Beausoleil has been the premier Cajun music recording and touring band for 45 years, and I have seen them so many times I’ve lost count. Every one of their past concerts was a big old Louisiana dance hall party, with legendary fiddler Michael Doucet surrounded by five other regular band members and occasional extras.
Before Friday’s concert at Old Town School of Folk Music, the last time I saw Beausoleil was in 2018 (the before times) at Evanston SPACE. The stage was packed with musicians playing instruments that included percussion and keyboards.
So it was a bit disorienting to see just three players—Doucet; his brother, guitarist David Doucet; and bassist/accordionist Chad Huval—take to the Maurer Hall stage on Friday.
Michael Doucet took note of the light lineup as he opened the second half of the concert, explaining that it was a result of the COVID dislocations that forced virtually all bands off the road (and forced many musicians to take other jobs), the inflation that has dramatically increased the costs of travel and lodging, and the general state of the music industry that makes it increasingly hard for niche bands to succeed.
And yet, Beausoleil trouped on and provided the sellout audience with a thoroughly enjoyable concert that covered 19 songs over more than two hours.
And the truth is that a Beausoleil concert would be worth seeing if Michael Doucet performed solo. There is a reason why the band has long been billed as Beausoleil with (or avec) Michael Doucet. For many aficionados, Doucet’s longbow style of playing has defined the sounds of Cajun music that differentiate it from other fiddle-driven genres of folk music, including Irish, Scottish, Appalachian and even the fiddle music of Nova Scotia, in which Cajun (derived from Acadian) music has its roots.
His keening voice—singing almost entirely in French Cajun and Creole dialects—is also a clearly identifiable trademark. The band helped revive what Doucet says was a dying art form in southwest Louisiana and brought it to national popularity, at a time that coincidentally coincided with a booming interest in Cajun cooking.
That role of Doucet and Beausoleil has been duly recognized with one Grammy win and multiple nominations. Beausoleil performed in 1983 at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and in 2005, Doucet received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endownment for the Arts.
Friday’s concert was billed as “Au Revoir—The Last Time,” but Doucet explained that this shouldn’t be taken literally as a farewell tour. The band will cut back on its extensive touring that has taken them to each of the 50 states at least three times, but they will keep performing and recording. “We will play until we can’t play any more,” Doucet said.
Time does take a toll, though. Doucet, who turned 71 in February, slipped on ice during a tour stop in Fairbanks, Alaska, in early April and broke his hip. This forced the postponement of their Chicago concert from later in April until October 14. Doucet joked that for now on, they will only play in places that have “sand, mud or grass”—no ice.
The days of Doucet amazing audiences with seemingly non-stop fiddle sets also appear to be waning. The set list on Friday was nearly all songs, with Doucet alternating between flashes of brilliant playing and singing the lead. He performed only a few extended solos
The mix of pieces from the band’s huge catalog included reels, waltzes, ballads and laments. He described one song as a 1928 piece about someone condemned to die, another as a tribute to Louisiana’s native tribes, and on a lighter note, a tune about two men competing for the attentions of a woman who wants nothing to do with either.
The area in front of the stage, which usually is set with tables and chairs, was left empty and attendees were invited to dance. About a dozen or so people of varying dancing skill levels were up on their feet nearly throughout the concert, adding to its charm.
Doucet spoke warmly of Chicago and promised that we have not seen the last of Beausoleil. It’s a promise that the band’s many fans will hold them to.