NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 27, 2014

Grounded in tradition

Bands from Louisiana, Ireland to perform in Belleville series

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — Authentic music to celebrate Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day is on tap for the Belleville Roots Music Concert Series this week and next.

Tomorrow night, Grammy Award winner Steve Riley and his band, the Mamou Playboys, will return to the Belleville Church in Newburyport, where they first played to a sold-out crowd two years ago.

“We’re a band that covers a lot of musical ground, most of it Cajun and Creole,” Riley said. “It’s going to be a time for people to get out, get up and get down.”

Riley has lived in Louisiana his whole life, and the band’s music draws from the rich musical traditions of southwest Louisiana.

Nominated for four Grammy Awards, the group celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and has put out 13 albums, including several on the Rounder Records label.

Ken Irwin of Newburyport is the co-founder of Rounder Records and a member of the Belleville Roots Music Committee. He signed the band after seeing Riley play at the Festivals Acadiens et Creoles in Lafayette, La., which is “sort of the home base for Cajun music,” Irwin said.

“I went down there, and Steve was, I think, 16 at the time,” Irwin said. “He was playing with Dewey Balfa.”

Balfa was a Cajun fiddler and singer from Louisiana who is often credited with helping revive the popularity of Cajun music, particularly after his 1964 performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.

“Steve was very, very traditional at the time and just soaking up everything he could from Dewey,” Irwin said.

“I learned a lot just about the history of the music, all the trials that he went through,” said Riley, who plays the Cajun accordion, also known as a squeezebox.

Over the years, Riley and his band have experimented with the traditional Cajun French music, adding other elements such as rock and three-part harmonies.

“He was sort of reaching out and expanding on the tradition and trying to bring his music to newer and larger audiences, and to younger audiences,” Irwin said. “Now, he’s probably the most traveled of the Cajun musicians and the person people think of when they about Cajun music these days.”

Tomorrow’s performance will also serve as a history lesson, with the band explaining the stories behind many of its tunes, which are mostly sung in French.

“We always tell people a little bit of the history,” Riley said. “A lot of the songs are about the history.”

The band’s current lineup includes Riley, Kevin Wimmer on fiddle, Sam Broussard on guitar, Kevin Dugas on drums and Brazos Huval on bass.

Next Thursday, Irish band Dervish will make its Newburyport debut with a concert of traditional Celtic tunes.

“I went and saw them twice last year, once in Cambridge and once in Connecticut, and just was really taken by them both musically and personally,” Irwin said. “They love what they’re doing; they’ve seen other bands that have veered further from tradition, and they just love the traditional Irish music.”

Like Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Dervish is also celebrating its 25th anniversary. Singer Cathy Jordan has been part of the seven-member band from County Sligo, Ireland, since 1991.

“It’s been a gradual kind of easygoing, organic kind of growth,” Jordan said. “One day, you raise your head and realize you’ve been doing it for 25 years. In Irish music and folk music in general, it’s not unusual to have bands together for a long time.”

“Cathy just has a beautiful voice,” Irwin said. “They are a real band in terms of playing well together and always doing what is best for the song and the singer. They really act as a unit.”

The band has toured around the world and throughout the United States. Before heading to Newburyport, they are playing the North Texas Irish Festival this weekend and then a show Tuesday at Elmira College in New York.

“I think they’ve become one of the best-traveled of the Irish bands,” Irwin said. “Ireland is not the place they play the most.”

“My goal is kind of to bring out different flavors in the music,” said Jordan, speaking from Virginia earlier this week. “There are so many elements in Irish music from the haunting ballads to the uplifting tunes and everything kind of between.”

Dervish features Tom Morrow on fiddle, Liam Kelly on flute, Shane Mitchell on accordion, Brian McDonagh on mandola and mandolin, and Michael Holmes on bouzouki (a plucked string instrument). In addition to singing, Jordan plays the bodhran, an Irish frame drum.

The Belleville Roots Music Concert Series started in 2010 with missions to bring high-quality roots music to Newburyport and to build community through that music. And although it is a separate entity from the church, the music committee also raises money to help maintain the 1867 Belleville Meeting House and adjacent Fiske Chapel complex.

The 2013/2014 concert series wraps up with The Holmes Brothers on April 5 and The Von Trapps on April 29.

“I’ve been in the music business for 44 years, and the shows that are going on at the Belleville are just wonderful, wonderful music,” Irwin said. “We think that this year is the best year we’ve ever had in terms of talent.”

If you go

What: Belleville Roots Music Concert Series, featuring Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys tomorrow and Dervish on March 6

When: Concerts start at 8 p.m.

Where: Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport

How much: $30 in advance, $35 day of the show. $10 for ages 18 and under. Tickets available at church office on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Belleville Thrift Shop on Wednesday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon; Dyno Records, 1 Middle St.; and www.mktix.com/bc.

More information: bellevilleconcerts@gmail.com or www.bellevillechurch.org/roots.php