Article contributed by Susan Budig. Photo courtesy of The Rosebud Agency
A quilted cornucopia of color and design adorns the stage at F.G. Bulber
Auditorium. These blankets, all of them handmade by the members of the Calcasieu
Cut-Ups Guild, are a fitting backdrop to the string quartet,
Fiddlers 4. This band creates music in much the same way as the quilts are
sewn. By piecing together their distinctive styles and using time-honored
instruments, namely the violin and cello, they generate an original and
matchless sound, unlike any other band’s offering.On the campus of Louisiana State University,
Michael Doucet play their soprano-voiced fiddles as Rushad Eggleston holds
his own with his wide ranging, deeply toned cello. Their songs and tunes exhibit
the expertise each of them brings to the whole.
The first set on this April 24th evening highlights the band’s lone,
Grammy-nominated CD. A majority of the over 900 people in attendance are
unfamiliar with this eclectic quartet. Nonetheless, as many of the tunes and
songs are traditional Cajun music, the audience, living in the midst of Cajun
land, feels right at home listening to Fiddlers 4’s interpretation of music from
their own Acadian culture.
Standing on stage in Lake Charles, Michael Doucet invites us to listen to
Mazurka, a French-Acadian song, sung in French by Doucet, which segues into
Acadian Two-Step. Sitting under the overhang, far on the right side, I must be
in an acoustically poor spot because Doucet’s usually rich voice sounds tinny.
On the other hand, having listened to their CD for the past year, but never
having seen them in concert, I am delighted. It’s like viewing the innards of a
watch. The simplicity of two hands and twelve numbers works so perfectly and
flawlessly that one forgets all the intricate machinations underneath the watch
face. Fiddlers 4 is like that, too. Hearing them on their CD, I forget all the
body language and facial expressions that they surely must use to cue one
another and play together with such seamless sound. Despite the acoustics, which
are not perfect underneath the eaves of the balcony, I’m enchanted with the
visual experience on stage.
Other traditional tunes sailing in from the Appalachians on the bow and breath
of old-time fiddler, Bruce Molsky, also have a familiar ring for some of the
audience. Man of Constant Sorrow, featured in the recent movie O Brother,
Where Art Thou?, is included on Fiddlers 4’s CD. Fiddlers 4’s rendition is
of such melancholy and aching that it moved me to tears the first several times
that I listened to it. Saturday’s performance, however, leaves my eyebrows in a
curious knit as I watch an odd exchange of glances and sheet music between
Molsky and Doucet throughout the song.
These musicians are world travelers and when Darol Anger returned from Africa
years ago, he composed “African Solstice.” This tune is both extensive and
intensive. The complex layering of rhythms, melodies, and harmonies can leave me
in an embarrassed state of musical mayhem. Finally seeing the piece performed
and following the fiddlers as each laid down his individual riff, helped me
piece together visually a puzzle that I had not been able to arrange from
auditory input alone.
Easily, this is one of my favorite selections of the night. The cohesive
sound the four string players produce challenge me as I watch Molsky offer his
first five notes over and over, joined by Doucet and moments later, Eggleston,
who adds his rumbling, rhythmic cello. With three strings providing a polyphonic
platform, Anger lays out, in signature style, a melody colored with African
musical hues. The climax of the piece, formerly heard as a chaotic tangle of
notes, now aligns into beautiful sense. It is a stunning performance that
initially leaves me wordless.
Remarkably, they do not end the set here, but continue to play Atchafalaya
Pipeline. Doucet is incredibly fun to watch. He’s all over the fiddle, with his
fingers running around the fingerboard and his shining head rocking off the chin
rest. Eggleston’s face, like that of some wacky cartoon character, seems made of
rubber. He bites down on his tongue, squeezing out energy and rhythm from his
cello strings. Molsky’s eyebrows fairly dance right off his face, while his eyes
are closed, as if in REM sleep. And Doucet’s whispered words, “wipe out” at the
end of this Cajun surf tune wrap up the set perfectly.
In some ways, a Fiddlers 4 show is like parents of several young children
finally getting some intimate time. It happens so rarely; some of the moves come
off rusty and poorly placed. So it is this Saturday evening.
The band’s music is better than ever, but the between-numbers banter stumbles
along, leaving the audience mystified. And the slip-ups, albeit only a few,
distract our attention from their overall presentation.
Anger introduces most of the pieces and while I am able to follow much of his
train of thought, it’s a stretch. I suspect many in the audience have no idea
where Anger is heading, particularly if they are not familiar with the band’s
recorded material. Anger’s mind is about three steps ahead of the rest of us and
he forgets he’s talking to people of conventional intelligence, rather than to
those who are musically mad.
Tonight’s show is presented by Banners
2004, an arts and humanities organization endorsed by Louisiana State
University. Starting up after Mardi Gras, and ending their season in May, this
group pulls together a sweeping assortment of musical and academic performances.
Director, Mary Richardson, along with Tami Chrisope carrying out administrative
duties, comprise the organization’s paid staff. Volunteers contribute the rest
of the work.
Banners Series had been interested in pairing up a showing of the film,
Louisiana Story, with a lecture given by Elemore Morgan, Jr. a local
professional painter as well as the son of the photographer for Louisiana Story.
Written and directed by Robert Flaherty in 1948, the documentary, filmed in the
bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, went on to garner an Oscar nomination.
The film’s score, using traditional Cajun music, some of which had been
transcribed by Irene Whitfield Holmes in her 1939 thesis for LSU, was arranged
by Virgil Thomson, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1949.
Coincidentally, Michael Doucet, also smitten by the score of “Louisiana
Story,” began working last year on arranging several of the numbers for Fiddlers
4 to present in concert. The association between the band and Banners was made
through Morgan, also a friend of Doucet’s.
The second set begins with five numbers from the score of Louisiana Story. I
discover that I already know some of the songs, via other musicians. Je M’Endors,
a song I first heard by Cajun band,
BeauSoleil, and then in the bluesy, salacious voice of David Doucet on his
solo album, Quand J’ai Parti, retains its sympathetic tone of a pensive lullaby,
at the same time as it takes on a new dimension through the skillful fingerings
and bowings of Eggleston.
Listening to the original score of Louisiana Story, as I did later, I’m taken
by the delicate, intimate beauty of Thomson’s arrangements. It’s no wonder
Doucet chose this work for Fiddlers 4 to rejuvenate and perform. Fiddlers 4’s
adaptation of Thomson’s orchestral opus serves as a bridge, making it more
accessible to the general public, possibly giving it a bit more appeal to those
who usually balk at serious music. The film’s score is an American treasure,
much like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Springs (1944). An aside, I snare a copy
of Louisiana Story in an ebay auction three days after this concert.
This set is finished off with a kickin’ old-time duo, Greek Medley and Polly
Put The Kettle On. We hear a favorite of Molsky’s, I Wish I Knew How It Would
Feel To Be Free. Then Doucet says, “Since we’re in Cajun land, we’ll end with
a Cajun song,” bowing the first notes of Le Bétaille.
Some of this year’s Banners Series included Juggernaut Jug Band, Guy Davis, and
Sion e Companhia. All in all, a very noteworthy slate of entertainers and
academics. While I didn’t see any other shows, I’d very likely agree with
Banners patron, and LSU professor of Women’s Studies, Janet Allured who said,
“This was our best musical event of the year.”
I remark to myself that I’ve never seen anyone play the cello like Eggleston
does. The way his fingers crawl up and down the neck, the way his bow whips
around on the strings like a director’s baton captivate me. But more than these
technical skills, the way Eggleston watches Anger and adjusts his playing and
facial expression to match Anger’s is uncanny.
The ensemble is truly defined by the players. They each bring in their
dynamic, strong personalities and styles, blending them into one very hot,
passionate fusion. But more than anyone, it seems Eggleston plays a pivotal and
essential role. Anger describes it well when he says that Rushad’s cello playing
is out of this world. It’s beyond compare of what I’ve seen and heard before,
not so much in the breakouts, but in the rhythm and tone. This guy jams, he
rocks, he is truly incomparable, daresay, irreplaceable. I feel like a
privileged witness to a foursome of musical geniuses who embolden one another,
providing each another with the perfect proportions that result in an exquisite
Susan Budig draws from music and poetry to create her own poems that she uses to bring healing and recovering from grief to others.