Although Cubs fans might not believe it, Chicago can throw one hell of a curveball, be it running into a long-lost friend at the grocery store, adoring a food you never tried before or coming across a zydeco band playing to no one.
No one. Not a soul. There was a stage. There was a sound guy. There was a band with accordion and fiddle and hot Cajun sound. There were barricades and those bank-line ropes setting off where the audience should be. There was everything needed for a zydeco concert except for anyone to watch.
It was a shivery, chalk-colored day just before the one-week period between head cold and heat stroke that Chicagoans call “spring.” I was pedaling my bike through the rain to the lake path when I could swear I heard an accordion.
But there it was again. An accordion. And a fiddle. And… is that a washboard?
To the right, bike. To the right.
I found the phantom accordion outside the new children’s hospital on the Northwestern University Hospital campus. But it wasn’t a phantom. It was a very real accordion attached to a very real accordion player fronting a very real five-piece zydeco band — MOJO & The Bayou Gypsies.
Mister Mojo, as I later find out he’s called, was both lead singer and accordionist extraordinaire. Under his feather-clad hat, Mojo whooped and wailed and kept the band as taut as a speeding train — the one you think is seconds away from flying off the rails but never does.
Nope, the accordion wasn’t phantom. Nor were the guitar, bass, fiddle, drums or “frottoir” (rubboard), the last of these played by a women I later find is called “Zydeco T. Carrier” — another curveball.
The only thing phantom was the crowd. Mojo, Zydeco T. and the rest played to no one.
“What is this?” I called to them after they wrapped a song about how “we’re going to whip it up in Chicago today.”
Mister Mojo smiled to me and rattled off a description of that morning’s 5K to benefit the new children’s hospital. They had been hired to play the after show, the after show no one went to because it was too cold.
I kept shouting questions — my interview technique being somewhere between Studs Terkel and the dog Atticus Finch shot — until Mojo told me to e-mail him for a free CD and smiled at the band.
“We should keep playing fast because I can’t feel my fingers at all,” he joked stage-banter loud.
And then they did, taking off into another zydeco whirlwind, playing perfectly to a crowd that never showed.
Yes, Chicago can throw some curveballs, show some things you would never expect, I thought later as I pedaled down the lake path behind a man dressed as a carrot and another dressed as a rabbit. (I hope to god they were coming from the 5K.)
But hopefully, if you’re as good, as practiced and professional as MOJO & The Bayou Gypsies, when life hurls you one of those curveballs, you swing at it and knock it out of the park.
Written in May 2012