As we rediscover each year at Bele Chere, blues chords and rock beats have been known to rouse summertime crowds (abundant, cheap beer doesn’t hurt too much either). But five years ago, Rick Ramsey parted the swamp grasses of destiny when he hit upon a sure-fire way to lure people downtown: transport them to Cajun country.
Ramsey chairs the Asheville Downtown Association which, for the past 11 years, has sponsored Moonlight Over Downtown — a free, Pack Square minifestival that kicks off the Downtown After Five series (monthly, open-air Friday night concerts that run June through September).
Thanks to a succession of hot zydeco bands — not to mention Asheville’s continuing growth spurt — the once-tepid event has become a resounding gala.
“It’s high-energy, exciting music … party music,” enthused Ramsey during a recent phone interview.
“You see people’s faces just light up when they hear [Cajun bands]. I remember eight years ago, when there were only 50 people there. Last year, it was 12,000. Every year it gets bigger and bigger. It’s unbelievable, to me, how it grew,” he confides.
Publicity coordinator Amee Shultz concurs: “We hope this year will be at least as big, or bigger, than last year.” As always, she notes, “Our goal is to get people downtown, to keep downtown as a destination,” pointing out that the relatively early event leaves grown-ups plenty of time for barhopping after the show.
But this is absolutely an inclusive event (it’s aimed at everyone “from babies to the elderly,” says Schultz), and the fun and feasting commence at 5 p.m.: spicy food (courtesy of downtown eateries Rio Burrito and Havana, this year) and cold beverages (alcoholic and otherwise) are, of course, integral to the Moonlight experience. And, judging by the pleasure in Ramsey’s voice as he recalls the band-selecting process, it’s clear that the business of turning Pack Square into a one-day, family-flavored French Quarter has been anything but tedious for him.
“We just really loved their CD,” he says warmly of File’s La Vie Marron (“The Runaway Life,” Green Linnet Records, 1996). This year’s featured band hails, naturellement, from New Orleans. Geoffrey Himes of The Louisiana Post once noted that the Cajun quintet “[is] one of the best dance bands in French Louisiana, where people of all ages still come out on a Saturday night to dance in crowded, beer-slicked saloons.”
Formed in 1983, File was personally schooled by famed Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot. However, the band’s wide-ranging influences have made for some interesting musical friction over the years. Founder (and accordionist) Ward Lormand (brought up in French-speaking Ossun, La.) is a noted roots purist, and fiddler D’Jaima Garnier, who hails from a venerable Creole family, wields his bow like a lightning bolt: “[his] pyrotechnics go above and beyond folk fiddling,” proclaimed one publicist. Honky-tonk pianist David Egan’s songs, meanwhile, have been covered by rockers like Joe Cocker, among others — and bassist Kevin Shearin and drummer Pete Stevens contribute solid jazz instincts to the mix.
La Vie Marron blends soaring zydeco, snappy originals and traditional French waltzes with liquid ease. Lyrics are sung (and printed) in both English and French. And though traditional arrangements like “Cheroquis” (“Midland”) are definite standouts, it’s the album’s succulent pockets of humor that put the group’s distinctive stamp on the disc. In “Loup Garou mange pas mes enfants” (“Loup Garou Don’t Eat My Children”) — based on a Cajun folk legend about a werewolf — a desperate father pleads with the monster: “Get out of here if you please/Today I bought an expensive set of encyclopedias/My little girl’s braces are only a week old/The loup garou is a big bad beast.”
Family music, indeed!