Steve Riley, right, with Kevin Wimmer, at Fete de Marquette in Madison, Wisconsin, on July 14.
For Cajun music authority Todd Ortego, accordionist Steve Riley, with his band the Mamou Playboys, is “the band that introduced many new Cajun fans to the music of our culture--both in South Louisiana and especially out of Louisiana.”
Indeed, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have completed countless tours and released 15 albums since their self-titled 1990 debut album for Rounder Records—becoming one of the best-known and loved Cajun bands in the process.
Their 16th, 30 Years Live!, was recently issued by Cajun musician/record label owner Joel Savoy’s Valcour Records.
“I wasn’t even in my teens yet when I first heard the Mamou Playboys,” Savoy recalled on the Valcour website. “I grew up listening to them, always keenly aware of ‘their sound,’ as were my peers that were interested in Cajun music in the early ‘90s. My parents [Cajun music legends Marc and Ann Savoy] played Cajun music and it was a very important part of my life already, but to see my cool cousin Steve and his band doing it was a whole other ball game.”
Savoy, who was 13 when he played fiddle with the band at a Cajun music festival as part of a program pairing young Cajun musicians with the pros, recognized then that young players needed to be part of the music’s continuation--and similarly share it when they themselves have the opportunity. He went on to note that in Cajun music today, “there are many that want to see no changes in the music they know from many decades ago, and there are others that strongly prefer newer renditions of the old songs. But where does creating new music fall into a ‘traditional’ culture? What does it take for a brand new Cajun song to become one of those songs that everyone knows?”
The answer, Savoy suggested, is “a band that knows the old stuff and knows that the old guys would be making new songs today if they were here, [and] a band with courage and vision, and that’s who these guys are.” By “these guys,” of course, he meant Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, who have “paved the way for many, many young Cajuns,” who can do everything “from the most hardcore traditional music to the best rock ’n’ roll you’ve ever heard from a band with an accordion.”
Currently made up of Riley and fiddler Kevin Wimmer, guitarist Sam Broussard, drummer Kevin Dugas and bassist Brazos Huval, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys recorded 30 Years Live! last December at the Vermilionville Performance Center in Lafayette, La., along with special guests including original fiddler David Greely, Chris Stafford, Melete Terry and Alena Savoy.
Like Joel Savoy, Lafayette resident Riley began playing when he was 13, and formed his own group five years later after serving a three-year apprenticeship playing accordion in the band of late Cajun fiddle great Dewey Balfa.
“Dewey was a huge influence and always told me that music is freedom [and] to express yourself as you feel,” Riley said during a performance last month at Fete de Marquette in Madison, Wis., prior to performing Balfa’s “Allons Au Bal De Balfa”--a 30 Years Live! album track.
“When you get on stage, let people know who you are,” Riley continued, quoting Balfa. “Don’t just get up there and play music! Tell them about the Cajun people--about where we come from, about the songs, about our culture. We come from one of the richest cultures in the world.’”
"Allons Au Bal De Balfa"
Riley reflected on his 30 years of the Mamou Playboys after returning to Lafayette.
“Things have just flown by!” he said. “The band started at a time when there were not many young bands, and we got a lot of attention early on because of that--and me having played with Dewey. So we launched in a good way and have been going strong ever since.”
Riley feels that musically, “we’re as good as we’ve ever been.”
“So I didn’t want to put out a record that was just a retrospective, but had new songs. So we have four originals and four songs that we’ve never recorded before, and the rest are crowd favorites from our past repertoire. I always want to give folks—and ourselves—something new, so the idea was to give a mix of both: Some old, from past tunes and crowd favorites, and some new ones. And we got some special guests: David Greely is on several cuts, and Chris Stafford is on piano and B3 [organ]—and we have two gospel singers singing with us. It was a really good night at Vermilionville with a good crowd that we oversold.”
Riley and the band actually came in and recorded the set the day before without an audience just to be safe, “so we had good takes in case we faltered. But the band was on, and most of the record came from the live show.”
“The 30th anniversary of just about anything is a testament to perseverance through the not-so-glorious times and the best of times,” observes Ortego, the longtime host of the popular Swamp N Roll program on Eunice, La. radio station KBON.
“In the case of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, it’s also the best Cajun music recorded in those 30 years--not just a few songs of worth, but about 100 Cajun songs either written by the band or refreshed with their interpretations, always paying tribute to the original versions while putting their stamp on each song.”
“And they’re the band that made my wife and I want to dance--even before their first CD was released 30-plus years ago!” concludes Ortego.