Louisiana Honors the Legacy of David Egan
Music review by Ben SandmelThis spring saw a fitting memorial to the acclaimed R&B songwriter, singer, and pianist David Egan, whose death last year brought a deep sense of loss to the Louisiana music community. An impressive series of tribute concerts held in Shreveport, Lafayette, and New Orleans, collectively entitled Sing It! The David Egan Songbook, exclusively featured Egan’s original material. Egan achieved international success in songwriting—a goal that many seek, but few attain. His compositions were recorded by prominent R&B and rock vocalists far beyond Louisiana, including Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, Etta James, John Mayall, and Joe Cocker. Egan’s rumba-infused “Sing It!” provided the title track for a Grammy-nominated collaborative album by Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, and Tracy Nelson. And Egan’s own renditions of his “Spoonbread” and “Dreamer” have become contemporary cultural anthems in Louisiana. At the New Orleans segment of the Sing It! tour, many in the audience knew all the lyrics to both songs and sang along with great emotion, imbuing the room with the spiritual feel of a tribal gathering.
The informal, organic flow of this four-night tribute belied the meticulous preparation taken on by producers Rhonda Egan, Todd Mouton, and C. C. Adcock. They assembled a band of top musicians whose careers have intersected with Egan’s, including guitarists Adcock, Michael Juan Nunez, Lil’ Buck Sinegal, and Buddy Flett; pianists Marcia Ball and David Torkanowsky; saxophonist Pat Breaux; multi-instrumentalists Steve Riley and Roddie Romero; singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon; singer Kristin Diable; zydeco accordionist Nathan Williams; and the ace rhythm section of bassist David Ranson and drummer Mike Sipos, among others. Many had played with Egan, during the past thirty-plus years, in the Shreveport R&B band A Train, or the popular Cajun group Filé, or the retro-futuristic swamp-pop super-group known as the Lil’ Band o’ Gold. Egan’s work is strong on all these group’s albums, most notably Lil’ Band o’ Gold’s brilliant Promised Land (Room 609 Records.) His solo albums from the past decade, You Don’t Know Your Mind (Out of the Past Records) and Twenty Years of Trouble (Louisiana Red Hot Records), are equally estimable.
Egan’s final fully realized project was a recent solo album simply entitled David Egan (Rhonda Sue Records). It pulses with the rambunctious feel of a live recording in a crowded bar. Such dynamism is augmented by passionate guitar work by co-producer Joe McMahan, Lil’ Buck Sinegal—Clifton Chenier’s longtime guitarist—and Bruce MacDonald, a veteran of such seminal Louisiana bands as Coteau, Little Queenie and the Percolators, and The Song Dogs. The all-original collection compares quite favorably—in terms of playing, singing, and songwriting—to the work of such R&B/blues/jazz luminaries as Mose Allison and Ray Charles. Like those iconic artists, Egan wrote with a Southern sensibility, combining a specific sense of place with a timeless quality. Accordingly, his work, like theirs, will age gracefully. At the time of his death Egan was working on new songs with Adcock, and the release of that material is eagerly anticipated.Beloved and well-respected, David Egan received many accolades. But his passing, at age sixty-one, precluded further recognition during his lifetime. On a happier note, another Louisiana-born musician, the R&B/blues singer Bobby Rush, recently won his first Grammy award at the age of eighty-three. This high honor was bestowed upon Rush for Porcupine Meat (Rounder Records, produced by Scott Billington) as the Best Traditional Blues Album of 2016. Rush, a native of Homer, in Claiborne Parish, has a limited vocal range, and after sixty-plus years of constant performing, his voice sounds somewhat weathered. Such restricted parameters don’t hamper Rush at all, however, because his expressive and rhythmically precise vocal style is based more on declamation than on full-throated singing. As such it’s an apt vehicle for sly songs of sexual innuendo and raucous, good-natured, bawdy humor. Some such material, like the title track here, is a bit cryptic, as Rush laments his inability to leave a woman whose erratic love is “like porcupine meat—too fat to eat, too lean to throw away.” (Seemingly profound yet bafflingly opaque, this line recalls such Ernie K-Doe head-scratchers as “Y’all behave, or I’m going to start signing them dollar bills on the left!”) More accessibly, Rush delights in clever wordplay a la “I ain’t henpecked—I just been pecked by the right hen!”
Rush’s witty banter reflects his strong sense of heritage and cultural conservation. For more than half a century he has practiced, preserved, and disseminated the vital, inter-related cultural traditions of classic folk-rooted blues, commercial R&B, and the contemporary, bass-heavy, funk-blues sound associated with Jackson, Mississippi, where Rush is now based. In addition Rush maintains an elaborate repertoire of the dance steps and comedic routines—both verbal and visual—that are historically associated with the live performance of this music. As one of its last practitioners, Rush is a conscious, tireless advocate of nurturing and documenting a rapidly disappearing generational legacy. He is also one of few blues artists who still inspires a loyal following within the African-American community, where the blues originated. (Many contemporary African-American blues artists play primarily for white audiences.) In addition Rush is one of the last African-American blues musicians to still play the harmonica and actively feature it in his live shows. This instrument was prominent in African-American blues up through the ’60s, thanks in part to Louisianans such as Slim Harpo and Little Walter, but ensuing years saw it fall out of vogue among black musicians. Its prominence in Bobby Rush’s shows is but one of many reasons that seeing him perform in person is a mood-elevating cultural spectacle not to be missed.
Bobby Rush recorded hundreds of songs before winning a Grammy, many of which are anthologized on Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History Of Bobby Rush (Omnivore Records). In marked contrast, the popular Cajun accordionist Walter Mouton never had a full album to his name until he was in his mid-70s. For decades Mouton and his band, the Scott Playboys, played every weekend at La Poussiere, a dancehall in Breaux Bridge in Saint Martin Parish. Since the ‘60s on Mouton could have sold a quite lot of recordings there. But he had gone to a studio only once, resulting in the release of a lone 45 rpm “single.” Mouton simply did not enjoy recording and had no interest in trying it again. Instead he preferred the sound of his band in performance. Appropriately, then, Walter Mouton’s debut album is entitled Live At Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (Festivals Acadiens et Créoles/Center for Louisiana Studies/Swallow Records). This compilation of on-stage recordings spans the years 1992–2014, revealing Mouton’s group as a consummate Cajun dance band that epitomizes a suave, classic ’60s and ’70s style.In addition to Cajun music, zydeco, and swamp pop, the Lafayette area has spawned a lot of quality music reflective of national trends, with little or no local identity. A case in point is the guitar-driven rock and power-pop band Bas Clas. In existence since 1976, the band relocated to Atlanta in the ’80s and commanded an avid following throughout the Southeast. No longer a full-time band, Bas Clas regroups for special occasions and has released a strong new album entitled In Wonderland (www.basclas.com). As lead guitarist Steve Picou explained, “We were often called Cajun rockers or Cajun punk, but didn’t really think that was accurate at the time . . . what we are is a band from the heart of French Louisiana. And as musicians we are sponges for all we heard, from the Beatles to the Balfas!” There is one distinct regional note, however; the band’s name means “low class” in Louisiana French, reflecting the punk-rock attitude of its early days.
Egan wrote with a Southern sensibility, combining a specific sense of time and place with a timeless quality.
Somewhat similarly, the New Orleans-based band Hurray for the Riff Raff rose to national prominence, with no evident local influence, under the broad stylistic descriptor of Americana music. Although quite vague and amorphous, the term Americana typically has some ties to country music, tenuous though they may be. The band’s previous albums, such as Look Out Mama (Born To Win Records), fit comfortably under Americana’s big tent. On the impressive new The Navigator (ATO Records), lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra significantly expands the band’s scope with Latin rhythms and Spanish lyrics that explore and embrace her New York and Puerto Rican heritage (this cultural blend is sometimes referred to, not pejoratively, as “Nuyorican”). Segarra felt the need to take this step because, as she recently told The New York Times, “I hadn’t internalized my heritage . . . I was still finding most of my heroes in white men, feeling like they’re the ones who make history . . . Before, when I heard Latin sounds in popular music, I thought: That music belongs to everyone. Now I think: Oh, that’s the sound of where I came from. Look what we brought to the culture. Listen to what we added.”
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist, and producer and is the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. Learn more about his latest book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by visiting erniekdoebook.com. The K-Doe biography was selected for the Kirkus Reviews list of best nonfiction books for 2012.