Mentored by zydeco great Clifton Chenier, Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural is a skilled keyboard player and accordionist who is equally versed in R&B and the blues. While his early musical experience came from backing artists like Joe Tex and bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, it was with Chenier's band that Dural made his bones. A few years later he would become "Buckwheat Zydeco," forming his own band and, as they say, the rest is history.
Thirty years have passed since Zydeco formed the Ils Sont Partis Band, and during the ensuing decades he has become the music's best known, and most popular ambassador, popularizing the Louisiana roots-music known as "zydeco" to blues and rock audiences. He was the first zydeco artist signed to a major label, and since that time Zydeco and his various bands have recorded frequently for a number of labels. Zydeco's signing with noted blues music label Alligator Records for the release of Lay Your Burden Down not only signals an expansion of the label's musical offerings, it also feels like Zydeco has found his musical and spiritual home.
Buckwheat Zydeco's Lay Your Burden Down
Reunited with musician and producer Steve Berlin, who has worked with roots-n-blues artists like Los Lobos, John Lee Hooker, and Joe Louis Walker, and who produced Zydeco's 1994 album Five Card Stud, Zydeco stretches beyond his usual palette of rhythmic dance tunes to push his vocal and instrumental talents to the edge. Zydeco delivers inspired performances on a handful of well-chosen covers, and is assisted by some talented guest musicians.
For instance, Zydeco's take on Memphis Minnie's "When The Levee Breaks" hews closer to the 1960s-era blues-rock covers of the song than to its country-blues roots. Assisted by some wicked cool slide-guitar courtesy of Sonny Landreth, and fine vocals by Zydeco, the song takes on a new relevance when one considers the fate of post-Katrina New Orleans. Zydeco's cover of Alligator labelmate and fellow Southerner J.J. Grey's "The Wrong Side" is infused with even more soul than the original, the rich rhythmic soundtrack that is the hallmark of zydeco music complimented by Grey's rickety Wurlitzer tones in the background.
Meeting The Challenge
Zydeco doesn't shy away from challenges with Lay Your Burden Down. His reading of Bruce Springteen's "Back In Your Arms" is an elegant reworking of the song, the singer stripping the song down to its soulful romantic roots, and building it back up with a clever musical mix of island rhythms and New Orleans soul. It is perhaps the most imaginative cover of a Springsteen song that you'll ever hear, and positively heart-melting.
Zydeco takes Warren Haynes' Govt. Mule song "Lay Your Burden Down" and makes it his own in every way. First he hits it with a mean rhythm stick, the song's staggering backbeat matched by bluesy guitar licks and gospel-tinged keyboard flourishes. Then Zydeco cranks out his best soul-shouter vocals, his voice wrapping around the lyrics with a Wilson Pickett-like fervor. You'd think that Captain Beefheart would be an odd artist for Zydeco to cover, but he takes Van Vliet's "Too Much Time" and reshapes the original's anarchy into a wonderful romantic ballad with blazing horns, soulful harmonies, and an incredibly nuanced vocal performance.
Throw Me Something, Mister
Lay Your Burden Down isn't weighed down with cover tunes, though, and Zydeco brings a number of original songs to the table. Zydeco's "Time Goes By" is a measured zydeco/blues hybrid with plenty of spry accordion and a swaying rhythm. The raw "Ninth Place" is a little more upbeat, with Zydeco's raucous vocal performance and raging accordion riffs that accelerate as the song rolls on.
The energetic "Don't Leave Me" is the kind of R&B-styled zydeco romp that fans have come to expect from Zydeco, and he doesn't disappoint. The song's rich soundtrack sounds like a throwback to early-1970s soul music, and as the horns blast their way above the mix the singer delivers a subdued, albeit passionate vocal performance. The energetic "Throw Me Something, Mister" is tailor-made for a Mardi Gras party with a rollicking beat, reckless accordion notes scattered across the mix, and conversational vocals hiding in the song's numerous nooks and crannies.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Buckwheat Zydeco is a bona-fide roots music legend, and Lay Your Burden Down proves that the old dog still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Although long-time fans will revel in Zydeco's playful accordion-bashing and friendly vocals, Lay Your Burden Down is more than just another Fat Tuesday soundtrack album. Featuring a number of great vocal performances on a wide range of challenging rock, blues, and soul material, Zydeco exceeds expectations and, after thirty years in the trenches, shows that he can still surprise and educate his audience as well as entertaining them. (Alligator Records, released May 5, 2009)