An unlikely trio bring the old sounds of the American wilderness to No Alibis bookstore
Comfortably seated on the tiny stage in No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue, Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie look like a classic pair of American old-timers. Keppelar sports a venerable white beard and a pair of denim dungarees, while McLerie is cosy in a floral housecoat.
The couple are joined on stage by their godson, Tomás Wentz, a sweet-faced young man who takes the third place in this unlikely-looking musical ensemble. Together, they are known as Bayou Seco, and when they lift their instruments – and voices – and begin to play, all preconceptions go completely out the window.
This, it transpires, will be no tame tea-dance. Quite the opposite. Their music, drawn from a rich mishmash of old Cajun, cowboy and traditional Hispanic songs, amongst others, is as fresh and lively as the day it was first written. It whisks you up and away in an exhilarating whirl of fiddle, accordion and heart-tugging harmonies.
Keppelar and McLerie, who have the kind of affectionately mocking repartee that only comes from long-married couples, have spent most of their lives collecting music from older traditional American musicians, catching the songs before they slip away into the forgotten past.
That's why so much of their music is performed in 6/8 time. It's a dying artform in the United States, say the pair, and they are determined to keep it alive. All three musicians display an extraordinary felicity with their instruments, switching easily from fiddle to guitar and back again. Keppelar also plays the accordion, the harmonica and a fretless banjo he made himself.
The well-known song from the Coen brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou?, 'Man of Constant Sorrow', is performed in its original, pared-down setting from the late 19th century, simple and full of mournful cadences. McLerie may be an old woman now, but her voice is clear and strong, and you hear the girl she once was, busking on the streets of Paris.
Not all Bayou Seco songs are traditional though. One of the most moving parts of the evening comes when McLerie sings a French-Cajun song she wrote for Keppelar, celebrating the way he takes her blues away. And Keppelar himself livens up proceedings with a hilariously surreal poem about cowboy reincarnation (you really had to be there).
Wentz is a quieter presence on-stage, but as he shows in his strong performance of 'Bo' Weevil' – a song about the insidious ways of the cotton-eating pest – he can belt out a lively narrative. Wentz is a former member of the punk-folk band, Grog, but he resists calls for him to perform any of their songs on this occasion, describing them – rather sheepishly – as 'foul'. Maybe next time…
No Alibis bookshop is the perfect venue for an intimate gig like this. There is a real family atmosphere to it, with good-humoured banter back and forth. In such a warm, welcoming space, the barriers between the performers and the audience melt away, and we all feel part of something rare and special.
Part of this is down to the ethos of the shop itself. Whether you're coming in to buy a book or to hear a reading or a musical performance, owner David Torrens and his partner Claudia always make you feel right at home.
As for Bayou Seco, they round off their rollicking set with an irresistible version of the song 'Waltzing with Bears', which has apparently now reached cult status with their fans worldwide. Everyone joins in on the chorus, and it ends up with Ken dancing around the audience, his long white beard pulled up over his face, bear-style. It was that kind of night.
It's so unusual to come across a band that is entirely heedless of image. Bayou Seco are all about the music, and what extraordinary music that is, full of joy and vitality. It's guaranteed to put a spring in your step and a lift in your heart.