Cajun Metamorphosis 

Fiddler Tom Rigney and his band Flambeau know when to dance -- and when not to.

Berkeley fiddler Tom Rigney vividly remembers one aspect of accompanying the late folk singer Kate Wolf: "Every show I played with Kate, just before the band would go onstage, she'd turn to us and say, 'I forgot to tell you, I've got this new song I want to do and, well, it'll be okay.' And we'd go out not knowing the surprise that awaited us!"

One of Wolf's "surprise" tunes that stuck with him, "Brother Warrior," is revived in instrumental form on Rigney's new solo CD, Metamorphosis. He also recruited Wolf guitarist Nina Gerber to play on it. "I had wanted to record it for some years, and when I decided this was the place to do it, I had to get Nina in because we were there with Kate the first time she sang it." Wolf also sang at Rigney's wedding, so he finally has his tribute to her.

Rigney took his experience with Wolf to heart, and while he requires the members of his current, high-energy Cajun band Flambeau to know upwards of 100 of his compositions as well as traditional Cajun and zydeco fare, "There are nights when, if I've got a new song I really want to try out, I'll spring it on them without warning, give them a rough sketch of the chord changes, and try it onstage. That's the fun part, what makes it exciting. We do have the occasional train wreck, but even if we make a hash of something, it's just music, nobody gets hurt. You follow it up with one of your big numbers and all is forgiven!"

Rigney got a late start in music. Growing up in Walnut Creek, he earned a master's degree from Harvard in fine arts history, planning to teach. But as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he did two years of civilian service at UC Berkeley's Cowell Hospital. On the side, he began playing in bluegrass band Skunk Cabbage, discovered an affinity for the violin, then did time with zydeco star Queen Ida before forming the popular New Orleans rock-dance band Sundogs. These days he is busy with Flambeau, playing his eclectic mix of Cajun-zydeco-rock-roots tunes.

Flambeau's first gig of the new year is Saturday at 9 p.m. at Berkeley's all-ages dance hall, Ashkenaz (1317 San Pablo Ave., 525-5054), where the group made its debut in 1996. In addition to Rigney, Flambeau features pianist and accordionist Caroline Dahl, the late Charles Brown's bandleader Danny Caron on electric guitar, drummer Jimmy Sanchez, and bassist Steve Parks.

A few of the night's tunes will come from Metamorphosis, but that CD is less a dance disc than a series of heartfelt, melodic pieces recorded during the period when Tom's father, baseball great Bill Rigney, was suffering through terminal illness. Far from sad, the album -- which is dedicated to Bill -- features some of the violinist's loveliest mood pieces, gorgeous melodies, and subtly textured arrangements, played with his favorite musical sidekicks from Caron and Gerber to harmonica ace Norton Buffalo. The tunes include "Paula's Waltz" for his late mother, and a nod to Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. He is working on a Flambeau CD that will be closer to what the band does onstage.

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