"I'm a chance taker, you might say," says Geno Delafose from his ranch in Eunice, Louisiana. "Traditional tunes are what I do best and nobody else was doing them. I play the music that I love. I believe in myself." Delafose is talking about a decision that he made in 1994 when he took over leadership of his father John's band. He was 22 and had already been playing music in public for 15 years. He had decided to sing and play modern Creole music.
Since the 1950s zydeco had been evolving out of Creole, but the older musical style endured. In the last 20 years it has even enjoyed a revival helped, in part, by the popularity of Geno Delafose and his band, French Rockin' Boogie. They play between 150 and 175 dates a year and their January 15 appearance at the Harmony House in Webster will be the end of a short tour that begins at the Birchmere in Virginia.
Anyone who has seen the 1992 John Sayles' film Passion Fish has seen John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys in action, featuring a teenaged Geno on drums. Two years later, just before his father's untimely death at 55, Delafose began fronting the band on the accordion. He gave up his seasonal job as a truck driver for a crop-dusting service and became a fulltime musician.
Between 1994 and 1998 he made three albums for Rounder Records, each one including progressively more traditional tunes and songs. His latest album, Everybody's Dancin', was released in 2003 on Times Square Records and he has another one in the works. He and the band work out the arrangements on the road and then essentially record the music live in the studio.
The latest addition to French Rockin' Boogie is his young cousin, Gerard, the drummer. "He's coming up just like I did with my dad's band." Otherwise the lineup has been stable for a while now. Which is how they can get away with not using a set list. Delafose says he doesn't want to get stale. He decides on the first couple of tunes ahead of time and then just wings it from there, based on what he thinks the crowd is in the mood for. "Sometimes I don't even have to say anything. I just start and the others are just right there."
Although he writes a lot of songs, Delafose claims he is "not a real songwriter. We'll be at a sound check or something, and somebody will start messing around with a little piece of something and it'll just grow," he recounts. "Just give me a little foundation to start with and I'll build a mansion. But I need that foundation there first."
Delafose doesn't listen to a lot of recorded music, especially not accordion music. His favorite disc of the moment is actually a DVD: Merle Haggard: Live at Billy Bob's Texas. Although he loves country music, in particular older country, his tastes are completely eclectic, as the choice of cover songs on his own albums reveals. His first album, French Rockin' Boogie, includes a transfixing version of soul legend Charles Wright's "One Lie (Leads to Another)." His second album, That's What I'm Talkin' About, ends with Los Lobos' "Let's Say Goodnight."
But the lion's share of Delafose's songs is sung in French. He grew up in a French-speaking household and his grandmother, who lived next door, spoke no English.
"There weren't a lot of other kids in my neighborhood," he says, "so I was always with a lot of older men, like my father and my grandfather, and they spoke French to each other all the time." Delafose's immersion in the traditional language of Creole music is an important factor in his embrace of the older songs. Many Cajun musicians his age speak little or no French and sing the traditional songs phonetically. The repertoires of most younger zydeco musicians are entirely in English. Delafose, in contrast, is writing some of his own songs in the Creole dialect.
"But I don't have anything against what the other guys are doing," Delafose is quick to say. "I grew up with Keith Frank and I really admire where he's taking the music. It's just not where I'm going." In fact, he suggests, his sound may owe more to that of Preston Frank, Keith's father. When asked about Boozoo Chavis, who died in 2001 at the age of 71, Delafose corrects my pronunciation and says gravely, "Boozoo was great. I miss him." He pauses. "Beau Jocque" --- who died at 42 in 1999 --- "is the reason that zydeco is big now. He brought the funk into it, with that big bass and the kick drum." He is quiet for a moment. "I'm more country."
I was warned that Delafose might forget to call because at home he can become really focused on his cattle, his horses, his new tractor, and his family. In fact, he called on time, and was engaged and engaging throughout. Apparently, wherever he is, he's right there, and then some.
"On stage I go with the flow of the audience," he says, "trying to feel what they want to hear. If they want to hear the story that goes with the song, then that's what we'll do. And if they want to dance, well, OK."
Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie will appear Saturday, January 15, at Harmony House, 58 East Main Street, Webster, at 8 p.m. Dance lesson at 7:15 p.m. with Esther Brill. Tix: $12 (advance); $15 (door). 586-0476