EL CASINO'S SURE BET: Longtime Tucson residents will be most pleased to learn that after almost nine years of dormancy, the fabled El Casino Ballroom awakens this week renewed from its slumber.

For the uninitiated, the El Casino is one of those venues that's almost as important as the show it's hosting. Whether it's the general layout of the building -- rows and rows of tables surrounding a giant, old-fashioned wooden dance floor -- or just a case of good feng shui, the room was always one of the best places in town to see a live performance. Those who've been to the El Casino can recall in detail which shows they've seen there, whether it was the Blues Traveler/Widespread Panic double bill, the huge blues extravaganza headlined by a stately Willie Dixon shortly before he passed away, or, for that matter, the Pixies/Pere Ubu show that was scheduled at the Ballroom on Saturday, November 2, 1991, but never took place because a storm literally blew the roof off the building weeks prior. (The Pixies show eventually occurred a few months later at the UA Ballroom, and was one of the last -- if not the last -- times the band headlined a show).

So for the past eight years-plus there've been whispered rumors about the fate of the El Casino: it's nearly up to code; it's never reopening; it's reopening next week. And so we report with a certain sense of glee that the day has finally come, Thursday, April 13, and that the show booked for the grand reopening couldn't be more fitting.

If the defining feature of the El Casino is its wooden dance floor, then Buckwheat Zydeco is the perfect band to rechristen it.

Born Stanley Dural Jr. in 1947 in a Creole community in Lafayette, Louisiana, "Buckwheat" grew up on zydeco, a hybrid of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, blues, soul, rock, country, and the ever-important ingredient of the French-rooted Cajun music of the Creoles' white neighbors. But the accordion- and rubboard-fueled sounds of zydeco were strictly regional music, and though Dural's father was a zydeco accordionist, Buckwheat was also exposed to the blues and Gulf Coast swamp pop sounds indigenous to the area. In the late '60s, Dural began playing keyboards professionally, performing sideman duties for the likes of Joe Tex and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, before starting his own R&B/funk combo, Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers.

But by the mid-'70s, things came full circle when zydeco and Cajun music, once deemed too "ethnic" for mass consumption, began to be recognized as a national treasure. As the demand grew for zydeco bands, Dural was offered a gig playing Hammond B3 organ for the late Clifton Chenier, the man most responsible for the zydeco renaissance, acknowledged even today as the King of Zydeco. Following his three-year apprenticeship under Chenier, Dural left the fold in 1979 to play accordion for his own band, in which, like Chenier, he blended traditional Creole zydeco with updated black music genres, most noticeably incorporating the blues and funk styles he had learned earlier in his career.

Since that time, Buckwheat Zydeco has become the greatest success story zydeco music has ever seen. In 1987 Buckwheat became the first zydeco artist to sign with a major record label, Island Records, which is credited with first exposing reggae music to an American audience via Bob Marley. And last year, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his band, Dural became the first zydeco artist to start his own record label, Tomorrow Recordings, whose first release was The Buckwheat Zydeco Story: A 20-Year Party, the first retrospective release to cull tracks from all of the labels Buckwheat has recorded for over the years: Black Top, Rounder, and Island. And he's done it completely on his own terms; while he was once villified by purists for performing zydeco versions of well-known rock and blues standards (Eric Clapton guested on his cover of Derek & the Dominos' "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?," for example), Buckwheat has indeed made zydeco ready for the mainstream, and vice-versa, without sacrificing the integrity of the spirit of traditional Creole zydeco.

Just try and keep from dancing on that giant wooden floor when Buckwheat Zydeco takes the stage of the mighty El Casino Ballroom, 437 E. 26th St., on Thursday, April 13. Showtime is 8 p.m., and The French Quarter starts serving authentic Louisiana chow at 6:30 p.m. Free zydeco dance lessons begin at 7 p.m. Advance tickets are available for $16 at Hear's Music, Antigone Books, and by calling 297-9133. Tickets will be on sale for $18 at the door, but get there early: they're going fast.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: If you long for the sort of earnest singer/songwriters that seem to have flooded the market in the '70s, but have been in short supply ever since -- think a bluesier John Prine, James Taylor or Gordon Lightfoot, even subdued Springsteen -- look no further than recent Tucson transplant Eric Hansen's new release, Real Slow (Half Moon Full Star Records).

Hansen, who suffers from a rare and under-diagnosed genetic disease called Alpha1-Antitrypsin Deficiency (A1AD), relocated to Tucson from New York City (where he enjoyed a fanbase from his frequent appearances at the local cabarets) following his diagnosis, because he needed a healthier environment to aid his decreasing lung capacity, which now stands at less than 45 percent. You would never know it from his delivery, which ranges from the topical ("Suntan and a Cellular Phone"), to the heart-wrenching ("Take My Hand"), to the whimsically political ("Charlie The Frog"), to the celebratory ("I've Got You"). Above all, the songs are heartfelt and the guy is sincere, and that goes a long way in the irony-drenched climate we've all gotten so accustomed to.

Come celebrate the release of Eric Hansen's Real Slow at 7 p.m. Friday, April 14, at Borders Books and Music, 4235 N. Oracle Road. Admission is free, and you can call 292-1331 for details.

STRAIGHT DOPE: Though the focus of the Tucson Jazz Society's Plaza Suite Spring series this year is swing music in all of its incarnations, this Sunday's installment takes a breather from the theme with an appearance by Santa Fe's Straight Up. The group, which originally began as a trio, is now a fully operational sextet -- as long as you count the occasional vocal contribution from Wendy Beach (she sings three out of nine tracks on the band's self-released debut CD, Live Jazz in The Desert). For my taste, though, it's the instrumental tracks that truly shine here, from the post-bop take on Ralph Moore's "Hopscotch" to the disc's only two original tunes, "Blue Charlie" and "Blues For Kahli," both penned by pianist Bob Fox, and both highlights among standards by the likes of Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea. These guys cook, plain and simple.

Check out Straight Up at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 16, at St. Philip's Plaza, at Campbell Avenue and River Road. Tickets are $11 at the door, $6 for TJS members. For more information, call 903-1265.

GOSPEL GLAMOUR: Do I have the ears of the congregation?

Can I get an "Amen"?

Brothers and sisters, I am not here to try and convince you to go see lame rock and roll shows where the band onstage dresses just like you and me, but fronts attitudes of untouchability. No, my friends, I am here to command -- I say command! -- you to go see a band where there is no barrier, no unspoken fourth wall, but a well-dressed gospel yeh-yeh band of the highest order, one that will dispel any doubts or myths you might bear towards the radicalization of the populace as a whole. I ask you to join The Make Up congregation, to participate in the heights of cathartic ecstasy that The Make Up delivers, one town at a time, one room at a time, and I beg that you take part in this ritual until you walk away from the experience a convert, a true believer.

Translation for the L7s: The Make Up appears with legendary K Records honcho Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Sub Debs at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole. Admission is $7 at the door, and you are invited to call 884-0874 with any further inquiries.

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