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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v9n6 (02/11/2010) » Mardi Gras Music Feature

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Come Mardi Gras, LeeRon Zydeco and his Hot Tamales warm up clubs all across town

There’s no time like Mardi Gras season for Buffalo’s own LeeRon Zydeco, a.k.a. Ronnie Davis. Along with his accordion and backing band the Hot Tamales, he is in high demand and arguably as hot a commodity as a fistful of beads or a bowl of spicy gumbo as Fat Tuesday draws close. He took a break from his busy schedule to talk about what makes zydeco special, four decades playing music on the Queen City scene, and why Buffalo and New Orleans are kindred cities.

AV: Like Christmastime for Santa or April 15 for accountants, is Mardi Gras the busy season for LeeRon Zydeco?

Davis: Yes, it absolutely is a bonanza being LeeRon at this time of year. It’s exhausting but a total blast! I think one Fat Tuesday I played six gigs and two TV shows. That’s a lot of accordion squeezing. My great band and I are like a military assault unit. It was amazing to me that I got six gigs, but also that I was able to schedule, rush, and make it to each one. I was going to request a police escort, but didn’t think they’d do it. The season lasts for around three weeks. I play everything from a retirement home in the morning to the vortex of crazy Chippewa Street—and I’m very grateful for all of it.

AV: What are your expected high points for Fat Tuesday 2010?

Davis: Do you mean alcoholically speaking? We never really know what’s going to happen. I’ve been doing the Artvoice Mardi Gras thing for so long, I remember being one of only a handful of bands that played that night. Now it’s grown into what I believe is one of the largest Fat Tuesday parties in the country. It’s a night when many people’s repressed personality comes out, but it’s up to me and my musicians to make it happen: musically and festively. Just interacting with people and groovin’ with my band is what always makes it exciting and unpredictable. And, of course, a little boobie flashing ain’t bad either.

AV: Is “LeeRon” like a crazy cajun Mr. Hyde to Ronnie Davis’ cool and collected Dr. Jeckyll?

Davis: Yes. Sometimes when I’m performing I think, “How the hell am I doing this?” But I guess there’s this split personality aspect to me, as there is to many people. I just get to do it in public. I was playing in New Orleans recently and people down there go, “You can’t be from Buffalo, how you play that stuff? Are you one of them reincarnated voodoo dudes?”

AV: How did you end up playing zydeco music?

Davis: I took accordion lessons when I was a kid from a great teacher, Russ Messina. I think I was the worst student he ever had, but I’m maybe one of only a couple who still play. I never paid any attention to zydeco music at all. But I could play accordion and heard a zydeco band up here about 18 years ago and said, “Hey, I can do that.” After that, I drove my family bonkers practicing accordion in that style hours a day along with CDs that I found. I became a zydeco maniac and started LeeRon Zydeco and the Hot Tamales. I was amazed when we started getting good gigs.

AV: Has the accordion gotten a bum rap? Can you tell me why it’s actually a cool instrument?

Davis: Yes, it has. But that’s changing. The accordion is the signature sound of many cultures from Cajun, Tex-Mex, Celtic, German, Polish, Italian, and even some African tribes. It evokes an extremely eclectic Americana and of course was used by the legendary group the Band. It’s got a haunting sound that is festive and sad at the same time. But mostly I like it cause I can drown out all these smart-ass guitar players at acoustic jam sessions.

AV: What do you consider the essence of zydeco?

Davis: It’s a sense of community and coming together to have fun. I’ve been to the Southwest Lousiana Zydeco Fest and they have a lineup of zydeco bands that play all night in a wooden roadhouse down there. It’s a wide mix of young and old and nobody is allowed to sit down—everyone dances. They told me I was the worst dancer in Louisiana but I was still all right. The music is funky, exotic, and infectious and makes you move, whether you want to or not.

I want to mention that we have started up our Cajun Zydeco Dance Partees at the Taproom the first Tuesday of every month and they’re going great. The music and the vibe is contagious. I want to invite everyone down, there’s a dance lesson, my live band, and free gumbo. It’s Louisiana in Buffalo.

AV: Is it ever tough to muster up that zydeco spirit in the single-degree, two-foot-of-snow, dead-of-winter nights in Buffalo?

Davis: Strangely enough, there is a kindred spirit between Buffalo and New Orleans. The more I go down there, the more I see it. It’s like when I was there for a gig during the first NFL playoff game a few weeks ago. The people considered the Saints to be one with them—a means to overcome their hardship and perceived inferiority. It’s almost a spiritual deliverance. And both towns have a gritty, deep, creative soul that flows out in the music.

AV: Can you tell me about the outreach you’ve done with your New Orleans Music Show?

Davis: I have been fortunate to bring this music to an amazing specturm of people—from autistic pre-school kids to nursing homes. From the most affluent high schools to the most poverty-stricken rural communities. I created and taught a four-credit course around it for Empire State College. It’s an edu-tainment experience for the teachers as well as the kids. I’m proud to turn people on to this music and culture that’s exotic and exciting.

AV: In addition to LeeRon and the Hot Tamales, you lead the Ronnie Davis Combo highlighting your mastery of the Hammond B-3 organ. A couple years ago you released the genuinely funky Soul Jazz Midnite. What’s up next for the combo?

Davis: The combo plays the first Saturday of every month at the Sportsmen’s Tavern. That’s where we got our start and will continue to play, along with other places like the Hamburg and Niagara casinos. I’d like to write some more quirky soul jazz and record a live disk. I also do organ/drum duos a lot with some of the best drummers in town. The left-hand bass organ jazz thing was a part of me from the time I was a teenager. I was fortunate to have a wonderful, soulful organ teacher, Jim Wozniak. He used to drag me around to his gigs at funky strip clubs when I was 15 to hear him play. I think my glasses used to steam over. I said, “Wow, man, this is the life for me!”

AV: You’re a legend in Buffalo music with four decades playing with bands like Blue Ox, Argyle Street, and Barbara St. Clair. How different is the Buffalo music scene now compared to 30+ years ago?

Davis: Buffalo, unlike many places, still provides gigs to musicians. But as a young player years ago, I could play six nights a week with no problem. Gigs came to me. That’s the way it was with most musicians in town. There was a thriving bar scene that was based on live music. Now, my son, Jordan, is a drummer and has a nice, young, funky band, but can’t find gigs. Everything is online and virtual and YouTubed to death. It’s a double-edged sword. Music is now so instantly accessible and has become a commodity. But there’s still nothing like a hot live band and a sweaty crowd digging it. I’m still busy due to the fact that I play in a variety of styles and can play solo. I am just now releasing a solo CD called New Orleans Boogie ’n’ Blues. I think I enjoy playing and performing more now than ever ’cause all the cats I play with are so accomplished and cool. That comes with age.

AV: Can you share a favorite story from Buffalo’s musical past?

Davis: I was playing with the local legendary blues guitarist, Spoon, many years ago and we were opening up for Linda Ronstadt at the old Century Theater. It was time to go on, but Spoon wasn’t there. Harvey and Corky were promoting the show and said to go on without him. We were onstage when we looked out and the main front doors of the theater opened and in walked Spoon with his guitar and amp. He started walking down the aisle past all the people with the wheels of his amp squeaking, like he was going to any other gig. The place was packed and the audience was dumbfounded. After what seemed like an eternity he arrived at the tall stage and looked up and there were no stairs. He yelled up at me from the floor below, “Hey, Ronnie, how ya’ll get up on this flatform?” That’s what he called it. We just hoisted him up and started playing. The audience went crazy cheering. To me, that’s the Buffalo musician, just going to work, playing great, and having fun.

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