Things To Do: CJ Chenier And The Red Hot Louisiana Band At The Continental Club

Texas and Louisiana have always shared more than just a state line. Both states are righteously proud of their culture and history and each share a deep love for and tradition of keeping roots music alive.

“There’s a lot of intertwine,” says CJ Chenier. “There’s a lot of Louisiana in Texas and a lot of Texas in Louisiana. It’s just a big jambalaya right there.”

Chenier is a regular on the festival circuits around the globe but calls Houston home. He will be performing this Saturday, July 9 at The Continental Club for a rare hometown show and surprisingly, his first time performing at the club.

“I’ve always had the philosophy of you go where they want you and I just don’t get that many offers from Houston,” says Chenier.

CJ Chenier, known as the Crown Prince of Zydeco, was hand picked in the mid ‘80s by his famous father Clifton Chenier to take over his Red Hot Louisiana Band. Growing up in Port Arthur, Chenier played saxophone and though his father is the undisputed king of Zydeco, he wasn’t always exposed to the genre.

Chenier describes growing up playing blues on the piano and later preferring the funkier sounds of Earth Wind and Fire and Kool & the Gang. “It was just different to me,” he says, describing his interpretation of his dad’s music.

“But even though it was different, I always found myself bopping my head and taping my foot because it was catchy.” It may seem like a stretch going from funk and disco to zydeco but both genres are party music designed to make people happy and get them moving on the dance floor.

“I always learned the blues, boogie, waltzes and ballads. All that stuff was always part of what they called back in the day ‘The La-La.’ You go to a La-La and you gonna hear zydeco, you gonna hear blues and at one o’clock in the morning, the club is all smokey, the fifth of liquor is three fourths empty and then the blues kick in and everybody is having a good time.”

The accordion may be at the heart of zydeco but Chenier uses his years as a horn player to create his own style of playing which is not purely traditional but instead mixes in elements of jazz and blues. “When it comes to zydeco I think I’m like a lone ranger,” explains Chenier.

“My style is by itself, I don’t play like my dad. My daddy always told me to be the best I could be at my own style. He never told me to be a Clifton Chenier clone or try to play note for note what he played and so my freedom came from just playing the way I play. Whatever comes out of those fingers, that’s what happens and that freedom was different than pretty much anybody else.”

“Whatever comes out of those fingers, that’s what happens and that freedom was different than pretty much anybody else.”

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Chenier admits it wasn’t an easy transition for him to take over his dad’s famous band, an offer that came at a perfect time as he describes working physically demanding jobs back home in Port Arthur. “I was walking around Port Arthur with holes in my jeans and my tennis shoes. My daddy rescued me from that and ever since then I’ve been a musician since I was 20 years old.”

Chenier describes his early years on the road opening the show for his famous father and initially not having his own “identity” as a musician. “I pretty much lost all the crowd when I first started off,” he describes.

“Then I decided one day that I was just going to be me. I was just going to let whatever came out of myself take over and that’s when things started changing and turning around a little bit. That’s when I started getting the people back. It just happened naturally and it was a whole lot of fun.”

Chenier knows there are critics who are disappointed that he is not exactly like his father but as he points out, there already was a Clifton Chenier and the liberation that has come from simply being himself is priceless though not without its complications.

“They call us ‘old school’ but I say we ‘real school.’ That’s my term for it. It’s not old, it’s real and it’s still going down it’s just with what’s going on now it’s different. I’m still back where I started from. I choose not to go too far out of line with what my daddy did because I want to stay true to what he did, I want to keep the Chenier legacy going. I want to change but I also want to stay the same.”

It would be impossible for Chenier to get on stage and not feel the intense presence of his father. “When I do certain songs I get taken over,” he says, identifying “I’m Coming Home” as a real emotional song. “Sometimes I try to hide it but sometimes it’s overwhelming.”

Chenier has released four albums with The Red Hot Louisiana Band and three solo albums garnering a Grammy nomination with his 2011 release Can’t Sit Down. “That’s the last CD I recorded, looks like I got jinxed after that but I’m working on something right now because I need to put something new.”

Chenier is only one of three of the original band members left from his dad’s band with one original member in Louisiana and another right here in Houston but he is the only active member. “When I got into my daddy’s band I was 20 and the closest guy was 35 so everybody was way older and I was just a youngster. Man, I was the younger guy in the band for a long time until I wasn’t,” he laughs.

CJ Chenier will perform on Saturday, July 9 at The Continental Club, 3700 Main. 9 p.m, $17-27.

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