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Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, who are at Artisphere tonight, are a Cajun band. But they’re more than that. Formed in 1988, this French-singing Louisiana group, led by singer/accordionist Riley and fiddle player David Greely, started out by covering obscure Cajun two-step numbers and waltzes with energy and precision. But beginning with their 1995 album, La Toussaint, they added original material and covers that have alternately displayed pop catchiness, quiet melancholia, Creole rhythm, and garage-rock swagger.
On their fine new 2011 effort Grand Isle, these qualities are again on display. “Chatterbox” is not an original, but this driving garage-rock number by New Orleans oddballs Quintron & Miss Pussycat gloriously melds Riley’s pumping Cajun squeezebox, Kevin Dugas’ rollicking drum beats, and guest Quintron’s ’60s-sounding organ. The album is astutely produced by CC Adcock, who plays with Riley in part-time swamp-pop supergroup Lil’ Band of Gold, and who lends his guitar, synthesizer, and piano playing to three cuts here. While the album includes the traditional pings of the triangle on Riley’s Lyons Point,” it also presents some less standard elements. The memorable “C’est l’heure Pour Changer/This is the Time for Change” incorporates bongos, baritone sax, bayou blues guitar, New Orleans-meets-ska syncopation, and expertly played Gulf Coast fiddle. Guitarist Sam Broussard’s “Pierre” features handclaps, palm-slapping percussion, and acoustic guitar. The band turns the Fats Domino-associated “Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better” into honkytonk country, with Riley’s voice sounding as warm as ever, and they close out sweetly with Broussard’s touching “Au Revoir.”
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys perform tonight from 8:30 to 11 p.m. (preceded by a free dance lesson at 7:30) at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Va. (703) 875-1100. $15 ($12 with student ID).