Beausoleil means “good sun” in French, and anyone who has heard the giddy careen and counterpoint of Michael Doucet’s fiddle-and-accordion-driven ensemble can attest to its innate warmth and optimism.
Doucet, his guitarist brother David, accordionist Jimmy Breaux, and other members of the band hail from the Cajun stronghold of Louisiana, an end-migration from the original French-Canadian territory in Nova Scotia where much of their culture was crystallized. Of course being a stone’s throw from the early-jazz epicenter of New Orleans only added to the supple beauty and evolution of the Cajun folk-music tradition through the first half of the 20th century, as forged by the men Doucet clearly cites as mentors, including Dennis McGee and Ronnie Balfa.
A McGee song leads off Beausoleil’s latest studio album, “Alligator Purse,” released in January 2009. First recorded in 1929, the song had no formal title, so Doucet and the boys decided to call it “Reel Cajun/451 North St. Joseph St,” which happened to be McGee’s address where they visited and learned his repertoire — he’d quit and become a barber until Beausoleil revitalized his career late in life.
Sure, Beausoleil are preservationists: Doucet got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to track down McGee and other Cajun music legends strewn throughout the bayou. But Beausoleil couldn’t have thrived with such vigor and emotional immediacy merely recreating the past. As Doucet told me a year ago, “We represent the culture, but not like a police force. It is an elastic culture. In the 2000 census there were less than 100,000 people of Acadian ancestry, and yet many other people also play this music now.” He adds that by the 1990s, the band realized that “People recognized Cajun music as a genre, and we let can let this traditional music evolve and not repeat ourselves.”
That’s why a bevy of guest stars — vocalist Natalie Merchant, ex-Band member Garth Hudson, former Lovin’ Spoonful leader John Sebastian, and jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, among others — grace the grooves of “Alligator Purse.” It is why Beausoleil provides a familiar and yet slightly different highlight to their annual appearances on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” for well over a decade now. And it’s why you’ll hear more than a few jazz-oriented improvisations, some gorgeous American folk-styled ditties, and perhaps Beausoleil’s French-language take on the blues classic, “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’ ” entitled “Rouler et Tourner,” at the Dakota tonight.
It’s not quite as simpatico a venue as the Cedar Cultural Center, where the group appeared just six weeks ago — for one thing, there is no place to dance. But if the band launches into, say, “Bosco Stomp,” at some point in the evening, I suspect the Dakota’s august trappings will temporarily melt away in the glow of that “good sun.”
Here is a great nine-minute slice of live Beausoleil recorded last year in Florida.
Here they are doing an in-store performance at the Louisiana Music Factor a year ago January.
Beausoleil at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, tonight at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; tickets are $30 at 7 p.m. and $20 at 9:30.