So your plans to head south for Mardi Gras fell through? Well, fret not. This year, Louisiana is coming to Manchester. The Pine Leaf Boys play authentic Cajun music, reflecting a tradition passed down through three generations. The Eunice, La.,-based quintet has traveled the world as ambassadors of the Bayou State, including State Department-sponsored tours of the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
It’s a unique opportunity for music fans, marking the first time the band has ever been away from its Bayou State home in mid-February.
“We’ve never left during the season of Mardi Gras,” said accordion player and vocalist Wilson Savoy in a recent telephone interview. “So the whole goal is to take what we usually do down here, which is play a lot of Mardi Gras gigs, and bring it up north.”
Of course, it’s colder here and the shows are in concert halls, not rowdy bars. “But we’ll get on stage and do our thing and explain to people that this is what Mardi Gras is,” says Savoy. “It’s not parades and none of the garbage that you see on TV; this is the real deal.”
The purpose of the Mardi Gras celebration is to mark the last day before Lent, Savoy explains: “Cajuns are known to be Catholics, and this is the last chance to enjoy the thing they’re giving up. They can drink, smoke, get crazy and have a great time — and it all ends on Ash Wednesday.”
The HBO series Treme immortalized Fat Tuesday in Eunice. The Season 2 episode featured Savoy in a speaking role, juxtaposing the raucous festivities in New Orleans with the hometown Cajun run his brother Joel conceived after wearying of parties full of brawling out-of-town drunks, litter and chicken-killing.
“My brother said, ‘I don’t want to support this anymore, this is not what Mardi Gras really is,’” Savoy says. “He decided to do it correctly at his house and got the old guys involved that used to do it 50 years ago when it was good.”
It’s this spirit — krewes, colorful costumes and the music of Mardi Gras — that fans will see when the Pine Leaf Boys share the stage on Feb. 16 with Quebec’s Le Vent du Nord, a band they’ve met but never played with. The two groups share a bloodline dating back to the 18th-century migration from eastern Canada to Louisiana that created the Cajun culture.
“It will be fun to show them what’s become of the music after these years of being away,” Savoy says with a wry laugh.
It’s no surprise that Savoy’s love of music began almost before he could walk or talk. His father is a Cajun legend, an accordion player who also runs a music store that hosts a popular weekly jam session. His mother, Ann Allen Savoy, wrote and performed songs on the T-Bone Burnett-curated The Divine Secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack, and Joel Savoy is a renowned fiddler. The Savoy Family Cajun Band has toured all over the world.
“When you grow up with one thing in your household all the time, it becomes very natural for you, like speaking English,” Savoy says — an interesting statement, given that he sings all the Pine Leaf Boys’ tunes in French. “You’d think it would be a given to do it, and it has been for me. For the last 11 years I have been traveling and playing Cajun music, and it’s been a wonderful living.”
The band received four consecutive Grammy nominations in the Zydeco/Cajun category before it was eliminated this year (along with several other genres in a streamlining effort). The recognition helped earn the attention of Robert Plant, who asked the group to open his “Band of Joy” show at Tipitina’s in New Orleans a few years ago.
Plant’s invitation led to a somewhat awkward moment.
“I didn’t know Led Zeppelin was a band, I thought it was a guy,” Savoy says. “I said, sure we can do a show with him. Then I called my band mates, who were more into the scene, and they flipped out.”
Apart from a childhood passion for Jerry Lee Lewis, Savoy is not a rock & roll fan. However, watching Plant perform gave him a better appreciation of his popularity.
“The audience looked at him as if they were looking at a god on stage,” he recalls. “The people were speechless.”
As it turns out, Savoy wasn’t the only one who was nonchalant about the Zeppelin singer’s stature as a rock icon.
“The funniest part is the next day he came out here to where we live in Lafayette, and they had a party for him — he had a day off,” Savoy remembers. “We boiled some crawfish and we were hanging out. Nobody at that party except for a couple of people knew who he was. He was just sitting around; nobody was taking his picture. To them, he was just some long-haired English guy who was dressed kind of dorky … just a regular old guy hanging out in our neck of the woods.”