Pardner My French

New York

Left and right: Two views of the band performing. (Photos: Amani Willet/Courtesy WMAA)

“Man, that Whitney museum sounds good!” actor/poet Jim Fletcher drawled into the microphone between sets at an evening of Cajun country music hosted by Richard Maxwell and the Reena Spaulings Fine Art posse. This installment in the institution's series of Friday night gigs was also affiliated with the French Embassy and Association Française d'Action Artistique's “Act French,” a citywide series of performances celebrating Franco-American cultural exchange. Performed by a revolving quintet of vocalists, including Fletcher, Maxwell, and Reena Spaulings's spritelike founder Emily Sundblad, the songs were sung mostly in French (notes often came in handy here) and were accompanied by a fiddler, guitars, and a guest accordionist.

A number of the tunes were popular (“Me and Bobby McGee,” “Diggy Liggy”) but rendered unfamiliar by the Louisiana dialect. (“We started the band before Katrina,” Maxwell assured me.) Fletcher stole the show, striking runway poses and pouting at the audience between bouts of singing, dancing, and showing off his talent on the harmonica. “Jim Fletcher, he picked all these songs. He’s the man tonight,” Maxwell admitted. Sundblad looked like she was having almost as much fun, do-si-doing with singer Sybyl Kempson and stripping off her hot-pink sweater to perform a French rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” in only her trademark (and slightly ratty) skeleton-print leotard. This was the fifth time the band (which, as both Sundblad and Maxwell informed me, “doesn’t have a name”) has performed since its debut at Reena Spaulings Fine Art's “Robert Smithson” exhibition in February 2004. While they've played only art venues to date (Passerby, Haswellediger), Sundblad expressed disappointment with the acoustics and feel of galleries: “I hope next time we’ll play at a bar, like the Rodeo Bar.”

Left: Reena Spaulings Gallery founder Emily Sundblad and singer Sybyl Kempson. Center: Actor and poet Jim Fletcher. Right: Performer Richard Maxwell, Scott Sherratt, and musician Catherine McRae.

While “Act French” had approached Maxwell, asking for his participation along with a number of “the city’s downtown theater elite,” the Cajun angle was Fletcher’s brainchild. “We were going to play French pop music,” Maxwell recalled. But Fletcher had been haunted by a French blues track he’d heard at a friend’s house: “I'd never heard blues in French and I'd never heard blues so right. It hit the pocket and I loved it. It sounded, like, African.” (Meanwhile a heated discussion about colonialism had ignited between a couple of audience members and the band.) “It’s about the moment of miscegenation,” Sundblad piped up, explaining that “Mon negre” is a Cajun term of endearment. “I do remember a conversation about indigenous French communities,” Maxwell added. With the band's origins as mixed up as a bubbling pot of Louisiana gumbo, Fletcher summed it up: “It's French, but it's American.”

Michael Wang