A renowned Cajun sextet from Louisiana performed two shows in Alaska this weekend — unexpectedly, as a quintet.
BeauSoleil — a two-time Grammy-winning band from Louisiana — is often known as BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet. But this time, the band performed their Fairbanks and Anchorage shows without its founder and fiddle player Michael Doucet, who slipped on icy ground and broke his hip a few hours before the Friday Fairbanks concert.
Doucet, 71, was hospitalized, but the band went ahead with the shows, with Michael’s brother, guitar player David Doucet leading the performance.
“I have to say, they didn’t miss a beat: his brother picked up right where he left off,” Fairbanks Concert Association director Anne Biberman said.
She said the show was a success. “It’s fun, it’s lively — I mean, it’s just fantastic music. You can’t help it feel good. You can’t help but want to move. We had people dancing in the aisles on Friday night. It was just great to see.”
Michael Doucet had surgery on Saturday morning and was discharged from the hospital on Monday and plans to fly home to Louisiana on Wednesday. After their Alaska shows, the band decided to postpone some upcoming shows to give Michael some time to heal.
Slipping on icy roads
To be fair, not everyone in Fairbanks missed the chance to see the whole band on stage. On Friday morning, BeauSoleil performed a school show “with screaming kids having a great time,” David Doucet said.
After the school show, when hundreds of children boarded the buses, performers had some time for themselves: David went to play a virtual solo show, while Michael Doucet went back to the Candlewood Suites and then stepped out to get a snack at the store across the street. That’s when he slipped on an icy road.
“When I listened to his voicemail, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” David Doucet said.
When he realized his brother was indeed in the hospital and wouldn’t be able to perform, he had about an hour and a half to put together two 45-minute sets. After a quick discussion, the band came up with 10 songs per set.
“We didn’t do a soundcheck — we’d already done one (the day before), so we just went right cold into it — Bam! 7:30,” David Doucet said. “It was rushed, but I think it came off very well. We did have a good time. People treated us very well.”
In Fairbanks, a good portion of the audience knew about Michael Doucet’s injury.
“It’s a very small place — Fairbanks,” he said. “I think most of them all knew which hospital he was at and were sending him cards.”
On Saturday, David Doucet announced the news at the beginning of the Anchorage show, and “there were a few gasps,” but people were still understanding, and the performance went smooth, he said.
Playing without Michael Doucet was not the best scenario, but something the band has done before. One time when Michael Doucet had other health issues, a Creole fiddle player Canray Fontenot took his place. But in most cases, David Doucet ended up fronting the band — like he did this time.
“With 47 years plus for some of us in the band — and we’ve toured extensively over the years — we’re very familiar with the material,” he said. “It’s just, it was a little different: when I’m in leading the band, it gets a little different flavor.”
The absence of Michael Doucet’s fiddle is the biggest difference, but David Doucet said he also has a different approach: he tends to create “more of an ensemble sound” where the lead instrument is less pronounced. David Doucet also said he loves to share stories, whether it is loosely translating the songs or speaking about the musicians who played the songs before.
“People want to know the stories. They love the stories about the people in the songs,” he said. “And I got to tell stories about the people that we’ve learned these songs from.”
Reviving Cajun music
When David and Michael Doucet were growing up, the Louisiana French language and Cajun music were disappearing, David Doucet said. At that time, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana was formed, sponsoring music shows and events and preserving the rich local culture.
“That also inspired younger people at home in Louisiana to start playing the music,” he said. “We were right on the cusp of this popularity ... Because of that, we lucked out with these old musicians that came to play at these events, and people started understanding that this is a really rich culture. And we were right in the middle of it.”
The band learned the style from the experienced Cajun musicians and later invited some of them on tours — for example, Dennis McGee or Canray Fontenot, with whom BeauSoleil performed in New York.
David Doucet said that while Cajun music has been changing and becoming more modern, the style stays alive. The original audience that has been following the band from the time they started is getting older, but the musicians see different generations during their shows.
“You got your crowd has been watching you play for this many years,” he said. “You got their kids and to tell you the truth, now you have their kids’ kids, and they’re introducing them too because if you’re culturally sensitive you’re gonna get it, and if you’re not you won’t.”
SInce BeauSoleil started playing in 1975, they received various awards and performed at numerous festivals and concerts. Their 1996 album L’Amour Ou La Folie earned them Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, and in 2008, they won another Grammy as the Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album for the album Live at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Michael Doucet became one of 12 artists awarded a National Heritage Fellowship.
“They’re an amazing band,” Biberman said. “I really think of them as the definitive Cajun band because while they write their own music — Michael Doucet writes his own music — it’s really steeped in the original traditions of the music. They bring fresh takes, but it’s always rooted in the traditions of the music.”
Coming back to Alaska
The past weekend was not the first time in Alaska for BeauSoleil: the band has visited the state seven or eight times, playing in different cities and at different venues, including Herring Auditorium in Fairbanks.
“It’s a very special place, very cold, but a very special place in the middle of nowhere — 200 miles from the Arctic Circle,” David Doucet said about Fairbanks. “It is very difficult for us to comprehend the map — how close you are to the top of the earth. And 3,500 miles from Louisiana — it’s just a long way.”
The first time the band came up to Fairbanks was back in the mid-1990s, in the dead of winter, with temperatures around 25 or 30 degrees below zero outside. The trip happened soon after the fiddle player Canray Fontenot passed away, and the Fairbanks radio station was playing his music while the band was driving to see the Northern Lights.
“When his first song played, the Northern Lights — it was just like a light switch — came on,” David Doucet said.
This year, the band was excited to go back to Alaska. They originally planned their “Au Revoir” tour for 2021, but postponed it because of the pandemic. Despite the “farewell” in the name of the tour, the band is not planning to stop performing.
“I can’t imagine a musician wanting to stop playing. I think music makes you live longer,” David Doucet said. “Plus, Michael didn’t get to perform in Alaska except for the junior high show. So we have to go back. We’ll be back in Alaska, at least one more time, before we hit all 50 states.”