Michael Doucet brings Beausoleil to Schenectady’s Central Park Music Haven Sunday as one of the world’s top Cajun bands, geographically specific yet universal, resonantly traditional and refreshingly original.
Their latest (38th) album “From Bamako to Carencro” knits bold beats from Bamako in Mali, west Africa, to melodies from Cajun Louisiana, and vice versa.
“I tried to do a juxtaposition with the broad view that that music was the same as the music of Louisiana,” said Doucet last week from his home near Lafayette.
Grateful to Hudson Valley trombonist Roswell Rudd’s encouragement through Rudd’s song “Bamako,” shared at a Katrina benefit, Doucet responded with globe-trotting fearlessness.
He wrote “Carencro” about a Lafayette suburb where Malians have migrated (also the title of a Marc Broussard album), and he also vigorously spun James Brown’s soul anthem “I’ll Go Crazy” (in French) and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s blues “You Got to Move” bayou-style, through what he calls “Cajun-ization” (also title of a 1999 Rhino Records Beausoleil compilation) on the new album.
Once a scholar and part-time musician, Doucet has said he “traded (English visionary poet) William Blake for (Cajun fiddler) Dewey Balfa.” Growing up, “I had heard my aunts sing ballads all the time and I never thought much about them,” he said. “But in France I heard those same ballads sung by people my age, and you didn’t hear that in Louisiana.”
Planning to play French festivals for two weeks, they stayed six months, making their first album in 1976 and finding musical roots are circular, not linear, locating in France the roots of music he loved at home. “I had to dig, and found out the source of the music. My idea was to put the blues in the music,” he said.
Tracing the migration of French folk who became Acadians in Canada, then Cajuns in Louisiana after being expelled in 1755, Doucet said. “We bring the elements that are already there but maybe turned upside down 250 years ago and bring it back.”
Beausoleil’s French pilgrimage and later research taught Doucet how music hopscotches across the Atlantic and the Caribbean. “La Douceur” on the new album celebrates the 1789 Haitian uprising, for example.
“Haitian creoles went to Cuba, then New Orleans where there’s music everywhere and every kind of music — jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, swing, opera,” said Doucet. “For me, that song is the origins of ragtime from Haiti to Cuba to New Orleans.”
The lesson keeps repeating.
“I was listening at random on an old iPod… and I heard a ballad that John and Alan Lomax recorded in Louisiana in 1935,” he said. “After that came some other song from Martinique, and it was the same song,” he marveled. “That kind of thing just happens, and you can’t craft that.”
By ‘craft,’ he means polish.
“I’m talking about popular music and it has a hook, so you remember it,” he explained. “I never wrote a pop song in my life and don’t think I can,” he added, singling out Richard Thompson as an exception who can and does. “You never know what’s coming next because he’s not following a formula.”
Doucet values and makes non-formulaic music that reflects specific places but reaches to the universal. “It’s humanistic and it moves you in the right places,” he said. He learned this close to home, before spinning the globe, random-izing on his iPod and Cajun-izing any music he wants.
“We never had teachers,” he said. “But we had individuals who are master musicians” (the Balfa brothers, the Fontenot brothers and others (Beausoleil includes Doucet’s brother David). “We’d meet them and be in awe of them, learn from them and get to know the person. This music flows through peoples’ veins and nobody knows why,” he said. It does this even in French, though he cited a recent California winery gig. “I mean ‘whinery,’” he joked, “because some people were whining, ‘Why not sing a song in English?’” Doucet told them, “If we sang in English, we wouldn’t be here.”
He said, “I’m grateful we get to travel because the music has to tell a story about where you’ve been, not only in Louisiana, but outside.” He recalled, “Up to ‘85 we all had regular jobs and would play weekends. We decided to give it a try: We’d try playing for six months.” It worked: “We’ve played (full-time) ever since.”
Beausoleil sounds so traditional even on originals that “other artists have taken songs I’ve written and they think it’s traditional,” said Doucet. “At first it pisses me off because there’s no credit to go with it, but then I think it’s cool.”
He acknowledged that for all their waltzes and two-steps, Beausoleil can entertain even seated, listening crowds. “People would ask us, ‘How do you play for people who aren’t dancing?’ We’d say we’re playing for people, not just dancers. We’re playing for people!”
Beausoleil is Michael Doucet, fiddle, accordion, mandolin and vocals; David Doucet, guitar; Billy Ware, percussion; Tommy Alesi, drums; Mitchell Reed, fiddle and bass; Bill Bennett, bass. The Acadian trio Vishten from Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia opens the Schenectady show and are comprised of multi-instrumentalists and singers Emmanuelle LeBlanc, Pascal Miousse and Pastelle LeBlanc. 7 p.m. Free. Rain site: Proctors. www.musichavenstage.org.
Greenwich-based Phantogram play, The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany) tonight, a homecoming show by the wide-ranging, wide-screen duo of Josh Carter (guitar, vocals) and Sarah Barthel (keyboards, vocals) whose band name means a two-dimensional image that appears three-dimensional.
Since playing every club and festival here, they’ve worked with Big Boi (Outkast), the Flaming Lips and others, played lots of late-night TV and festivals while releasing three albums, some EPs and singles of aggressively creative and varied music.
They serve more flavors than Ben & Jerry’s and are just as cool. 8 p.m. $38. 473-1845 www.theegg.org.
Tonight, jazz/world-music combo Heard plays Upbeat on the Roof at the Tang Teaching Museum (Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs). Composer and keyboardist Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius leads this ingenious, exciting band: Zorkie Nelson and Brian Melick, percussion; Bobby Kendall, bass, and Jonathan Greene, woodwinds.
They weave wide strands of beat, melody and tone into fresh, jazzy inventions. 7 p.m. Free. 580-8080 www.tang.skidmore.edu.
SHAKIN’ THE PALACE
Top troubadour John Prine headlines on Friday at the Palace Theatre (19 Clinton Ave. at N. Pearl St., Albany). Check “durability” in the dictionary, you’ll find Prine’s photo.
Recording since 1971, he’s influenced/scared every songwriter in sight: Kris Kristofferson threatened, “He’s so good, we’re gonna have to break his fingers,” Dylan said, “Nobody but Prine could write like that,” Johnny Cash put Prine in his “big four” with Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Steve Goodman,” and Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) ranks him with Neil Young and John Lennon. He’s beaten cancer, twice, and keeps writing and singing.
His “For Better, or Worse” album (2016) featured 10 women duet partners, not including Palace opener Margo Price; but expect duets on this show anyway. 8 p.m., $102.50, $82.50, $72.50, $52.50, $38. 800-745-3000 www,palacealbany.org.
Also at the Palace, super-powerful bluesy rockers Alabama Shakes rock on Tuesday in a sold-out blast.
Their breakout second album “Sound & Color” topped Billboard’s 200 and won four Grammys. Singer Brittany Howard — the woman IS an amp! — fronts the muscular trio of Heath Fogg, guitar; Zac Cockrell, bass; and Steve Johnson, drums. R&B siren Emily King opens.
BEST BAND NAME THIS WEEK!
Chicano Batman plays the Hollow (79 N. Pearl St., Albany) on Monday.
The LA quartet of Eduardo Arenas, bass, Carlos Arevalo, guitar, Bardo Martinez, organ and guitar and Gabriel Villa, drums is hotter than hot after dazzling in their NPR Tiny Desk Concert and receiving a giant shout-out from Rolling Stone among “Best Things We Saw at Coachella.” Their new album “Freedom is Free” hits harder politically than its two predecessors, adding mighty message to their barrio soul. 7 p.m. $12. www.thehollowalbany.com.
There are three (or more) French 75s: the traditional-jazz combo that plays Riverlink Park (2 Front St., Amsterdam) on Saturday, the dream-pop duo (like Phantogram) that doesn’t, and the cognac-or-gin-and-Champagne-based cocktail. The French 75 that does play Riverlink Park is a young band: Alex Kollias, clarinet, Seth Bailey or Haneef Nelson, trumpet; John Birt, banjo; Mark Macksoud, drums; and Allison Lazur, tuba – but their roots are in the 1920s and they sound (updated) New Orleans. 7 p.m. Free. www.riverlinkconcerts.com.