Gary Bull Benefit
featuring River City Slim & the Zydeco Hogs, Larry Willey & The Bluestalkers, D. Smith Blues Band, King Cake, and Patty Tuite and the Boilermakers; June 18, 2 p.m., Hannon-Hatch VFW, 83 South St., West Hartford, (860) 281-9151, vfw9929.org
The blues are probably zydeco's closest neighbor, so if you spend any time around Connecticut's thriving blues scene, you're bound to bump into River City Slim and the Zydeco Hogs. The Hartford-area quintet has cornered the market on zydeco, which River City Slim himself describes as “a mix of rhythm and blues and traditional Creole music.” And that's a good thing for us listeners, because this far north, musicians are almost guaranteed to bastardize the Louisiana-based music.
“The thing about most non-Louisiana zydeco bands, they usually just incorporate zydeco into what they already know, and it comes out sounding wrong. Most of them are rock musicians, and it ends up sounding like rock music with a little bit of zydeco,” says Slim. (His goofy stage name comes from the fact that he used to live in Collinsville, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it arts village in the northwest corner. “And I used to be slim,” he laughs.)
Initially a big fan of blues music, Slim had heard zydeco a few times, but he had to see it live before it really won him over. “When it really clicked for me is when I saw Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys at the Roaring Brook Nature Center, believe it or not, in that little center. They're the band that appears in the movie The Big Easy. That had to be at least 20 years ago.” After hearing such a vast difference between pretenders and the real thing, Slim decided to start a band that didn't fall into the typical traps. “I wanted to play authentic zydeco, despite the fact that we are white guys from New England. I had heard other Louisiana-inspired bands, locally and from other parts of the country. I didn't wanna sound like a rock band that just added an accordion and a rub board — that's not how it works.”
So he spent some time drumming behind Louisiana zydeco musicians “to learn how to really play it.” Despite the foreignness of some of the instrumentation — zydeco typically places accordion and a washboard at the forefront — Slim realized that it's essentially dance music. “If you can get the groove right, you've got it made. The groove is all-important,” he says. I asked him if there were any aspects of his drumkit that he's tweaked with zydeco in mind. “The snare drum in zydeco should be a real popping sound. You think about, say '70s rock, everything is a big thud, even the snare. The snare should be real crisp. Right now I have a custom carbon fiber drum being made by a guy in Louisiana. He's gonna market it as a zydeco snare — I'm getting the prototype.”
Slim and the Hogs play a fairly traditional brand of zydeco. But the genre has continued to grow and expand, with younger players adding hip-hop, funk, and soul into the mix. “The music is still alive and growing down in Louisiana. It's a regional and culturally based music that's still alive,” says Slim. And while zydeco has survived against tall odds, there also seems to be an unspoken sense that the prognosis is grim, especially when you consider zydeco's peers. “Fifty, 60, 70 years ago, there were lotsa culturally based regional musics, and they've all been wiped out by mass media homogenization. The old blues music has long since been given up by the culture that created it.” Slim also cites Chicago jazz, Kentucky bluegrass, and Western swing as examples of regional music that have lapsed into what he calls “recreations.” “It can be great music, don't get me wrong! But it's not being created by the original people.”
Perhaps that's why Slim's band positions itself along more traditional lines. “I don't wanna play that hip-hop-styled stuff. It's just not me. That's for the young guys,” he laughs.
This weekend, the Zydeco Hogs lead a group of bands in a benefit for local blues and roots fan Gary Bull. Bull passed away April 2, 2011, at the age of 59. His family is struggling to pay for his burial expenses. “I first met [Bull] at the Shaboo back in 1979,” says Slim. “Being that he was good with food, he used to feed us. I don't think any musicians paid for food when Gary was around. He was big into celebrating the connection between music and food. It's not so much up here, but when you go down south, you see that music and food are very connected.”
You can also hear River City Slim when he hosts his radio show, “The Pine Grove Blues,” Thursdays from 6-9 a.m. on 91.3 FM West Hartford.