.

"We're the gumbo," he replied. "They're just the seasoning on the gumbo."

BeauSoleil Appearing Thursday at the Barns at Wolf Trap (1645 Trap Rd., Vienna). Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets: $25; 703-938-2404 or The Download: For a sampling of BeauSoleil's music, check out: From "Alligator Purse": -- "Bosco Stomp" -- "Valse à BeauSoleil" -- "Little Darlin' " -- "I Spent All My Time Loving You" From "From Now On": -- "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky" -- "Wade's Two-Step" From "Parlez-Nous a Boire": -- "Parlez-Nous a Boire"

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