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Whoopin' it up with the Mamou Playboys at the new Charles Morris Center
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I hung for a while at the first of last night's three sold-out shows by Cajun music legends Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys at the recently opened Charles H. Morris Center behind the old Pirate's House Restaurant at Trustees Garden, and it seemed apparent that most folks in the capacity crowd were having a grand time.

There were only a few dancers, but then again, it was a 6 pm show, and bottles of beer or glasses of wine were $5 each, so that may have had something to do with it. I can only imagine that during later sets, things got a bit more rambunctious.

My thoughts on the show and the venue are as follows: Acoustically, the "floating" construction of the floor and the inch or more of deadening material behind the high, wooden ceiling made for a definite sonic improvement over SCAD's old Orleans Hall building, which in previous years held the mid-sized Savannah Music Fest shows. There was greater clarity overall, and less of the harsh high-mid frequencies that sometimes plagued that converted hotel laundry facility which has since been turned into a gymnasium for the art school's student body.

The Morris Center's facilities leave something to be desired (given the almost ridiculous amount of hype afforded its opening), but overall, it's an above average place to see a live musical event, especially if the production is handled properly. In this case, it was. The band was situated on a 2-ft riser (which really could have worked better at 3-ft, but then, stage height has always been a pet peeve of mine) in front of a huge black curtain which covered the large windows of the brick building which normally offer a view of East President Street. Behind that black curtain was an array of multicolored lights which brightened and dimmed in a slow chase pattern that some may have read as random. It was a nice touch and added a certain ethereal sparkle to the show.

Overall, the combination made for a stage setup that seemed like a scaled-down cross between the original Austin City Limits TV show and a starfield from a low-budget sci-fi film, which was fine with me.

The band - featuring the stellar guitarist Sam Broussard - tore through both original tunes that leaned into a slightly alt.roots.rock vein, as well as meticulously played renditions of age-old Louisiana folk and dance tunes, replete with fiddle, accordion, drums, bass, guitar and triangle. Special mention must go to their young electric bassist, who was a model rhythm player, with great tone on his instrument and a rock-solid feel for blues, R & B, rock, folk and the pumping, dance-oriented music Cajun culture is known for.

The crowd was enthusiastic, if a bit reserved. There was little room to move, as all the seats were filled, and the corners of the room were crowded with SMF crew, local press and those who simply couldn't remain in their seats while such infectious, festive music was being played.

One other nice touch about the setup at the Morris Center is that the bar area (which, in Orleans Hall, had been in the same room as the performance stage) is actually located outside the building in a large, adjoining, semi-permanent tent. That means that folks buying beer, wine, water, soft drinks, or even SMF artist merchandise don't have to worry about interrupting the show or bothering other listeners. The fact that the SMF also pipes in the main signal from the PA system in the room itself out into the tent at a low volume means that if the folks in line for drinks don't yap too much, everyone can still hear the show while they're out of the main room, and not feel as though they have missed much while grabbing refreshments or souvenirs of the show.

In general, the Morris Center is a fine addition to the short list of multi-use venues in town that can be used for live concert events. Whether or not it continues to be used for such functions on a regular basis throughout the year remains to be seen.