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Chris Ardoin and Zydeco's Tight Squeeze

Zydeco music at Rock ‘n’ Bowl on Thursday nights is a long-running tradition for this music hall/bowling alley. But for Chris Ardoin, who plays there this Thursday night, zydeco is more like a legacy, and one that dates back for generations.

Tradition and legacy sound noble, maybe even too noble for someone strictly looking to get the weekend started early on a Thursday night. But this is not folk-style, preservationist music. Chris Ardoin is a champion of the so-called "nouveau zydeco," a style alternately mixing in elements from hip-hop, R&B and reggae. It makes for a fun night, and a full dance floor.

The Lake Charles native grew up as a zydeco accordion prodigy, playing for audiences starting at age 4, touring with his father’s band soon thereafter and putting out albums while he was still in high school. The first time I saw Chris perform was in Lake Charles in 2001. He was 20 at the time, but even then his reputation was sufficient to draw a music writer buddy of mine across the state to see him on his home turf. I was along for the ride – researching a story about boudin, incidentally – and we found him and his band at a small downtown club, rocking the place. The Ardoin family took us under their wing for the weekend, and even though that was 11 years ago, the trip left indelible memories. We ate the hottest and most mysterious sauce piquant I’ve ever tasted at Ardoin’s parents’ house. We caught a show at a metal-sided VFW hall somewhere in the countryside where fans brought trays of food along for their tables, like an indoor tailgate party. And we spent a morning in a small radio studio as his father, Lawrence “Black” Ardoin, hosted a traditional zydeco hour before turning the mic over to Chris’s older brother, Sean, who immediately upped the tempo with more nouveau zydeco and fast-rapping DJ banter. This was a fully-committed zydeco family. 

The Ardoin family can trace its lineage back to Amédé Ardoin, the Creole accordion player credited with cutting the first zydeco records, beginning with recording sessions in 1928 with Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee. Those early recordings sound a lot like classic Cajun tunes of the same period, and they are vastly different from the songs that Amédé Ardoin's modern relatives now perform. Of course, different forms of black music have worked their way into the zydeco mix long before the nouveau zydeco thing, but the evolution has only accelerated in recent years. Today, Sean Ardoin has even taken up "Christian zydeco," adding gospel sounds and religious messages to the mix.

I’ve caught Chris Ardoin at festivals and dance halls around the state in the years since that first trip to Lake Charles, and his showmanship has only improved as his sound has further evolved. When you see Chris on stage, he’s buff, confident and calm as he sings to the crowd in English and works his accordion. All the while, his rub board player whirls about the stage like a livewire, keeping the rattling rhythm going and urging on the dancers with side lyrics and call-and-response shout-outs to the crowd. The sound is infectious, exciting, thoroughly modern and still distinctly Louisiana’s own.

Zydeco Hot Streak

Even if you didn’t know Thursday was zydeco night at Rock ‘n’ Bowl, there are signs to give it away. The parking lot has more pickup trucks, for instance, while inside there are many, many more men wearing starched cowboy hats, crisp denim and plate-sized belt buckles than you might normally see on any other dance floor within New Orleans' city limits.

These are always fun nights, but zydeco fans will especially want to mark the next few Thursdays on their calendars. Following Chris Ardoin this week, the club kicks off its Jazz Fest scheduling next Thursday, April 26, with a quadruple-header. On the bill that night are Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha-Chas; Williams’ son Lil’ Nathan and his own band; Chubby Carrier; and Buckwheat Zydeco. The second Jazz Fest Thursday, May 3, the club hosts another big zydeco round-up with Rosie Ledet, Geno Delafose and Terrence Simien.

If you’re into zydeco or just curious to check out what’s new with this indigenous Louisiana music, the next few weeks at Rock ‘n’ Bowl should be right up your alley.

Rock ‘n’ Bowl
3000 S. Carrollton Ave.
New Orleans
(504) 861-1700

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