It's 7:25, Friday night, and the staff at Lafayette's Grant Street Dancehall has begun to get nervous. Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers--one of the hottest zydeco acts in the land and Grant Street's featured attraction this evening--have yet to begin their 7:00 soundcheck. The hold up isn't the Hi-Rollers, all five of whom have been calmly shooting the breeze among themselves since they arrived half-an-hour ago. The hold up is Beau Jocque himself and the van he's driving, a van full of the Hi-Rollers' sound equipment and instruments, without which the soundcheck, not to mention the show, cannot go on.
There are, of course, two possible and entirely different reasons for why a performer might nonchalantly show up late: One is that he might simply be the no-good, shiftless type; the other is that he might be a star. And whether he's a rising, shining, or falling one doesn't matter nearly as much as the fact that, as a star, he can take his time getting to a gig if he wants to. What's a mere soundcheck, after all, to someone who, properly amplified or not, can easily rock, roll, boogie, and rumble even the hardest-dancing zydecajuns into sweat-soaked exhaustion?
Beau Jocque is such a someone. And, sure enough, when he pulls in at 7:45 and climbs calmly out of his van, he seems neither shiftless nor worried. "Immense" is more like it. At well over six feet, 200 pounds, he's the world's biggest zydeco star both figuratively and literally, a living and truly monumental monument to the power of the accordion and rubboard. One shakes his huge hand tentatively. Surely it could crush a journalist's fingers, especially if they look like the prying kind.
Not tonight, however. Rounder Records has notified him of the interview, and after presiding over the unpacking and proper on-stage installation of his gear, he retires happily to the dressing room for a chat. Once ensconced, his forbidding demeanor changes almost instantly. He may look like the "big grizzly-bear of a man" described in the liner notes of his new album, Gonna Take You Downtown, but he speaks softly and humbly. And when he gets around to discussing his just-completed tour of France, he sounds downright grateful.
"I only played my French songs, and the crowd was really surprised," he recalls. "They really liked it. They said the only other person who had gone to France and done that was Clifton Chenier about fifteen years ago. I even did some national French radio interviews in French."
It seems that the Cajun French he's spoken all his life was sufficient. "It was a surprise to me that I could communicate with them, but what this one older guy over there told me is that Cajun French is actually their old French. The slang is a little different, but it's understandable. Realizing that we could communicate that well in my home French language and theirs really made me feel good."
And, in return, he made the French people feel good, for as those familiar with his six albums know, no matter what language he's singing in, his international dance beat loses nothing in translation. On Pick Up on This!, his 1994 album, the song "'Gardez Donc! (Look at That!)" more than holds its own between the swivel-hipped "Give It to Me" and the cayenne-peppered ZZ Top treatment of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Woogie." And on Git It, Beau Jocque!, his 1995 live album recorded in Opelousas and Breaux Bridge, "Couche dehors hier au soir" fits nicely between the rockin' raffle-ticket announcement "0394413" and the snippet of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Mister Charlie" that leads into "Shaggy Dog Two Step."
"I brought about eight boxes of the Nursery Rhyme CD with me to Europe," he explains, referring to the album he released on his own Beau Jocque label last year. "And I sold 'em all in two days. One box holds thirty, and I sold 'em at a hundred francs--which is twenty dollars--apiece. If I'd had T-shirts and caps, which I usually do, I could've sold all of that, as well. But we had done a stateside tour right before we left, and I didn't get a chance to restock. When we go back, though, I'm gonna make a special effort to have enough supply."
He'd also better have enough supply of Gonna Take You Downtown because once word spreads that it's his best studio effort to date, every Francois, Jacques, and Pierre is going to want one. Recorded in April at New Orleans' Ultrasonic Studios and produced by Scott Billington, Downtown crisply captures each element of the multi-faceted Hi-Rollers' sound and burnishes it to an intensity that even their live show--superior volume and all--doesn't match.
The title track, for instance, which comprises the hour-long disc's first five minutes, establishes itself immediately as a roots-boogie monster: With Jocque's accordion lines recalling Steve Winwood's organ ones in "Gimme Some Lovin'," Wilfred "Caveman" Pierre's rubboard clatter embellishing Russell "Sly" Dorion's percussive guitar riffs, Steve "Skeeta" Charlot's drums snapping whip-like over Chuck Bush's nimble bass runs, and Michael Lockett's keyboards providing subtle support, the song throws down a challenge to any dancer who thinks he or she already possesses an arsenal of body movements adequate to any rhythm that could rumble down from a bandstand.
Then comes "Cisco Kid," which proves that Jocque has been studying War some more. On Pick Up on This!, he married "Low Rider" to a little something called "Hi-Rollers Theme" and ran with it for nearly eight minutes. This time he keeps himself to five, and in the compression such Hi-Roller gimmicks as Dorion's talkbox and Charlot's background vocal hijinx take on the advantage of surprise. And, lest one overlook it, Jocque's lead singing--some would say lead roaring--has a way of making even the most overrecorded war-horse sound new. So while his version of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" goes on too long at seven minutes, it certainly gets one's attention, popping up as it does between the much more zydeco-friendly "Just One Kiss" and "Kinder Two Step."
"I'm optimistic about this album, because we've tried the material that's on it in different parts of the world, and people have really liked it," says Jocque, "in Switzerland especially. They didn't want me to get off the stage. They wanted one more, then one more, then one more. When I told 'em it was our last show in Europe, they really didn't want us to get off the stage."
Friday night's Grant Street crowd doesn't want them to get off the stage, either. Despite a lot of late arrivals--the band plays its first twenty minutes to about forty beer-bottle-clutching wallflowers--the floor eventually fills, and when it does, the Hi-Rollers up their own intensity a notch or two, until they seem less like Hi-Rollers and more like Fire Hazards.
Metaphorically, the band catches fire too often to count. While not the vocal foil for Jocque that Charlot had been, Erick Minix, the new drummer, rides the beat hard all night. And in an unusual show of a drummer's rapport with the crowd, he shares his oversized, yin-yang top hat with the audience for a few numbers.
Dorion, who recently replaced two former guitarists in the Hi-Roller lineup, gets the majority of the solo space, and it's not hard to see why: Besides his frequent use of the talkbox--he "sings" several measures of "Cisco Kid" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" with it--his solos sizzle. Bush, Pierre, and Lockett comp beneath him, playing rhythms and chords more felt than heard, and atop it all Beau Jocque plays clusters of thick, Gabbanelli-accordion notes and sings lyrics that tend to celebrate life's simple pleasures.
And for those who find such pleasures as making it stank ("Make It Stank"), breezin' ("It's So Easy When You're Breezin'"), and going to see Beau Jocque ("Alle Parti Pour Voi Beau Jocque") hard to identify with, a subtle code of classic rock 'n' roll details renders the songs familiar. Dorion's talkbox, after all, harks back to Peter Frampton, and Jocque's "It's So Easy When You're Breezin'" melody sounds like a loosened up version of Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up."
The interweaving of rock 'n' roll and zydeco comes naturally to Jocque, who, as he says, grew up listening to "Santana, ZZ Top, War, John Lee Hooker," music that he calls "hard-drive rock 'n' roll." "I was never too much for the laid-back kind of thing. Mostly I enjoy a hard drive done in a bluesy way, and I try to reflect that in my music." It's this potent combination of the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar, that has made Beau Jocque the closest thing to an overnight sensation to emerge from southwest Louisiana in some time.
But it was something even more potent that made his emergence as a zydeco sensation possible in the first place.
"In 1987, I was in an accident in the refinery where I worked," he explains. "There was an explosion, and I got my back and right hip broken. I was paralyzed from the waist down for about a year. But after three surgeries they were able to repair my back and hip to where I could walk straight again.
"During that down time, I spent a lot of time with my dad, who plays the Cajun accordion. He'd always tell me that I'd never learn how to play it. Now, in the high-school band, I'd played tenor sax, baritone sax, trumpet, tuba, and--to annoy the band teacher--piano. But the accordion was not one of my school instruments. So my dad sort of challenged me, and I had to prove him wrong. Of course, that's what he wanted me to do. He conned me into playing the accordion. And since I wasn't able to do what I was doin' before--electrician work, industrial electricity, pipe welding, and stuff like that--playin' the accordion gave me a second chance."
These days, he readily admits that playing hard-driving zydeco to enthusiastic throngs is a lot more fun than electrician work and welding.
"More fun and more profitable," he laughs. "It offers unlimited benefits. I'm able to travel and see the world and to bring my wife and two boys. One is six and the baby is five--they're a year-and-a-half apart--and their gettin' ready to come to Paris with me this fall. It's just an exciting, happy thing that happened."
He pauses. "Actually, it was an answer to a lot of prayers. Bein' injured and bein' down and knowing that you can't do any more what you trained yourself to do can be very depressing. And it was very depressing."
That is, until Andrus Espre (as he was known then), the down-and-out electrician, became Beau Jocque, the Zydeco Hi-Roller. Less than a year after being "conned" by his dad into picking up the accordion, he was already testing the waters.
"I recruited some guys and got a little gang together. We'd play in the back yard on Sunday evenings, and the neighbors would come around, and we'd have fun and buy beer. Soon it got to be a regular thing, and the back yard would be full.
"Then one evening some people called and asked me if I'd sit in with 'em because their accordion player had gotten sick. I said, 'Sure, I'll give it a shot, but I don't want any hard time because I'm just starting.' But the people really liked it, and they never did hire the guy back. So I took over that group, made a few changes, and that's how it started."
Then came the Rounder deal, a deal that--his talent aside--has probably had more to do with his rapid ascension than anything else.
"They'd heard about the impact that I'd had around this area and of the new style of zydeco that I'd introduced, and they came down and listened. It was at the Quarterback Club here in Lafayette, and the odds were against me, man. I'd told all the guys in the band, 'Look, we gotta give it a hundred percent tonight.' Then my bass player got so drunk he fell down.
He laughs. "I fired him the next morning." And he laughs some more.
About the only aspect of his success story that Beau Jocque doesn't find funny is the jealousy with which some members of the southwest Louisiana zydeco fraternity have welcomed the big splash he's made in their small pond. Off the record, they grumble about the shortcut to popularity he's taken by adding accordion and rubboard to songs by War, ZZ Top, Dylan, and John Lee Hooker and calling them zydeco. It's the age-old purist heresy finally come home to roost in a genre that hasn't had to worry much about commercialism since Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural signed with Island and Rockin' Sydney sang "My Toot Toot." Beau Jocque, however, has an answer to their charges.
"All I can say to those people who approach me and say I haven't really paid my dues is that God blesses you for different reasons, and you have to be worthy of those reasons by livin' right and doin' right. I think that goes a long way because if you do good, usually good follows you, but if you do bad, bad will follow you.
"I also think," he continues, "that these people should take a second look at what they invest in. In any business, you'll only get out of it what you put in. I try to buy the best equipment and instruments that a musician can use, but a lot of times I'll run across a musician--a great musician--and he don't have nothin' to play on.
"I bought all the Hi-Rollers' drums, guitars, and keyboards, and I bought a really heavy-duty PA system. Then I hired a professional sound engineer, and all those things worked. People hear the quality, and they come back because of the quality. That's what I mean by getting out of it what you put into it. A lot of guys think it's just gonna happen, but it won't. You gotta find the best way that you can to make it happen and also believe there is a God, because without that nothin's gonna happen.
"I've gone both sides," he concludes. "At one time in my life, I was one of those misbehavers. But you only end up on a dead-end street. I don't wanna go preachin' or anything, but it pays to live right."
Beau Jocque passed away in 1999 at the age of forty-five.