Sometimes it looks like there must be two or three guys named Andre Thierry running around the Bay Area, setting small zydeco conflagrations with sizzling accordion riffs. But no, the Richmond-raised Thierry has become the region’s most visible torchbearer for Louisiana’s signature Creole blend of R&B, soul and Acadian culture.
“We’re getting out there more, that’s my main goal,” said Thierry, 33, who performs Saturday at Freight & Salvage with his hard-working band Zydeco Magic. “Before I was kind of doing the regular stuff, now I’m stepping out of the box a little bit, doing stuff I wouldn’t normally do.”
Recently nominated for a Best Regional Roots Music Album Grammy Award for his contribution to Corey Ledet’s album “Nothin’ But the Best,” Thierry is celebrating the release of his fourth album “Are You Ready To Learn,” an album that seamlessly blends old-school R&B crooning, supple funk, and lively zydeco two-steps, waltzes and shuffles.
Thierry’s stylistically omnivorous combo can emphasize just about any ingredient that make zydeco such a tangy, dance-inducing gumbo, from blues cadences and old Cajun tunes to Afro-Caribbean grooves and jazz improvisation. In a recent conversation, he talked about his journey from reluctant zydeco scion to embracing his role as a canny Creole ambassador.
“Musically I get bored fast,” he said, explaining both his newfound ubiquity and stylistic promiscuity as a product of creative ADD. “I’ve been playing for over 20 years now and I figured I’d try something new. Right now I’m looking at trying to replenish the scene and get some new blood into it.”
Thierry is intimately acquainted with the East Bay’s Louisiana old guard.
His grandmother, Mama Lena Pitre, started organizing dances for Louisiana transplants at Richmond’s St. Mark’s Hall shortly after moving to the Bay Area in 1963. Her community events featured the greatest zydeco musicians, and Thierry soaked up the sounds.
“She brought out acts like Clifton Chenier, Queen Ida, and John Delafose, and that’s how I got into the music,” Thierry said. “My family still speaks French to this day. It’s kind of a hidden community that you can’t really tell is there unless you get in close.”
Chenier was a frequent houseguest at Pitre’s, and she often told Thierry about how the zydeco legend picked him up and predicted from the bend in his arm “That’s going to be an accordion man.” But it was hardly a foregone conclusion that Thierry would take up the zydeco torch. For a kid growing up in Richmond in the late 1980s and 90s, country Creole music didn’t provide much street cred. Thierry admitted that he tried to keep a distance.
“You didn’t want people to make fun of you,” Thierry said. “But I heard it all my life and I gradually turned to liking it. My grandmother had an accordion and I used to sneak in her room. I learned a bunch of songs and eventually I sat in with John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys. After that I sat in with everybody. I got my band when I was 13, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Part of what sets Thierry apart from his zydeco peers is that he’s not particularly concerned about musical categories. He’s a mean blues musician who’s recorded with guitarist Elvin Bishop. He’s also happy to play Cajun tunes, ignoring the color line that sometimes still divides white Cajuns from Creoles of color in Louisiana.
“I think Andre benefited from growing up in Northern California,” said Michael Tisserand, who detailed Thierry’s early career in his invaluable 1998 social history “The Kingdom of Zydeco” (Arcade Publishing). “He didn’t get stuck in some of the pettier competitions and grievances about whether a song is this or that style.”
These days, Thierry is finding new audiences with his infectiously grooving shows and ever expanding repertoire.
“I just read the crowd, throw stuff out and see what they respond to,” Thierry said. “This music kind of throws some people off, so when you bring something they know, it draws them in.”