By the time London’s epochal Irish folk-punk band the Pogues recorded “Dirty Old Town” in the mid-’80s, it was already a folk standard. But the tune’s bleak beauty and industrial imagery fit so well with the Pogues’ ethos that when they recast the song through their own lens, spiking it with Shane MacGowan’s fuck-all growls and Spider Stacy’s wistful tin whistle, it became something new.
One night last summer, Stacy played the song with the Cajun rock outfit Lost Bayou Ramblers and “Dirty Old Town” transformed again.
This time, the Ramblers’ Louis Michot sang a plaintive-voiced Cajun French version of a verse that hushed the otherwise rowdy, sing-along prone crowd. His brother, Andre, added a Cajun accordion to the mix, while Louis’ fiddle buoyed Stacy’s whistle melody on the instrumental breaks. Though they could have performed a straightforward cover of the song, the tweaks and additions yielded an adaptation with a distinct character of its own.
“There’s almost like a third force emerging,” Stacy says of his ongoing collaboration with the Ramblers. “Something kind of born of both but independent.”
Since that first show at One Eyed Jack’s, the Acadiana-based Ramblers and Stacy, who moved to New Orleans in 2010, have expanded their reimagined Pogues repertoire and hit the road as Poguetry in Motion (the name of a 1986 Pogues EP). They’ve also started delving into Cajun music, which Stacy’s been dutifully collecting on vinyl. Drawn to the genre’s “immense soulfulness,” he said in March that they were in the midst of hammering out a tin whistle–friendly version of the deep cut, “Si J’aurai des Ailes,” along with a few others.
For their April 28 Jazz Fest set, the Ramblers (Louis and Andre Michot plus drummer Eric Heigle, guitarist Johnny Campos and bassist Bryan Webre) plan to feature a mix of Poguetry and original Ramblers music with Stacy as one of multiple special guests. Rickie Lee Jones, another rock icon who discovered the band’s unique sound after moving to New Orleans, will sit in as well.
“You get such a different result when you mix different styles and different performers together,” says Michot. “To me, that’s the goal of every artist’s journey, to make something new.”
Michot and his brother Andre formed the Ramblers in 1999, combining the aesthetic of traditional Cajun music they’d grown up playing in their father and uncle’s family band with concepts drawn from their taste for rock. That marriage of styles cast them into a lineage known as rogue or folk punk, which the Pogues originated in London.
The Violent Femmes are said to have initiated a proliferation of similar music in the U.S. around that time; the Femmes’ guitarist, singer and violin player Gordon Gano, has also collaborated with the Ramblers in recent years.
“When people started saying we sound like a Cajun version of the Pogues, I started checking [them],” says Michot.
“People put that same title on us, Cajun punk and Irish punk, but really it’s from the source of loving really intense rhythm and putting a lot of energy onstage, which is not typical for a Cajun show or Irish show. To be playing with Spider now is like bringing it all together.”
Stacy initially contacted the Ramblers after seeing them perform live in 2011. At the show, he recalls hearing what he describes as a “wild, euphoric exaltation” that was similar to the Pogues’ spirit.
“It just kind of hits you right in the heart and the gut. It just lifts you up,” he says.
With the Pogues on a potentially permanent hiatus, Stacy proposed to Michot that they try collaborating. Michot consented, leaving room in the band’s schedule to continue performing their own music, as well. Once they began working together, a chemistry emerged on both musical and personal levels.
“It’s become very familiar, very quick,” says Michot, adding that the collaboration has felt “organic” from the beginning.
In some ways, the common denominator between the Ramblers’ and Pogues’ music extends beyond their shared energy. Historically, regional folk music has played a role in unifying Acadians who fled Canada for Louisiana in the 1700s as well as the people of Ireland.
“Both cultures have been under threat from painful outside forces,” Stacy says, “and music has been an extraordinarily strong bulwark in defending that culture or maintaining that culture’s integrity.”
That doesn’t mean learning one another’s music has been easy. With each new Pogues tune Stacy brings the band, he and the Michot brothers tend to break down the melody so they can understand it on a fiddle, accordion and whistle level before building it back up to a larger rock sound.
Michot says he appreciates that approach because Cajun music also has a “core, intricate melody” that has to be mastered for the song to have the desired effect.
Stacy, meanwhile, admits he’s “still trying to get my head around some of these fiendishly complex Cajun tunes.” A few of the melodies are complex to begin with, he says, while others are more challenging because the Ramblers are so prone to experimentation that “things kind of appear from nowhere when you’re not expecting them.”
On the other hand, that’s the kind of open-mindedness that gave rise to Poguetry in Motion in the first place.