Ernest James Zydeco – 3 Steps From La La
You might notice some stains from their brand of barbeque and find a few leftover crumbs in their beards from blues and jazz binges, but Kansas City Zydeco is a phrase you wouldn’t expect to find on the lips of most Missourians. For the past fifteen years, Ernest James has been working to change that, bringing the sounds of the Louisiana swamp out to Missouri’s largest city and beyond.
The Louisiana sound comes naturally to the K.C.- based James, whose father was from Pineville in the central part of Louisiana. James doesn’t have an accent, but his music does. The self-taught accordion player captures the Zydeco dialect in his bouncy, danceable Creole-flavored sound on his latest, the band’s third, 3 Steps from La La.
In James’ hands, “Shake It Sugaree” falls somewhere between the Grateful Dead and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Flavored with Betsie Ellis’ fiddle and boosted by James’ carnival time accordion licks and tinkly piano curlicues, “Sugaree” shakes it, as he says, “from the top of your head to the bottom of your behind.”
“Whoa Sally” is reminiscent of Boozoo Chavis, the chanky-chank rhythm perfect for crippled pony steppin’ on a tune about a fast woman whose amorous advances James fears might bring serious repercussions from her parents if they only knew what took place when their daughter turned her oven on.
But James doesn’t offer an all-Zydeco menu here. Muddy Waters “I’m a Man” is the melodic framework for “Zydeco Mothers Day,” which despite the title is more Muddy big foot stomp than Creole dance music. Guitarist Tony La Croix does some serious shredding here while the band hollers behind him like Muddy’s bunch on the original “Man” recording.
“Pearlie Pearl” is stripped down romp that once again recalls Boozo Chavis in a frenetic headlong assault propelled by Jaisson Taylor’s staccato backbeat and Betsie Ellis’ fiddle dancing around James’ pumping accordion.
The session closes with a decidedly non Zydeco version of “When I Lay My Burden Down” that pays homage to Ry Cooder with James on resonator guitar. Although James calls it “Glory Glory,” it’s the same tune that artists from Mississippi Fred McDowell to the Byrds to Dr. John have taken a swing at over the years. James’ version has an old timey gospel fervor with a hint of a Cajun accent on the churchy hollers.
It may not come from in-country, but Ernest James Zydeco is as close to the real thing as you can get out in the heartland, an import that retains all the flavor and character of the original in spite of the distance.
By Grant Britt