Imagine going to a Rolling Stones show, making your way to the stage and ordering up your favorite tune from “Exile on Main Street.” Good luck with that; Mick and the boys aren’t exactly in the habit of taking requests.
It’s different with Cajun music.
The two-step and the waltz are cornerstones of the Cajun dance hall, and musicians are as much brick masons as entertainers. Pack 300, 500 or 800 people into a venue, and a Cajun band knows better than to expect its audience to sit back, listen and appreciate. The people come to dance, cher, and the band had better deliver.
No matter how big its following around the world, no matter how many Grammy nominations in its pocket, when a band like Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys is playing close to home, it’s got a job to do, and audience participation is part of the deal.
David Greely knows that well. “Les Flammes d’Enfer”? You got it. “Allons Dancer”? Coming right up. “Kaplan Waltz”? Give ’em a minute.
“I’m very, very proud that we still have a dance culture here, which is pretty rare anywhere else,” the co-founder of one of Louisiana’s greatest Cajun bands said. “It’s incredibly entertaining for me to get up in front of a Cajun audience and watch those people dance and listen to what those people say to us when they come up to the stage.”
He’s going to miss it.
The acclaimed fiddle player and songwriter shocked his colleagues — and Cajun music fans across the state and far beyond — when he revealed last month that he would soon retire from the band that he and accordionist Riley founded 23 years ago.
The reason: hearing problems, related to the loud dance hall music that the band plays so well.
His last performance with The Mamou Playboys will be Tuesday, at the band’s annual Mardi Gras show in Eunice.
Greely’s announcement was a seismic event across the landscape of Cajun music, where The Mamou Playboys are as much international ambassadors for south Louisiana culture as they are musicians. They have just begun touring in support of their new CD, “Grand Isle,” which addresses the impact of last year’s BP oil spill on the land and people of the Bayou State.
With three Grammy nominations already to The Mamou Playboys’ credit, “Grand Isle” has positioned the band as early contenders for next year’s trophy in the Cajun and zydeco music category.
Against that backdrop, nobody saw Greely’s departure coming. It’s as if Keith Richards had left the Stones back in the days of “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Brown Sugar.”
“A couple years ago I went to an audiologist just to see how I was, because I had ringing in my ears, ” said Greely, 57. “I was noticing it but it was still at a level that I could tune it out. They gave me the measurements and said, ‘You’ve got a pronounced problem here and you need to avoid loud sound.’ I thought, ‘Great, that’s my job.’ I kind of forgot about it — what am I gonna do?”
Try as he might, though, he couldn’t ignore the trouble.
“I don’t want to be the guy in the band that’s yelling at everybody to turn it down all the time,” he said. “It’s not really that loud of a band, in comparison to a lot of bands. There are a lot of bands I wouldn’t last five minutes up there with them.
“But it’s still too loud for me. You’ve got a violin under your chin that can produce over 100 db on its own, if you really yank on it, and that’s drowned out by everything else around me, so I can’t hear it. That’s how loud it is on stage.”
Push finally came to shove, and Greely made the tough decision to leave the band and concentrate on other, more mellow musical pursuits.
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A native of Livingston Parish, Greely grew up surrounded by music — none of it Cajun. His parents used to make him sing “Sixteen Tons” for company when he was 3 years old. He sang in gospel quartets in the Baptist church as a boy. His father was a gifted singer, having grown up listening to convicts singing work songs at the state penitentiary at Angola where Greely’s grandfather was a prison guard.
Once Greely began playing the fiddle, it took him 17 years to become an overnight sensation.
It all started at the Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street, 40 years ago this month, when he and some teenage buds drove in from Denham Springs for a Black Sabbath concert.
An electric fiddle player in an obscure warm-up band blew him away, and by the time Ozzy Osbourne and his mates took the stage, Greely had already lost interest in hard rock. The next day, he bought a cheap fiddle and two bows at a Baton Rouge pawn shop, and he never looked back.
“I couldn’t stop playing it,” he said. “I was completely fascinated. The way the bow made the sound. You had to resin the bow. You’d pull that horsehair across the strings and it made that sound. You could play long notes. Incredible.
“And I couldn’t leave it alone. Any spare moment I had, I had that fiddle under my chin — and my mom was going, ‘You take that thing in your room, or in the back yard.’ I learned to play. It was a year before I learned I was in the wrong tuning, so I kind of had to start over.”
Thus began a musical odyssey that took him from Denham Springs to Nashville to San Antonio and back to south Louisiana, from bluegrass to country to Cajun.
On a fateful Saturday morning in Marc Savoy’s music shop near Eunice, Greely chanced to meet a talented young Cajun musician named Steve Riley. They jammed together, Greely liked what he heard, and he invited the 18-year-old hotshot to sit in with him at his lunchtime solo sets at the old Mulate’s in Baton Rouge. When that turned into a regular Monday night gig, they formed a band.
Success was quick, and heady. They soon were invited to play Festivals Acadiens — the Jazz Fest of Cajun country. They landed a record deal. They began to take their music on the road.
“We would go out of town a couple weekends a month,” Greely recalled. “Getting on airplanes to go and play music, that was a neat thing. Hearing other people play our songs was really weird, but very gratifying at the same time.”
Within months, the group landed in France, Greely’s first trip outside of the United States.
“I went to the Riviera,” he said. “Jonno Frishberg (the New Orleans fiddler and producer) was there and we were laying on the beach at St. Tropez. He looks at me and goes, ‘Somebody made a mistake. What are we doing here?’ … Every time I turned around there was some new experience.”
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In the ensuing years, The Mamou Playboys developed devoted followings across the Cajun prairie as well as in New Orleans, where they have been longtime fixtures at both the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Rock ‘n’ Bowl.
At the same time, the band matured artistically, producing a string of powerful albums that put intriguing contemporary spins on traditional Cajun and Creole musical influences.
“In the case of ‘Grand Isle, ‘ we were all thinking about the BP oil disaster a lot,” Greely said. “I was feeling pretty bad about it, because Grand Isle is a place where I spent a lot of time when I was growing up. We’d set up a tent on the beach and spend the whole weekend down there. I freakin’ loved it.
“Just the year before that happened, a guy took us out in a sailboat out there in the other pass, Barataria Pass. The shrimp were running and the dolphins were there just gorging themselves on shrimp. It was a fascinating thing to see; it was just so beautiful. And then, it was such a horrible thought, all that getting drowned in oil. I was kind of bummed about that, and we just started writing songs about that.”
Leaving the band now at the top of its game, Greely has assorted low-volume acoustic projects to keep him busy, including fiddle duets with musician and producer Joel Savoy as GreelySavoyDuo.
“I’m really glad that young people come to clubs and dance to Cajun music, who also like to dance to hip-hop. But when we take a break, they crank up the hip-hop, and brother, it’s loud,” he said. “You think we’re loud? That’s twice as loud. We played one of those places a couple weeks ago, and it was three days before the ringing in my ears calmed back down.
Originally published in The Times-Picayune, March 7, 2011.