- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and southern Louisiana. If any good has come out of that tragedy, it’s been the outpouring of support for the music and musicians of that hard-hit region. Not only did many musicians suffer personal losses, many of the venues where they played were damaged or destroyed. Those who survived struggled at first to fill the house.

In fact, music has been an important part of the rebuilding.

“All you can do is continue on and rebuild,” says Steve Riley, leader and accordionist for the Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, at the Birchmere tomorrow.

“Definitely in south Louisiana we use music as a healing tool. We would always turn to music and good times to help us get over the rough points.”

Mr. Riley, who lives in Lafayette, La., about two hours’ drive west of New Orleans, didn’t feel the direct punch of Katrina but has felt the effects. “The face of south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast is going to be changed forever because of that [hurricane],” Mr. Riley says.

“A lot of people moved out of New Orleans and will probably never return. And some of the people ended up in Lafayette. A lot of great New Orleans music can be heard now in Lafayette.”

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys can be heard all over the country. Thanks to the increased interest in authentic Louisiana music and the release in November of the band’s 10th album, “Dominos,” the Mamou Playboys are enjoying one of their busiest seasons.

Mr. Riley and fiddler David Greely started the Mamou Playboys 18 years ago after both had apprenticed with Cajun legend Dewey Balfa. Over the years, the Mamou Playboys have gained international recognition, critical acclaim and three Grammy nominations.

Along with drummer Kevin Dugas (15 years with the band), guitarist Sam Broussard (five years) and new bassist Brazos Huval, Mr. Riley and Mr. Greely have created a Cajun music style that is vibrant, fresh and timeless. The band mixes its selections between new originals and classic or obscure Cajun songs that they discover and redo. It is often difficult to tell which is the old and which is the new.

“We’ve gotten to a point where the new stuff we do fits really well with the older stuff,” Mr. Riley says. “I think because we always look to the past for inspiration. It’s very much connected to Cajun music’s past, but we’re just doing what we do.”

• • •

Some New Orleans natives affectionately refer to the city as the “Big Easy.” In his new album and national debut recording, “Change in the Weather,” singer-guitarist-songwriter Eric Lindell has encapsulated that relaxed, “everything-is-going-to-be-fine” feeling. Mr. Lindell, who will take the stage at the State Theatre in Falls Church on Saturday, slinks, bops and slides through a wonderful set of songs that mixes blues, New Orleans funk, rhythm and blues, Louisiana boogie, and even a little reggae.

Mr. Lindell has been living and playing music in New Orleans since 1999, after getting his musical start in Northern California. When he came to the Big Easy he already had the beginnings of his musical style of blues and R&B;, but in the musical melting pot of New Orleans, it blossomed.

“I didn’t know a lot about New Orleans when I moved down there,” Mr. Lindell says. “I didn’t realize how much stuff actually was started there, R&B; stuff and that kind of thing. And that it was actually so related to what I was doing.”

“So I just felt really at home there,” he says. “There’s a lot of great players, and New Orleans is kind of like one big band. Any given night you could be out playing and you never know who’s going to stop by and sit in or vice versa. If you’re off you always go by and sit in with some friends. It’s really a small and tight music community.”

So, for the past seven years, Mr. Lindell has been honing his music and his guitar chops in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast circuit, leading three- or four-piece bands (currently two guitars, bass and drums). All that work paid off in January, when a major independent label, Alligator Records, signed on to release “Change in the Weather.”

With Alligator’s reputation and marketing team behind it, the album (released in April) has been getting strong national press and radio play on college and independent radio stations throughout the country.

The results came clear to Mr. Lindell at a recent tour date in Oregon, an area they’d never played before.

“When we came down to play,” Mr. Lindell says with a laugh, “it was sold out and everybody knew the words.”

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