Accordionist Pete Contino talks about Dick Contino, Tom Waits, Einstein, Bukowski, Tango, & the blues jazz poetry

"Keep it simple. Learn the basic language of music (or anything) and then find the most natural way to express yourself."

Pete Contino: Mix Music Gumbo

Contino's mixture of Blues, Americana, Cajun, and Roots music has earned them an ever growing fan base both in North America and Europe. Founding member, Pete Contino, son of legendary accordionist Dick Contino.
To see Contino is often like watching a train rolling at high speed down a mountain. It's frenetic, exhilarating, and you might often wonder if it's about to run off the tracks - but it never does. The band’s interaction with each other is almost instinctive; trading solos between each of the members, the band looks and sounds fluid, as if every song has taken on its own meaning. The only giveaway is when you catch them laughing and grinning. These guys have almost as much fun playing as the audience does watching and listening. This thing really does move and shake along the tracks, - like a smooth locomotive.
Their music was also used in the movie “The Fall”. Contino also had the honor of opening for Buckwheat Zydeco and Dr. John at The Fremont Street Experience downtown Las Vegas. In 2009 “Contino” did an extensive tour through Germany opening for Grammy nominated Cajun/Creole artist, Cedric Watson.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
My first gigs were playing drums in my father’s band when I was a teenager. I was with his band off and on for about 15 years. While I was on the road with him I would take his accordion back to my hotel room and mess around with it. The first songs I learned on accordion were some standard Italian tunes, a couple of jazz standards. The first blues tune I started playing at jam sessions was “Little by Little” a Junior Wells tune. 


What does the CAJUN mean to you & what does the BLUES offered you?
The blues offered me a chance to express myself. The music I was listening to at the time was more jazz oriented, I loved to listen to it but I couldn’t really play along to it. I started listening to people like John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon and for some reason that felt good, very rhythmic, very open. It felt good to play that kind of music.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
    One of the best moments was opening for Buckwheat Zydeco, I‘d followed his music for a long time so to have a chance to open for someone like that was a great experience.
    The worst moment was when I got asked to play an Italian Festival in Milwaukee. It’s a huge festival; thousands of people go to it every year. I’d played this festival many times as a drummer backing up my dad. When they heard I was playing accordion in Las Vegas I guess they thought I was going to be more like my father. At the time I was still just playing jam sessions and doing some strolling gigs. I had six months to put a show together. I put together about 14 songs, wrote out some charts. I did all different kinds of tunes, everything from Paul Butterfield’s “Love Disease” to “Fragile” by Sting. They had me on one of the main stages there. The first show was packed with a lot of my dad’s fans. By the end of the set I had maybe fifteen people. I can laugh about it now but at the time it was pretty rough.

Any of Blues / Cajun standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
I remember hearing Thelonious Monk‘s “Round Midnight” for the first time, that knocked me out. I guess that would be considered more jazz, but it opened me up to different kinds of music. I wasn’t very familiar with Cajun music until I heard
Buckwheat Zydeco, and I guess that would be considered more Creole style music, but he did a cover of “Hey Joe” that blew me away. That opened up a whole new world for me. I started listening to people like Clifton Chenier and Beau Jocque and many other great players from that genre.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
Two that stand out in my head. One was a tour we did all around Germany opening for Cedric Watson, a Grammy nominated Cajun musician/singer out of Louisiana. I learned so much from that tour and had a great time, they were very supportive of what we were doing with our music. They had their thing down. Great, great players and very cool to hang with.
    The second was a very recent tour we did through Bulgaria opening for Robben Ford. Not only is he a great player, but a great teacher. He would give seminars the next day after each gig. I got an education from that trip. They would also have a jam session each night after the gig and the place would be packed with jammers. There were some amazing players over there.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory of Buckwheat Zydeco?
My most vivid memory was a cassette tape my brother had sent me for my birthday. He told me about this guy covering Jimi Hendrix on accordion. That was when I first heard “Hey Joe.”

Are there any memories from support act for Buckwheat Zydeco & Dr. John, which you’d like to share with us?
I didn’t really get a chance to hang with them, they were playing a festival downtown here in Las Vegas, I got a call to open for them and I was very excited as was my band. I met Buckwheat Zydeco but didn’t get a chance to meet Dr. John. I did get to hang backstage and watch them perform. It was a great experience just to be around these two incredible musicians.

Which memory from your father Dick Contino makes you smile?
Man, just being on the road with him for those years was amazing. Just thinking of that whole experience makes me smile. Watching my dad with people was great, he has a charm that people love. Especially the musicians that played with him, there was always a mutual respect.

How difficult is for you to “carry” your name Contino, in the music world?
To use an old cliché, they are very big shoes to fill. His fans are hardcore, and rightfully so. My father made a huge niche with the accordion. The expectations are sometimes high, but I never try to compete with me father’s reputation.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the road with Dick’s band?
A lot of his fans were funny and interesting and very devoted. Sometimes a fan would be uncomfortable to go up to my dad and they would start asking me questions about him. I would finally grab whoever it was and drag them over to meet him. He’s very friendly, my dad, very approachable.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
The blues seems to be a vehicle for a lot of fads, it has such a strong influence. I guess you could say that fads are like make-up on the face of the blues.

Give one wish for the BLUES
I think the blues are doing fine without any help from me.

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?
That’s a tough one. Maybe Albert Einstein,  that would be an interesting hang. And he played violin, have a little jam session after he explained his theory of relativity.

Do you know why the sound of the accordion is connected to the Cajun?
I don’t know the history of that and I don‘t really want to guess.

What characterize the sound and the music philosophy of Pete Contino?
Keep it simple. Learn the basic language of music (or anything) and then find the most natural way to express yourself.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of New Orleans and the beginning of band?
It’s funny, I’ve only been to New Orleans once. It was after a gig I did in Chicago with my dad back around 1990. We flew down to New Orleans for a one night gig. It was beautiful there. I spent most of the night roaming in and out of night clubs on Bourbon Street. I’d love to go back.
    I met all the guys in my band here in Las Vegas. None of them are originally from here. When I first moved back to Vegas I was playing some drumming gigs, I fell into the blues seen here and that’s where I met all the guys in my group. I started bringing my accordion to some jam sessions. I’d already established myself as a drummer so when I asked if I could bring my accordion and jam a bit, they were cool with it. When I started getting gigs on accordion the first guy I asked to play was Rob Edwards. I’ve never seen anyone play a stand-up bass like this guy, very physical. We started collaborating on tunes together soon after he got with the group. Then I got together with Al Ek, guitar, harmonica, and vocal, and Jim Lovgren, drums. Billy Truitt, keyboards, was the last to come on board. He was an agent when I met him, not really playing much keys at the time and got us booked over in Germany. He came along as a road manager and really liked what we did. We played together a couple of times after we got back and in felt great. Billy’s the one who really got the ball rolling for the group.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
I’ve already surpassed anything I ever set out to do. Now I’m just enjoying the ride. I love to travel, I always have. Even before I started playing in my dad’s band he would take me on the road with him. I was too young to hang out in the club area so I would hang back stage at his shows. Now, with this group, its taken me over seas a few times and it’s great, meeting new people, seeing new places. It’s a beautiful world out there.

What would you ask of Tom Waits? How you would spend a day with Charles Bukowski?
Ha! That’s a great question. Man, I think I would be too dumbfounded to ask anything. Maybe ask Tom Waits where his head is right now. He’s seems to have done so much with his career, and never seems to have compromised. I’m sure he has a completely different outlook on the whole show-biz thing.
    To spend a day with Charles Bukowski, I would probably let him run the show, just tag along. Maybe have a couple of shots at his favorite bar and just listen to him talk, watch him interact with people.

How does the blues jazz poetry come out of your notes and riffs? Is there a part of the blues jazz poetry that you like most?
I like the sound of that, “blues jazz poetry.” There is a rhythm to it all, like in poetry. I like the simplicity of it, a limited number of notes but the possibilities are endless. Again, take what you know, no matter how little or how much, and express yourself the best way possible.

What is the “think” you miss most from the old days of Blues and Cajun?
I don’t really miss anything from the old days. I don‘t like to dwell on the past too much. It’s always interesting to watch music evolve, it has to evolve. I think it would get boring if it didn’t. I do appreciate and respect where the different styles of music come from though.

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: Tango & Blues?
I guess the difference would be the origin of each style. They’re both so expressive and passionate; I guess that would be the similarities. I grew up listening to a lot of blues players and was always attracted to that style of music. The first time I’d heard Tango was Astor Piazzolla. I’d never heard anything like that before. I was a huge fan right away.

Contino Band - Official Website

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