Zydeco at the Firehouse!

 ... Nathan and the Cha Chas -- plus Melrose's Scott Billington

Story and photos by Don Norris

Zydeco! Man, you talk about moving music, this stuff puts it all to shame. It rocks, it moves, its got rhythm, and it gar-un-teed to get you on your feet.

My wife Lorry and our neighbor, Norma Billington, got tickets to a one-night stand of "Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas" last week, at that fabulous Firehouse Concert Hall in Newburyport, Massachusetts. It was a spectacular time, and these three Melrosians (whose combined age is over two centuries!) really got into that movin' music.

Ooooowww, did we swing -- along with some 300 other fans at the concert.

Melrose native Scott Billington, warming up ...

The happening came about because Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas (home-based in Lafayette, Louisiana -- pronounced Laff Yet, Looosiana) had been invited to play at the National Folk Festival, this year being held in Bangor, Maine. Their connection to Melrose is through Norma's son, Scott Billington, who is a producer and vice president of Rounder Records, the foremost folkmusic recording outfit in the country. It is located in nearby Cambridge.

Scott now lives in Newburyport, some 30 miles up the coast from Melrose, and brought about the Zydecos' gig at the Firehouse theater.

Now, I have to ask, what's going to happen when one brings a loud, raucous, beautiful Zydeco band to a Yankee fishing village -- which, incidentally, has been rediscovered in the past ten years or so. Just look at the cost of real estate!

The audience, to me, looked sedate, the kind of upbeat folks who would support the development of a cultural program in town, centered in a born-again firehouse. But Zydeco? Come on ...

By the end of the show, every person in that hall was on their feet dancing, swaying, stomping, hooting, and really diggin' that music. Those six musicians had motivated that audience to a wondrous pitch, and it was a fine thing to see.

Nathan and Scott, during intermission, talked with the audience.

It took 24 hours for my hearing to return to normal. But who cares, it was a glorious happening. And Zydeco is IN!.

Zydeco, as Nathan explained, is a combination of the music from several sources -- Creole music, Cajun, blues, jazz, Afro-American -- all of which comes out in a special way with a special beat. It is a moving, strong, dialect of music, and has been popular for years in the cajun South.

It was Norma who got our tickets for the show -- mainly because she wanted to go, and when Lorry and I asked if she would like to go with us, she paid! Add to that, a lovely invitation to enjoy a bowl of Loooosiana gumbo at Scott's place on Forrester Road, before the show.

When we arrived (with several others), we found the band was already there for supper. They heard that Scott's mom was coming, and they all greeted us, welcomed us to the party. The house was jammed with music people, including several owners and key people in Rounder Records. Dress was T-shirt and jeans.

So Scott is in the habit of coming up with vittles for parties, and the ten-gallon pot on the stove was simmering with shrimp gumbo -- the most delicious thing you'll ever eat. A second huge pot contained brown rice.

What a meal, what a good time. What a different happening for us -- all these people involved in American folk music. Great people and a great time. We danced in the kitchen, we looked at Scott's gold records, we saw notes of thanks from none other than our favorite singer, Alison Krauss and her Union Station band.

Eventually we got to the theater, which is a re-designed three-bay firehouse right on the common, in downtown Newburyport. The first floor has a fabulous (and elegant) restaurant, while the music hall is the second floor. It held (I estimated) a couple hundred people, maybe more, and it was a full house.

The special surprise of the evening was the fact that Scott, who has produced and recorded most of Nathan's music for Rounder, filled in with his set of harmonicas. And he was good! Of course, he knew all that music -- and actually, he does this harmonica thing not infrequently, with many of the folk and popular groups associated with Rounder.

But then, Scott Billington's accomplishments, his discovery of original American folk music, his promoting that music and those musicians, his success with Rounder which has carried him to Hollywood -- all is the subject for another story. Later.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas left the next day for Bangor for the annual Folk Festival -- and you can bet they got THAT crowd to really moving. And if you get to Louisiana, be sure to get over to Lafayette. It should be the music capital of the world!

September 6, 2002

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