RL Reeves Jr’s New Orleans Album of the Week: Coco Robicheaux’s Spiritland

When Coco Robicheaux died on a streetside bench at the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street it spelled the end of a particular era of New Orleans music.

Ten years ago, Robicheaux’s star burned bright when he slaughtered a rooster in the studios of WWOZ for the HBO Series Treme. Nearly 800,000 people watched the episode, Meet De Boys on the Battlefront that night.

19 months later he would be pronounced dead upon arrival at Tulane Medical Center. He was 64.

Curtis John Arceneaux may have been born in Merced, California but his French – Choctaw – Cajun roots run back generations through the Louisiana swamps of Ascension Parish.

“I played my first professional gig in Gonzales, Louisiana, in Ascension Parish, at a sock hop in the high school gym in 1959.

Coco may have been a prodigy as that show would have seen him command the stage at the tender age of 12. By the time he was into his high school career he’d formed one band The Rebels and went on to lead another group The Phyve.

Come killy killy killy quick as you can/Come take a look at a natural man/Waste my time like a Simple Sam/Come take a look at what a fool I am/Oh, Revelator. Oh, Revelator, Revelator, right now.

By the early sixties, a 17 year old Coco was busking on the streets of the French Quarter. Following a sojourn on the West Coast where he became friends with Janis Joplin, he returned to New Orleans and began the life of vagabond bluesman in earnest. He’d play the little bayou barrooms in the swamps of south Louisiana, and finally ended up living down in Key West where he formed his Mojo Hand band.

He returned to New Orleans in 1992, and two years later recorded his full-length debut for Orleans Records Spiritland

When Dr John’s Gris Gris album was re-released in the eighties I nearly wore the grooves off it. During Walk On Guilded Splinters he sing-songs the phrase Coco Robicheaux and in his own way pays homage to his old friend from Ascension Parish.

How did he get the name? “They’d been calling me Coco Robicheaux since I was a little boy—it was the name of the kid who got snatched up by the loup garou, and they would call kids that when they would be doing wrong, to scare you.”

All 10 songs on Spiritland are worth your while but the old mix-blood hoodoo man saves his best for last with St John’s Eve, an elegy to voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s annual feast held on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain back in the 19th century.

Now when the time is right, on a night in June. All the hoodoos dance, underneath the moon. And what goes on, child, you better believe. Down in New Orleans on St. John’s Eve

In an old interview with Offbeat Coco remarks “They used to have some real hellified ceremonies on that night.”

Whatever got his creative hackles up worked wonders on this cut as it sounds like it could’ve been dropped on an early seventies Dr John LP, and nobody would’ve been the wiser. And if you’re ever in New Orleans on St John’s Eve make sure you visit Bayou St John where the modern voodoo ladies hold their own freaky ceremony.

Mr. Robicheaux was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame at the House of Blues in New Orleans on Oct. 24, 2009

His last words on his last night on earth were, “I’m home”

b. October 25, 1947
d. November 25, 2011

You can stream St John’s Eve here.

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