At a former feed store and semi-refurbished warehouse in the shadows of the downtown railroad tracks in Lafayette, the garage doors are open but the stifling June air doesn't move. It's a hazy, moonless Tuesday night where patrons and liquor bottles drip rivulets. The early action on stage matches the atmosphere: bandmembers alternately tune their instruments and mill around on the back porch, while a temperamental amp at soundcheck tests the patience of Lil' Band o' Gold frontmen C.C. Adcock, Steve Riley and David Egan.
"Fifteen years ago when we started this band, we used to do Monday night gigs at the Swampwater Saloon," guitarist Adcock says to the crowd.
Accordionist Riley deadpans, "Look at us now — we've come all the way to Tuesday nights at the Feed & Seed."
Wisecracking aside, tonight's gig is no random show, but a vital tune-up. Robert Plant has hand-picked the band to open a string of Southern dates on his summer tour, including his July 17 New Orleans show at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. The Golden God's Lil' Band o' Gold endorsement continues the relationship started when Plant teamed up with the southwest Louisiana supergroup to record two tracks for the 2007 Fats Domino tribute album, Goin' Home. (Louisiana blues aficionado Plant was in rehearsals for the tour and unavailable for an interview.)
The upcoming shows with Plant introduce the band to substantial new audiences and music-industry contacts — no small feat for an ensemble that's had its share of triumphs, heartbreak and a major personnel change.
"This new chapter is that process of being done with grieving, of digging deeper and seeing what we can do, discover and create," says songwriter and pianist Egan.
He's referencing the departure of 76-year-old drummer and vocalist Warren Storm, the swamp pop legend who helped anchor the band by crooning classic South Louisiana ballads like "This Should Go On Forever" and "Seven Letters," but his former bandmates say they were wounded and deeply disappointed when Storm backed out of all of the band's spring shows. (Storm did not return a call for comment.)
"It's a shame he's not with us, but this band is too strong and too important to let it go," Riley says.
That's not empty braggadocio. The band's musical prowess, including the formidable Adcock/Egan/Riley frontline, harnesses Sonny Landreth's bassist Dave Ranson, pedal steel virtuoso Richard Comeaux, ace blues guitarist Lil' Buck Sinegal, guest vocalist and swamp pop royalty Tommy McLain, and saxophonists Dickie Landry and Pat Breaux, who've collectively played with Otis Redding, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, BeauSoleil and Zachary Richard.
Then there's their new bandmate — a 78-year old Creole percussionist with one good eye. Nickname: Jockey. He drums on cardboard boxes and was an early mentor to Warren Storm.
Clarence "Jockey" Etienne was one of the driving forces on the 1950s-1960s Excello swamp-blues recordings out of Crowley, La. He propelled timeless tracks like Slim Harpo's "I Got Love if You Want It," "Baby Scratch My Back" and Guitar Gable's rumba instrumental "Congo Mambo." Etienne also is the engine of Creole Zydeco Farmers; the Plant gigs don't faze him, as he's played to enormous festival crowds in Montreal and Brazil with the Farmers.
"There were so many people in Rio, they looked like ants," Etienne says.
Sitting outside at his carport a recent Sunday morning, the razor-thin Etienne reclines in a worn patio chair, sporting faded jeans, flip-flops and wispy white shoulder-length hair behind an L.A. Lakers cap. "With the Zydeco Farmers, you gotta beat on that drum, bang, bang, bang, with that backbeat and heavy kick drum," he says. "In zydeco, you gotta be heard — to hell with it, even when the frontman's taking a solo. With Lil' Band o' Gold, you have to take it from one thing to another. They're great musicians, and you gotta find which way to go to blend in with them."
Etienne tunes his drums low. At the Feed & Seed show, that subtle change, along with his unique complementary cardboard-box stickwork, brought a bottom-heavy and swampier sound to The band. "There's more an element of intensity as opposed to loudness and raucousness," says Egan from the road in New Mexico. "At once, it's darker, spookier and more mysterious. It makes us all rethink our approach. Not so much flailing away with wild abandon, but rather thinking, 'How do we tighten the focus to this picture and make it more three-dimensional?'"
This new chapter is a testament to the core and brotherhood of the band. Ever since Adcock and Riley cooked up the band's blueprint over a Maison Creole pork chop sandwich, the band's sound has survived the logistical challenges of multiple members juggling solo careers and other side projects. (For example, Riley's Courtbouillon, his trio with Wayne Toups and Wilson Savoy, won this year's Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Album, and Egan just released a knockout eponymous album.) "I think everyone in this band needs other outlets to satisfy their urge to play music," says elder statesman Landry. "It's also a vehicle for songwriters. I credit CC and Steve for keeping this band alive."
Landry and Adcock have long lived in adjoining apartments in downtown Lafayette, hence their complex's moniker "DisGraceland." For Adcock, the band members' distinct, sometimes outsized personalities feed into the music.
"We've always said we've got nine or 10 members, about 25 egos — and only a few livers left among us," he says. "So sometimes shit goes down and gets sideways and you wonder if it's all worth it and if we should keep booking it. But all that bitching and humbug, that's also the tension that causes us to rock and gives an edge — keeps us a bit menacing — the way real rock 'n' roll should be, behind all those sweetheart ballads."
Plant showed his love and command of 1950s R&B and rock 'n' roll with his early 1980s Honeydrippers project; how could he not appreciate an Acadiana band whose members grew up on Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" and for whom "Good Rockin' at Midnight" is practically a mission statement? Plant was so taken with the band after the Fats Domino tribute sessions that he joined the band at Tipitina's for a surprise 30-minute set where he led the band through swamp pop, blues, and some teases of "Black Dog" and "Whole Lotta Love."
The vocalist has stayed in touch with the band since then, even as he navigated the massive pressure and expectations of the one-off Led Zeppelin reunion concert in London, and mainstream success with his Alison Krauss collaboration. (The two performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival together in 2008.) When Lil' Band o' Gold played Austin's Continental Club last December, Plant was in the audience.
"He's always bringing up old records we could do well together and maybe getting back in [the studio] to cut a few — he's such a band flirt!" jokes Adcock.
Lil' Band o' Gold landed worthy deals for three of its recent projects: a full Fats Domino tribute album, The Lil' Band o' Gold Plays Fats, and its latest album, The Promised Land, with its accompanying documentary film on the band. (The albums are currently available only at shows and as Australian imports.) The film is unreleased, but evokes Les Blank's groundbreaking regional music documentaries. It's a tribute to southwest Louisiana culture and the band's talent and resilience, as Adcock soldiered on to complete the film in the aftermath of executive producer Tarka Cordell's 2008 suicide. That came on the heels of the band's triumphant time with Plant — and perhaps the upcoming tour will help bring The Promised Land full circle.
"I'm used to playing folk music and traditional music with my band [The Mamou Playboys]," Riley says. "It's much more of an even-keeled ride. Lil' Band o' Gold is rock 'n' roll, and rock 'n' roll has different rules. This is a roller coaster, and with all the personalities, you just gotta hold on. The lows are lower and the highs are higher, and you just gotta ride it out and keep going."