From Bruce and Bon Jovi to Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill, from old timers like Count Basie and Frank Sinatra to up-and-comers like Jesse Malin and Lisa Bouchelle, New Jersey has been home for many of the greatest artists the world has seen in a variety of musical genres. And in the world of Cajun Zydeco music, New Jersey boasts a band more known to the followers of Delta music than residents of the Garden State. The VooDudes, truly one of the best bands in the state, toil in relative obscurity here at home, even while drawing a wider audience when they travel to more exotic locales.
The VooDudes formed in 1990 to play a variety of Gulf Coast and Mardi Gras-style music. “In those days, it was pretty much a cover band,” recalls Andy B, vocalist and scrub board player for the band. “The launch coincided with the whole national ‘discovery‘ of New Orleans culture and its influence in food, music, and in film. Eventually we started throwing in originals and the rest is Voo-History.”
That history has evolved into five albums, and national and even international touring. Joining Andy in the group are Dave Ambrosy on vocals and drums, Gary Ambrosy on guitar, and Fred Saunders on bass. John Pittas has been manning the keyboards for the band in recent years, replacing Jim Beckerman, who left for solo career.
The group humorously refers to the music as “JerZydeco,” a mix of Garden State rock attitude and Louisiana roots music. “More seriously, The VooDudes music mixes a wide selection of Gulf Coast music, zydeco, Tex-Mex, country blues, C&W honky-tonk, Texas swing, New Orleans R&B, and southern traditional folk that is informed by the band members’ personal musical experiences,” explains Andy. Or more simply, “Hot sauce rock!” exclaims Dave.
The band has traveled far and wide to win over converts to their unique musical stylings, including sojourns throughout the northeast and southern states, as well as tours of Canada, Switzerland, and Greece. Their journeys have enabled them to play with some of the legends of the genre, including Dr John, Levon Helm, Branford Marsalis, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Buckwheat Zydeco, C.J. Chenier, Chubby Carrier, and Mavis Staples, and they’ve even hobnobbed with the likes of famed author and songwriter Shel Silverstein while in Key West recently, where they were invited to a party of his and hit the beach with him as well.
The band cites numerous influences. “They are so widespread that this whole article could just be a list of them,” laughs Andy. “Composition-wise, I dig early American traditional and folk styles, John Fogerty, all of The Band’s writers, Robertson, Helm and Danko, Lowell George, Van Morrison, and all of writers from Los Lobos. Randy Newman and the Alvin Brothers also impress me as capturing a particular American essence.” Dave has his own take on what inspires the group. “I think the band likes to listen to The Band, the Stones, a lot of different blues artists, John Hiatt, and Buckwheat Zydeco. Oh, and Crackhead Bob is great too!” he says.
Andy and Dave are the major writers in the group. “I write both solo and with Gary,” Andy relates. “As a personal process I usually begin with a hook or a bass line; in writing for Let ‘Em Roll, lyrics preceded the music in a couple of cases. With Gary, I usually bring lyrics and a certain feel or musical style to the table and he writes the music. But no matter who does the initial writing, the whole band takes part in the arranging and coloring of the final product.”
Let ‘Em Roll is the latest CD release from the ‘Dudes. “I love a lot of the tunes on the CD,” Dave says. “’I Wanna Be Your Lover,’ ‘One More Drink,’ and ‘Another Cloudy Day’ came out really well.” While much of the tone is upbeat, a number of the songs refer to death and dying. In fact, some of the band’s signature tunes, such as “Party When You’re Gone,” have that theme. “Traditionally, southern culture has always had a lot of gothic elements to it like supernatural influences and unstoppable human inevitability,” Andy points out. “Just watch HBO’s True Blood if you want to catch what I mean. The ups and downs of human existence, particularly those with a dark side, are part-and-parcel of New Orleans culture. So yeah, I think we picked up on that when, as the New Orleans’ Times Picayune wrote, ‘We were earning our [Mardi Gras] beads.’
“Fast-forward to the writing processes that went into Let ‘Em Roll. Throughout the year, the band’s friends and family members were dying with fearful regularity. How could that not influence the lyrics? This was not the CD we planned to make but one that developed as a result of our individual and shared experiences. However, the tunes are not without some element of redemption and, with few exceptions, the songs still maintain those grooves that people have come to know The VooDudes by.”
The future will bring more recording, more touring, and a continuation of the various local shows they perform. “I think as a band we accomplished some goals already.” Dave states. “Not many bands stay together for as many years as we’ve managed to do with families, jobs, and touring. I think people appreciate that and that keeps us going.”