Louisiana Dance Hall Music is what's advertised on the outside of Mel Melton's latest, Papa Mojo's Roadhouse, and there's truth in this advertising. This is the real thing--a rocking, low-down, gritty, back alley grind that captures the best of two worlds, blues and Zydeco. Melton, a Gastonia native, adopted Louisiana culture in '69, moving to Lafayette and hooking up with slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, playing with Clifton Chenier and later starting a band, Bayou Rhythm, with Sonny and Clifton's son C.J. He and Landreth co-wrote the song "Congo Square," recorded by John Mayall and the Neville Brothers. Melton also became a chef, specializing in Cajun and Creole cooking, winning the Grand Prize at the Rolls Royce Krug Champagne Invitational Chef Competition in '86.
Roadhouse is a great record that literally jumps out of the grooves. Melton says that's partly because of Rick Miller's practice of recording the rhythm section together in a big room for a rock 'n' roll sound. Like the Zydeco music he plays, the actual recording is a mix of cultures--recorded at Miller's Kudzu Ranch in Mebane, mastered in Nashville, and distributed by a New Orleans label now relocated to Austin.
But location is not solely responsible for this sound--it's easy to tell Melton put his heart and soul into this project. His singing has never sounded better and his harp playing is impeccable. Although Mel's attack is clean, his sound is as down and dirty as any Chicago blues, tempered with Louisiana ju-ju.
"Zydeco Razzle Dazzle" is just that. Guitarist Ricky Olivarez and Melton square off in a cutting contest that has Melton sounding like he's trotting out an extra set of lips to keep up with Olivarez, who's wielding the slide so ferociously you can imagine glass shards flying off the strings like shrapnel.
"Papa Mojo" is a nasty, swamp-slingin', backwater howl touting Melton's Mojo prowess. Sprinkled with a hefty dose of gris-gris, Melton keeps his harp burbling in the lower registers while Taz Halloween and Ellen Stevenson wail witchily in the background.
"Missing You Baby" is Melton's ode to swamp pop, the '50s Louisiana sound exemplified by Dale and Grace's "I'm Leaving It All Up to You" or Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love."
"Ils Sont Parti" is the Cajun equivalent of the traditional cry "They're off" when racehorses leave the starting gate. The cut features Sonny Landreth working his slide magic full-tilt boogie style with Melton huffing his harp sounding like a button accordion and screaming like a racetrack tout.
On an instrumental version of the Ray Charles classic "What I'd Say," Olivarez turns in a screaming, Ventures-style performance as Melton wails-swampy, low down and nasty.
The disc finishes with "Song for Laurel" featuring Mel's daughter Laurel singing in a breathy, rough-edged folkie voice Lucinda Williams or Julie Miller would be proud to claim.
You won't find anything else like Melton locally or regionally, and with this disc, he rivals the best of the national artists performing this music from their native bayous. If you want a piece of swamp land for your very own, Mel Melton is the man to see--and hear.
Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos play a record release party Saturday, Oct. 29 at the Blue Bayou Club in Hillsborough.