Monday, December 6, 2010

Lil' Band O' Gold: A Southwest Louisiana Swamp Pop Jukebox

'One part Coonass and three parts Buena Vista Social Club'

By Karl Bremer

When a band stacked with some of the brightest musical stars in Louisiana has to go to Australia to find a label, you have to wonder about the state of the recording industry today. But that’s the circuitous route swamp rock supergroup Lil’ Band O’ Gold took from Down South to Down Under to get their second release in as many decades waxed—literally.

Often described as a Cajun version of the Traveling Wilburys, bandleader and charismatic Lafayette, Louisiana, guitar slinger C.C. Adcock has his own analogy: “One part Coonass and three parts Buena Vista Social Club. Except unlike Buena Vista Social Club, the cats in Lil’ Band O’ Gold were all working when we put the band together. We didn’t have to go out and find them in their homes.”

Adcock would know. He’s the instigator behind Lil’ Band O’ Gold.

“Louisiana’s one of the last places—southwest Louisiana for sure—where you can still go hang out with your heroes,” Adcock reflects in a documentary film about the band. “I mean, a lot of times, you can even start a band with ‘em. That’s what we’ve done with Lil’ Band O’ Gold.”

Lil Band O Gold is an amalgamation of some of Louisiana’s most respected players drawn from a thick stew of musical genres. The common ingredient among them is swamp pop, a local delicacy grown in the French-speaking parts of Louisiana known as Acadiana and Southeast Texas from the seeds of rockabilly, blues, country swing, R&B and Cajun music. If it comes from South Louisiana and it ain’t Cajun or zydeco, chances are it’s swamp pop.

The band’s roster reads like a who’s who of the region’s finest instrumentalists, vocalists and songsmiths: Steve Riley, master Cajun accordionist and leader of his own band, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys; Warren Storm, 73-year-old raven-haired drummer and veteran of countless swamp pop and R&B classics over the past half-century with the driving force of a locomotive and voice of an angel; Dave Ranson, stalwart longtime bassist with the Goners behind Sonny Landreth and John Hiatt; David Eagan, one of America’s premier songwriters and a gentle giant on the keyboards; Dickie Landry and Pat Breaux on saxophones, the go-to reed guys of the stars who play like they’re joined at the hip—and the heart; Richard Comeaux, pedal steel player par excellence and leader of his own band River Road. At the throttle is Charles Clinton Adcock, a vastly underrated guitarist who cut his teeth playing behind Bo Diddley and Buckwheat Zydeco and is a devoted keeper of the swamp pop flame.

Lil’ Band O’ Gold released its eponymous first album on the Shanachie label in 2000, a stunning debut that showcased the extraordinary array of talent in the group. It went unnoticed save for the fans who had the good fortune to stumble upon them in Louisiana—most likely at a festival of some kind—and developed a long-distance love affair with them.

Like all things in Cajun Country, nothing moves very fast unless you’re on the dance floor. Work began on “The Promised Land” in 2002, but it would be the better part of a decade before the new record would see the light of day, albeit by way of the Southern Hemishere.

Aiming for a roadhouse jukebox sound in both the song selection and sonic atmosphere of “The Promised Land,” explains Adcock, the band cut each song to a vinyl disc before transferring it to digital format. The result is a sound as full and broad as the Mississippi River that wraps around you like a sticky Louisiana night, propelled by a driving rhythm that would peel the asphalt off a back country road.

But the story of how it got to vinyl takes more twists and turns than the Mighty Mississippi. The project was plagued by a series of setbacks that could never have been anticipated that made the already-challenging job of recording a widely-scattered band like this even more impossible.

“For a short time we were in bed with a major label,” says Adcock as he sifts through the early history of the record. “We had a friend at the label who gave us enough money to record a couple songs—(David Eagan-penned) “Spoonbread” and (Bobby Charles chestnut) “I Don’t Want to Know.” It was a good afternoon in the studio.” Those two versions of the songs ended up on the final record, but that’s as far as it went with the label.

Tarka Cordell, Adcock’s longtime friend and co-producer of his own solo debut record, heard the songs and became an instant fan.

“Tarka comes from a great record-producing family,” says Adcock. Famed producer and Island Records A&R man Denny Cordell was his father. “I had tons of ideas for new songs—way too many—and Tarka helped condense those down.”

The band used to hang out in a joint called City Bar in Maurice, Louisiana, recalls Adcock. “I kinda wanted it to sound like the jukebox at City Bar. With four singers in the band, I thought the record could be listened to like a juke box. I wanted songs from different eras, musically and sonically. “So Long” is a ‘60s Allan Toussaint song, “Last Hayride” sounds stoned ‘70s … I always had a list of songs under my bed that Lil’ Band O’ Gold should do. I think David did too. So David and I started gathering up our ideas—gathering up feathers and wishbones to see if we could make a chicken.”

Between all the other commitments of band members—an occupational hazard of a “supergoup”—the project sputtered along in fits and starts for a couple of years until Cordell called Adcock from London in early 2005.

“I told him I was getting revved up for festivals, for the Ponderosa Stomp. He got envious and said ‘I gotta get in on this.’ So he decided that under the auspices of making a film, he’d get to hang out with us for six weeks.”

Cordell came down to Louisiana with a film crew and followed Lil Band O’ Gold around Cajun Country.

“We were playing all these shows and hanging out with my friends. And then in September, (hurricanes) Katrina and Rita hit. The film and all the parties and good times took on a different tone than they had captured on film. As the months passed after Katrina, there were so many questions about what was going to happen, what was going to get rebuilt.”

In early 2006, Adcock continues, “Tarka was checking back in with us about how the rebuilding was going. It was different in Lafayette—we were helping everyone else out. Lafayette was kind of spared—it’s literally kind of high ground.

“Me and Dickie shared this place downtown Lafayette. We fancied ourselves as downtown New York SoHo. The music was the first thing back in 2006, so Tarka said we gotta come back down and finish this story. He and I couldn’t stand it anymore. We were champing at the bit to make this record. But the problem that’s always been with Lil’ Band O’ Gold is that we’d see each other onstage and shoot it out of a cannon for a couple of hours and it worked. But if C.C. Adcock wanted to get everyone together and rehearse a few songs, you should see the eyes roll. So Tarka was able to unify us and bring us together and was able to put some cash together to make the record—give everybody a little money so they could get freed up for a couple weeks and hang out in the studio. And we filmed it all.”

Swamp pop legend Tommy McLain was brought in to sing “Memories,” a plaintive ballad he co-wrote with Adcock. Northern Louisiana rockabilly stalwart Kenny Bill Stinson was added to the mix on several tracks. And the incendiary former Clifton Chenier sideman Lil Buck Sinegal, a regular guest at the band’s live shows, was recruited for guitar duty on the hard-charging “Ain’t No Child No More.”

The presence of five distinctive vocalists on the record—Adcock, Riley, Eagan, Storm and McLain—allowed greater latitude in the song selections because they all occupy different spaces. More of a challenge in the mixing, says Adcock, is the blending of accordion, horns and steel guitar. “They all occupy the same frequency, so they all sort of become one streaming sound, sort of intertwined.”

The band wanted to stay as true as possible to that City Bar jukebox sound, and the idea of mastering it to vinyl evolved.

“It came out of night after night of us sitting around all night talking about vinyl. We went to this old studio that Warren used to go to—great vintage gear, mics, consoles, everything’s gun-metal gray. We had all these mixes laying around, and the cream rose to the top.”

The record took another tragic twist in the road when Tarka Cordell committed suicide in April 2008.

“He was my best friend in the whole world,” Adcock says. “After he died it really galvanized me and the band and his brothers to go out and make sure that his legacy could be heard.”

Three weeks earlier, Cordell had sent Adcock a letter with his track-by-track critique of “The Promised Land.”

“Great record. Needs little,” he concluded.

“It was hard,” says Adcock. “We tried to go about the business of honoring his legacy. Every time something worked out for us, we just sort of looked at each other and said ‘Tarka.’ But we were able to go back and honor his wishes” in the final edits.

“I had the record vinylized,” Adcock enthuses. “I took every mastered track on the record up to New York to this vinyl guru—Andy Vandette—who arguably has the greatest record lathe in the country. He pressed each song to its own 12-inch vinyl record at 45 rpm. When you’re listening to your disc, you’re listening to a record, a needle on a record.”

The documentary film “The Promised Land: A Swamp Pop Journey,” was released in 2009, with help from Tarka’s brother, Barney. It premiered at South by Southwest in Austin and was screened several times in Louisiana before it went on the international film circuit, including Cannes.

But the record was still in the can.

“There are some crazy Aussies who come around to Jazz Fest and like Lil’ Band O’ Gold,” Adcock chuckles. One of them saw the film in 2009, followed by the band’s performance at New Orleans’ Chickie Wah Wah nightclub. The next thing they knew, they were contacted by Dust Devil Records, and the record was released in Australia in March 2010, followed by an Australian tour.
“The Promised Land” delivers on the band’s mission to make a real jukebox record. There’s a warmth, honesty and heartfelt respect for the music over the musician that permeates every song, without the excesses of other “supergroups.” The sum of this band truly is greater than its individual parts.

It’s like a swirling shot of musical absinthe that splays your senses wide open and oozes over them in thick aural landscapes of Acadiana. Never mind that the songs have percolated from such non-swampy and disparate sources as ELO’s Jeff Lynne (“Hold On Tight”) or Mickey Newbury (“Sunshine”). By the time Lil’ Band O’ Gold gets done stitching them together, they fit like different patches on the same handmade quilt.

“It was important for me to do this little Australian thing because it’s like brick-and-mortar,” says Adcock. “I’m proud to have it. We sound so good. It’s just important to keep this thing going. I feel more compelled than ever to get this record released here.”

Yet as good as this record is, as an Australian import, its market is destined to be limited until they can find U.S. distribution.

It must get tiring to continually be described in so many words as “the greatest band you’ve never heard of,” despite the solid-gold resumes of its individual members. Part of the sentence meted out by that description is self-imposed as everyone in the band has “day jobs” elsewhere and can’t perform, tour or, as Adcock noted, rehearse like a fulltime band.

Yet Lil’ Band O’ Gold has been “discovered” by a slew of heavyweights.

Robert Plant jumped onstage with the band at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in 2007, and the two collaborated on “It Keeps Rainin’,” a track on a tribute to Fats Domino.

Bob Dylan caught their set at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz Fest and was so knocked out he tapped Dickie Landry to sit in with him for his nighttime show.

And Elvis Costello, Dr. John and a gang of other notables sat in with the band at a House of Blues tribute to Bobby Charles during Jazz Fest this year.

Authenticity doesn’t always sell in an age of superficiality. But Adcock remains on the hunt for an American label that’s buying it.

Stranger things have happened. Seattle native Jimi Hendrix had to go to England before he could get the attention of the American market. Maybe things in the music business aren’t so different these days after all.

"The Promised Land" by the quarters

The Promised Land/Lil’ Band O’ Gold
2010 Dust Devil Music DDCD0110

“Spoonbread” comes up on the first quarter with a fat, swelling accordion entrance accompanied by a bevy of vocalists and the siren call of a pedal steel. David Eagan’s homespun, authentic lyrics invite comparisons to The Band in their finest moments of pure Americana:

“Pass me down that spoonbread baby,
You ain’t eatin’ like you know you should,
Got a little peas, got a little gravy,
Pass me down that spoonbread baby,
It ain’t money but it sure tastes good.”

The hook is set with Warren Storm’s crystalline cover of Bobby Charles’ classic lament “I Don’t Want to Know.” The band gets deep in your soul as the waves of sound push Storm to falsetto reaches that even Johnny Adams would have envied.

Another quarter in the jukebox and up comes C.C. Adcock swaggering through the door with “Teardrops,” a swamp pop nugget from Eddie Schuler, founder of Lake Charles label Goldband Records, and Shelton Dunaway of Cookie and the Cupcakes.

Steve Riley’s up next with “Ain’t No Child No More,” a raucous romp through the bayou with stinging Clifton Chenier sidekick Lil Buck Sinegal and Riley battling it out for lead.

Eagan comes back into the singing rotation on his own wistful “Dreamer,” showing why anyone who’s anybody has beat a path to his door to record his songs. Paired with Storm’s take on Mickey Newbury’s “Sunshine,” it makes for a sterling midpoint in the record before launching into a rocket-fueled arrangement of Adcock’s “Runaway Life.”

A radically different version of “Runaway Life” appeared on Adcock’s Lafayette Marquis record a few years ago as a Cajun two-step guitar-fiddle duo.

“Tarka heard the rock and roll version and really liked it,” Adcock says. “He always wanted a “Promised Land” on the record, but how could you top Johnny Allan’s version? So he thought “Runaway Life” could be our “Promised Land.”

Storm tumbles out another polished gem with Dubliner David Kitt’s “Faster and Faster,” putting a late-night sheen on this tender ballad.

Eagan’s swirling Wurlitzer and Riley’s thumping squeezebox compete for attention in “Hold On Tight,” which remains surprisingly true to the original hit from British popsters ELO.

Then it’s back to the “Godfather of Swamp Pop” as Storm takes a steel-guitar-drenched amble down a country road on yet another sparkling Eagan composition, “Hard Enough.”

Pineville, Louisiana, swamp pop legend Tommy McLain and Adcock tag-team on the record’s acoustic sweet spot, “Memories,” with an assist from Eagan and Ranson and a horn duet as thick as cane molasses.

Riley steps into a French-Cajun roadhouse and commandeers the full strength of Lil’ Band O’ Gold to pump out “Evangeline Rock,” with Storm showing no age as the engine behind this tour de force.

Adcock offers us a glimpse of the underside of Louisiana politics circa Edwin Edwards in “The Last Hayride,” a not-so-tender ballad with the barbed perspective you’d expect from a bare-knuckled rocker.

“A silver fox with a golden tongue,
Yeah, you played it smart and kept ‘em dumb,
You really kept ‘em dumb,
Lawd, you really kept us dumb.”

Finally, Allan Toussaint’s “So Long” brings the horns to the front for a lazy shuffle out the door at closing time. It’s the last quarter in the City Bar jukebox, and it feels like a night that’s come to its proper end.

All photos by Karl Bremer

1, 2, 3 & 6: Lil' Band O' Gold, C.C. Adcock and Warren Storm, Chickie Wah Wah, New Orleans, LA, April 2010
4 & 5: Tarka Cordell and C.C. Adcock, Louisiana Music Factory, New Orleans, LA, April 2005


  1. Great job Karl! A pleasure to read.

  2. Nice Karl! Gettin' any new socks fer Christmas? -blueshammer

  3. CC--Every fathers nighmare come a knockin for their daughter. A true American guitar slinger leaving a trail of scorched riffs and broken hearts. Great job as always from the best unknown New Orleans music writer about the best unknown New Orleans band.

  4. My blood pumps with that nervous twitch of ecstasy every time Lil Band O'Gold is set to play a show Its like the rare treat of setting down to a banquet of Crab Extravaganza at Dupuys in Abbeville or more like watching the N.O. Saints win Superbowl 44
    Whatever you wanna call it.
    That moment when your in the right place at the right time with the right people you take sip of whiskey and you think "there is NO place I'd rather be right now than right here listening to LBG". -Bless You Boys