After more than two decades of nonstop touring, recording and performing on seemingly every stage across the state and the U.S., Lost Bayou Ramblers — Louisiana’s Cajun rock ’n’ roll pioneers, imbued with as much tradition as they rely on invention — had decided to take a break.
The band, formed by brothers Louis and Andre Michot when the pair was asked to put together a show for a gig in Lafayette in 1999, pulls from a wide range of Louisiana music and its sympathetic sonics, from two-stepping rhythms and Cajun traditionals to bombastic punk rock and ambient noise pulling from the swampy Southern cosmos.
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The brothers Michot grew up playing with their family band, Les Freres Michot, before embarking on the Ramblers’ 20-year whirlwind, now alongside guitarist Johnny Campos, guitarist and electronics maestro Eric Heigle, bassist Bryan Webre and drummer Kirkland Middleton.
The band was set to begin its hiatus in May 2018. That “break” was set to be a busy one — after a “farewell” tour, there was the premiere of the band’s documentary “On Va Continuer!” and acclaimed nutria documentary “Rodents of Unusual Size,” which the band scored, and then scoring the film “Lost Bayou.”
Then the band was nominated for a Best Regional Roots Music Album Grammy for its widely acclaimed 2017 album “Kalenda.” On Jan. 28, 2018, the band took home that award.
The Grammy win came as “a complete shock,” says Louis Michot, the Ramblers’ bandleader, singer and fiddler. (The band later slipped out of the ceremony to toast its win at a nearby pub.)
In the spring, the band emerged from its hiatus to perform several shows, which felt “just like old times,” Michot says. “It was amazing to remember how much energy we put into our live shows. We were exhausted after. It was great.”
Capping off the productive hiatus ahead of its 20th anniversary in September, the band was named Entertainers of the Year by the Big Easy Awards. It plays the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Friday, May 3, and honeymoons with Lafayette’s Tommy McLain and C.C. Adcock at d.b.a. Saturday, May 4.
“There’s not much of a beat to miss,” Michot says.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers performed at Zachary's Fourth of July Jubilee celebration last year.
As a band of working musicians, the Ramblers were careful to call it a hiatus and not a break, merely a necessary pause from playing onstage as the Ramblers — but not as the Ramblers in disguise. Andre continued to perform with his Riverbend Ramblers and with Heigle as the Lost Bayou Duo; Campos released the album “Rain on My Face” with his power-pop outfit Carbon Poppies; and Louis Michot released the album “Blood Moon” with his Melody Makers — each project an eccentric spoke in the genre-defying wheel propelling the Ramblers’ powerful sound.
“We’re all professional musicians, which means we can’t really stop working,” Michot says. “It’s been nonstop for everyone. I think it’s testament to how important the Ramblers is for everyone. Everyone’s got a lot going on all the time, but everyone always makes time to make the Ramblers a priority, their main gig. It’s fulfilling creatively and it’s essential to the survival of a professional musician.”
With their hiatus in full swing, the Lost Bayou Ramblers appear to live in one of M.C. Escher’s “impossible constructions” where, in this case…
The band’s spirit of preservation and progression has attracted into its orbit artists ranging from Dr. John and Dickie Landry to Scarlett Johansson, Gordon Gano and Arcade Fire, who brought the band out on tour in 2014. But the band’s heartbeat is on the stage, the “living performance art,” Michot says, that thrives on unique moments and improvised arrangements.
“What we’re lucky for is being able to tour so much in Louisiana,” he says. “That’s amazing, to have so much support here at home, and for people to really get what we’re doing and appreciate what we’re doing with Cajun music.”
Andre Michot plays accordion with the Lost Bayou Ramblers during Jazz Fest 2018.
What they’re doing is trying to stay ahead of their imagination, “keeping up with [their] own ideas” and taking a “natural step in the evolution of Cajun music,” Michot says.
“Of course it’s such an interesting question — ‘What is tradition? What is authenticity?’ It’s different to everybody,” he says. “What we see as tradition now, they saw as progression when it was created. Everything has a first day. Everything we see as tradition now was new at one point.
“I just see us as a continuance of that — naturally letting the influences around that we like ourselves infiltrate our music while keeping true to the form of the music, the language, the rhythms, the instruments.”
That magic largely happens on the stage, the place that birthed the band. They rarely rehearse; Michot estimates they spent two hours after the end of their hiatus in a rehearsal setting.
“We did it [because we thought], ‘It might be a good idea.’ But man, we just love doing it live,” he says. “Every show we do something new and interesting that keeps us satisfied and going creatively. … We create live. We make arrangements live. We remember them …
“There’s too much music to perform already, between our original music — we can’t even touch upon it live — and there’s so much traditional music and obscure classics and archival classics. … For us it’s about trying to do it justice, trying to really give these old songs their melodic intricacies, trying to do that justice, and the beauty of the language. … For our original stuff, we’re always recreating that.”
The Lost Bayou Ramblers will headline May 12at the Dew Drop Jazz Hall and Social Club in Mandeville. (985) 624-9604 or dewdropjazzhall.com.
Michot recently launched a record label, Nouveau Electric, as an outlet for exploring the fringes of Cajun music and testing its boundaries, finding there rarely are any. Though the label is “completely separate from the Ramblers universe,” Michot says, it shares the band’s independent spirit. Michot created the label to “help different bands that don’t really have help getting their music out, and to try to also create longevity for all these prolific artists around me that keep doing independent releases.”
“We’re still independent — we put an album out and it’s up to us to keep it going,” he says. “Once you put it out, it’s done. You gotta start on the next project. Nouveau Electric was to try to help give a voice to people creating, whether it’s in Cajun French or doing eccentric projects around the language, music or people who operate or kind of fit into my musical world that I feel could benefit from the label’s influence and mission.”
This fall, the band will take a rare look backward as it prepares for its 20th anniversary, but Michot sees the next 20 years looking a lot like the last.
“Andre and I have always taken it just one day at a time, one gig at a time,” Michot says. “We’re not ones to go in and rehearse and make big fancy shows. We just do what comes natural. We play the Cajun music we love and we let it grow. For us, we’re satisfied, year after year, with how our music progresses. It’s not something we have to make a big effort to do. We take it as it comes.”