Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys – Reviewed

The Americana festival at Liverpool Philharmonic provides a rich experience and a taste for Louisiana, finds Fred Johnson…

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are perhaps not, at first glance at least, the rugged, whiskey-swilling Southern country boys that you may be expecting (with the possible exception of guitarist Sam Broussard, who looks as if he has a tale or two to tell).

Indeed, they are disappointingly clean-cut and fresh-faced; if you wanted a band who look as if they’ve hitchhiked from Louisiana Kerouac-style, and have songs about their adventures en route, you’ll likely have to look elsewhere – or, again, at least to Broussard, who seems to carry world-weariness and American romanticism up his rolled and chequered sleeves.

Then again, if you were expecting to find such Emersonian forest-dwellers playing in Liverpool’s Philharmonic, you were probably looking in the wrong place to begin with. Our heads were full of such thoughts as we braved the traditionally English weather to see the Louisiana five-piece bring their infectious blend of French Cajun and contemporary country music to the disappointingly half-full Philharmonic auditorium.

Support came in the form of country duo Chris Hall and Heather Scott, who were joined by Mamou playboy Brazos Huval, here playing the fiddle rather than the bass. Though a pleasing trio, they occupied only the smallest space onstage, and all performed sat down; presumably an effort to encourage intimacy, sadly the Philharmonic is simply too large for a sitting acoustic trio to meaningfully connect with a crowd.

This was a shame, as it wasn’t strictly the band’s fault – a fuller audience would have resulted in a more comfortable performance, and would have rendered Hall’s slightly cheesy faux-American whoops, and attempts to involve the audience in the chorus of Van Morrison’s Precious Time, less awkward and more enjoyable.

“Their playing was tight, and their songs well chosen and enthusiastically performed”

The band were essentially playing the wrong gig; migration to a cosier venue with an open bar would have done them a world of good, as their playing was tight, and their songs well chosen and enthusiastically performed.

After the low-key opening, when Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys emerged – at least to our ears – it was to somewhat subdued applause, but the atmosphere was instantly more comfortable; the five-piece filled the stage, and since all the musicians were stood (bar Kevin Dugas on drums), there was no air of false, and therefore awkward, intimacy.

After quick introductions, the band launched into an energetic and fleshed-out Cajun song sung in French Creole, which gave a fantastic taster of things to come. The addition of a strong rhythm section in the form of Dugas’ drums and Huval’s bass helped establish a firm foundation for Riley’s accordion and Kevin Wimmer’s fiddle to play upon.

Broussard’s guitar seemed a little quiet through the first few songs, leading us to originally dismiss him as an unremarkable rhythm guitarist. We happily ate our words later on as he introduced and led arguably the best songs of the set. “This next one’s about a man looking for love in all the wrong places,” came his soft Louisiana drawl, leading into a song defined by his now-clearly incredible and versatile guitar playing.

A similar treat came as he introduced a song that took its lyrics from a poem written by a slave in the 1800s; the opening was enchanting, and by the time the rest of the band joined Broussard’s solo efforts, the climax and the crowd rose to a fever pitch.

This between-song audience interaction, describing the heritage behind the songs and the musical tradition, works so much better than the more typical jokes about drinking, and attempts to elicit sing-alongs from the crowd; by the time the gig ended, I was filled with a foolish but burning urge to visit Louisiana for myself, and to find the tracks left behind by these giants.

Walking home, I was reminded of, and struck by, the fact that for all of our received wisdom about the place, the USA’s is a culture brimming with wonders.

Fred Johnson

Posted on 01/08/2013 by thedoublenegative