The butterfly effect of death and zydeco
The humidity lies like a suffocating blanket over the Gate City on a Monday night late in June, unalleviated by a spell of hammering showers. It’s heavy weather appropriate for the pall of death, grief and uncertainty that hangs over the Blind Tiger.
Not all the bar’s patrons know it yet, but a traffic accident in the early dawn hours five days ago on a lonely stretch of interstate near Port Allen, La. will result in some last-minute lineup changes. The poster in the front window announces the appearance of zydeco legend CJ Chenier, featuring Greensboro guitar slinger Tim Betts, but it’s unclear whether CJ will show up at all.
One guitarist is dead. Another is trying to salvage the show.
Betts spent two years on the road with Harry Hypolite when they shared guitar duties in CJ Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band. Word is that Hypolite, who was 68, was killed on June 22 returning from a concert when a semi truck slammed into his stalled Toyota Corolla in the right lane of the interstate.
Hypolite had left the Red Hot Louisiana Band to pursue a solo career, which garnered him a WC Handy Blues Award nomination in 2002 for his debut effort, Louisiana Country Boy. There surely must have been a strong bond between the two, seeing as how Hypolite was in the band when it was led by CJ’s father, Clifton Chenier ‘— the unchallenged king of zydeco, who died in 1987. Hypolite was reportedly the last remaining member of the father’s band before he went out on his own.
The Tim Betts Band is set to open, but who knows what will happen next. The room is mostly empty at around 9:30, with a thin row at the bar and a handful of people occupying the booths ‘— half of them members of Betts’ band, it seems. Betts leans against the bar and admits to some anxiety as the venue’s proprietor paces the sidewalk out front sipping cola and ice from a plastic cup.
At about a quarter after 10, Betts and his band take the stage even though the bar’s population has remained basically stagnant. They churn out a solid blues grind of EC and Stevie Ray covers and hope for the best. Some ladies who look like they’re pushing 40 groove in the back, and the ‘boro’s committed drinkers and blues fans begin to fill the floor.
Mel Melton appears in the doorway. A culinary consultant who splits his time between Yanceyville and New Orleans, where his record label is based, Melton has played an indispensable matchmaking role in the Greensboro blues scene. Before forming his own band, the Wicked Mojos, he played in Louisiana in the 1960s with blues slide guitar player Sonny Landreth, with whom CJ Chenier also worked. Then in the ’90s, Melton recruited Betts to play in the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Betts, in turn, recruited local Hammond B-3 organist Dave McCracken to the band. Who in turn recruited drummer Tommy Lawrence. Sometimes they would joke that the band should have been called the ‘Red Hot Louisiana-Greensboro Band.’
Lawrence and McCracken show up during the Betts Band’s set too. As does a washtub player from Lafayette, La. named James Alfred, who looks pensive. Unmistakable among the Chenier sidemen is Glen Griffin, a bass player with long, flowing blond hair wearing rose-tinted glasses, dress shoes and a silky black shirt embossed with a dragon design. As reserved as Alfred is, Griffin comes across as equally ebullient ‘— an animated and perhaps unsettled personality.
It’s hard to tell exactly what he’s feeling about the passing of Hypolite, with whom he spent seven years on the road, but the word ‘rattled’ comes to mind as he talks about the irony of his fellow player traveling by plane to Russia for gigs and then having his life snuffed out by a semi in his home state of Louisiana.
‘“He worked out there in that underwear factory in St. Martinsville before he joined Clifton in seventy-four,’” Griffin says. ‘“He used to take care of Clifton when he was getting dialysis. He’d take him to get dialysis and then help him get back out on the road before he died.’” Then he adds: ‘“The first [solo] session he did, they brought him in with the house band and he cut two albums worth of material. He was itchin’ to do his own sh*t.’”
The musicians take the stage without CJ and embark on the groove. Griffin renders some funky, intricate bass lines, bounces around the stage and makes an ‘O’ shape with his mouth in the freaked-out Southern hippie manner of Duane Allman. Betts bends the strings, unleashing a series of screaming notes that come harder than his playing with his own band. McCracken sets loose soulful floes of sound from the B-3.
As they jam, Alfred announces with consummate showmanship: ‘“From North Carolina, give it up for the one and only MEL! MELTON!’”
Melton, wearing a Kangol cap, strolls to the stage with a slight limp. He sings and blows his harmonica as a substitute for Chenier’s accordion. They play one of Hypolite’s favorite songs, ‘“Ma Tit Fille,’” and then ‘“I’m A Hog For You,’” which Melton introduces as ‘“a big hit for Clifton in nineteen seventy-one, the one that broke him out all across Texas and internationally.’”
‘“I came to see CJ Chenier tonight, but I ended fronting the band,’” Melton tells the crowd. ‘“It’s like running a pirate ship in a hurricane. I don’t know what’s going on up here, so we’ll work it out together.’”
It doesn’t look like the audience members dug out their zydeco dancing instructional videos before the show, but the players are working hard to entertain them and striving to anticipate each other as a revolving cast of musicians passes across the stage.
Just before one o’clock in the morning the band wraps up its first set and takes a break before playing a few more songs. The beer is flowing liberally and it doesn’t look like too many of the Blind Tiger faithful are heading for the door.
‘“I’ve been stressed out all day, working to put this together,’” Betts says. ‘“It’s CJ’s band and they’re playing with Mel. Who knows how it’s gonna work out?’”
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