From the first brash accordion notes of Jesse Lége and Joel Savoy's album The Right Combination chanteur and dancehall king Jesse Lége bellows melodiously, leading his band through happy songs about sad things. This is the tradition of Cajun music; it’s a social event, with no limit on the amount of players, instruments, or tales it tells, as long as it swings. It’s with this convivial notion that Jesse, Joel, & the rest of the Cajun Country Revival came together.
It’s a complicated story I’ll try to make short: Jesse plays accordions made by Joel’s father, a master accordionist himself. Joel plays fiddle and has a studio in Eunice, Louisiana where he’s recorded albums for Portland’s Foghorn Stringband which featured members Caleb Klauder (mandolin, vocals), Sammy Lind (guitar), and Nadine Landry (bass). Caleb has another honky-tonk project called Caleb Klauder Country Band from which they tapped Paul Brainard (pedal/steel guitar) and Ned Folkerth (drums). Serendipity found them all together in the Northwest in the summer of 2010, and their holy union was captured for all to see and hear one fine day on KEXPs roadhouse with Greg Vandy. From there the group worked out there album in early 2011 in Joel’s studio (rumor has it they came up with most of it the week before) and the result is stunning.
Jesse Lége came up in rural Louisiana in a house with no electricity, and his first language was Cajun French. He learned to play guitar and harmonica first, and would spend nights alone next to the family’s radio trying to imitate accordion players he heard on the Grand Ol’ Opry before Joel’s Dad Marc Savoy became his mentor. His singing is a low wail that recalls the traditional singers captured by Alan Lomax’s field recordings in the 1930’s. His knowledge of traditional music drives the sound of the band, and as a matter rebellious pride and preservation, and a way of making a cover song his own, he even translates songs written in English to his native Cajun French.
Joel Savoy’s fiddle work on this album is what makes it a stand-out record—country, Cajun, or otherwise. Looked upon as the future of Cajun music, and having worked with greats like Steve Earle and T-Bone Burnett (who said “Everything Joel Savoy touches turns to music”) Joel is the Acadian golden child. His chansons style fiddle work is a swirling smooth draw that takes up the classic Cajun role of vying playfully with the accordion for the defining sound in the genre. What’s most remarkable is both the tradition carried forth from the French roots, and the modern interpretation of it here: Joel’s hot jazz style playing is a dead ringer for Django Reinhardt’s right hand man Stephane Grappelli, whose captivating sound laments lovingly the roots of his own people without ever having to utter a word.
Driven forward by a chugging rhythm section that never slows, and consistent surprises throughout the album like vocals from two other singers (Caleb Klauders domineering croon, and Nadine’s vibrant voice)—not to mention the liquid sound of pedal steel poured into the mix—this version of Cajun dancehall has no doubt arrived at the “Right Combination.”
Check out the video below, then go see Jesse Lége, Joel Savoy, and the Cajun Country Revival play Seattle’s Royal Room on Tuesday, August 7th with the Tallboys. Tickets here.