C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band
at Long's Park Amphitheater,
Lancaster, PA (29 August 29)

Five years ago Sunday, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana and turned much of New Orleans into a swampy wreck.

To mark the anniversary in a celebratory way, C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band on Sunday flooded the rolling field surrounding the Long's Park amphitheater, in Lancaster, Pa., with the relentless enthusiasm of zydeco.

Chenier, scion of a proud zydeco tradition and with five albums to his credit, has polished the musical merger of Cajun, Creole and blues sounds, and the audience on Sunday responded with tireless zeal.

The band -- which, besides Chenier's vocals and accordion, includes guitar, bass, drums and washboard -- strolled on stage in silence, but all it took was for Chenier to raise his hand and the applause began.

"Everybody feelin' all right?" he asked. The audience roared. Then Chenier played a few quick riffs on his accordion before crunching into the first song -- and the dance floor in front of the stage filled in record time. By the second song, dancers overflowed the dance area and were swirling among the seats, and they didn't let up 'til the encore wound down nearly two hours later. And they weren't going anywhere; as long as the band was playing, the crowd was moving.

Some folks really knew their steps, stomping, swaying and gyrating gracefully -- or, as the occasion warranted, moving close and slow -- as Chenier ran through songs ranging from "Finger Lickin' Chicken" to "Zydeco Cha Cha."

Chenier, son of the late King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, has been called "the best living zydeco singer and accordionist" by Living Blues magazine. He worked to keep that title fresh on Sunday, belting out the lyrics with rough-edged vocals perfectly suited to the bayou sound.

"I wanted to play jazz" early in his career, he said, but he changed his mind after performing with his father's band. "I tell you what, I feel so good when I see people dancin'. You're all out there skippin', hoppin' and jumpin' " he said. "When you go to a jazz club, people are sitting around, all quiet."

And who doesn't wish they could make a living as a professional washboard player?

After a heart-pumping show, the band returned to the stage for an encore, the energetic "Zydeco Boogie," before calling it a night. "Shucks, I'm having a good time, y'all," Chenier said.

Stella Sexton, director of Long's Park's summer music series, recalled the final show in the summer of 2005, when another zydeco band -- Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie -- was on stage. "We often end the season with zydeco," Sexton said. "People love to dance, and zydeco always brings them out."

But that year, Katrina was churning through the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana as they performed -- it would strike the coast the next day -- "and I remember," Sexton said, "they were all worried about their families back home."

This year, fortunately, natural disasters seemed far from everyone's minds as the concert series ended on a picture-perfect note.

The sun set quickly once the music began, with flying geese making dramatic silhouettes against the horizon and bright Venus dominating the darkening sky over the southern tree line. About 6,000 people turned out for the show, Sexton said.

Before the music started, Abby Sullivan and Brandon Tennis, both of Lancaster, were sprawled comfortably on the grass, eyes closed and soaking up a bit of the late-evening sun. "We're meeting up with some people ... for a friend's 30th birthday," Sullivan said. "It's a good excuse to get outside. It's nice to be lying around, doing nothing and listening to music."

"These guys are fantastic," Tennis added, with a nod to the stage. "I can't believe this is free. Way to go, Lancaster."

For Matt Hoffman, a night of music was a last-minute inspiration. "I just wanted to take my son for a walk," he said. "Then I remembered there was a concert, so we're here." While 8-year-old Zelig ran off a little pre-show energy, Hoffman was enjoying the laid-back event. "What's not to like? I live in downtown Lancaster. So you're in the city and you're hot, and 20 minutes later you're in this beautiful park with good music," he said.

"It's such a great atmosphere," added Lori Kalbach of Mount Joy, who shared the evening with her husband, Art, and a pair of docile canines, Harmony and Buddy. "And I'm so glad this is now a non-smoking event."

by Tom Knapp
4 September 2010