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The first time I heard Tab Benoit (Ben'-wa) was in the mid-1990's at a small town festival in Southeastern Louisiana where there are usually several festivals, fairs, and functions to choose from each weekend. I had previously heard the musician's name and I had associated it with the South Louisiana Blues scene, a genre in which I had immersed myself for a time and continue to deeply appreciate.
That day at the Blueberry Festival in Covington, Louisiana, not only did I hear Tab Benoit for the first time, I left as a Tab Benoit fan. Initially, I had my doubts after making my way to the small stage at the appointed time. Once there, I observed only a set of drums, a well-worn Fender Telecaster Thinline on a guitar stand, and one microphone. I immediately lowered my expectations. However, as I listened to Tab Benoit's rich voice, which he can turn rough as gravel at just the right moments, and heard him make sounds with the Telecaster that many can only dream of, I thought maybe the drummer was just there for show.
The Blues of Southeastern Louisiana
When referring to the blues of South, and particularly Southeastern Louisiana, it is a variation of a species. Some call it the Swamp Blues. Just as the Chicago Blues differ from the Detroit Blues and the Kansas City Blues differ from the Memphis blues, and both differ from the St. Louis Blues and the Piedmont Blues, yet they all have an element of the Mississippi Delta Blues, the blues sound of Southeastern Louisiana has its own flavor. That is not to say sound is limited to a location. On any given night in New Orleans one can probably locate venues featuring each type and all the ones that fall in between.
Though the roots of blues music extend back in time to Africa and beyond, a delta blue's guitarist by the name of Robert Johnson is often credited with the birth of the blues and as the legend goes he had a hidden partner in the deal. Though I am no way comparing the two, Benoit's guitar playing style is much like that I have heard on early Johnson recordings. In those old tin sound recordings, Johnson plays his own bass line and rhythm, sometimes with chords that are foreign to the rest of the guitar-playing world. He the breaks into a lead riff when the time is right. At times, he seems to play to a beat that only he can hear. I suppose he was a jazz man too. Benoit's guitar playing style covers these same aspects which accounted for the lack of accompanying instruments on stage the day I first heard his music.
For many of the blues musicians who learn their music in and around the New Orleans/Baton Rouge corridor, their local contingent of fans is limited while their fan-base in other countries is much larger. There have been a few Louisiana players who have had a measure of national success in the last couple of years; Chris Thomas King, Kenny Neal, and, to a limited extent, Larry Garner. Of course several others have already garnered legendary status.
Benoit is stuck on the cusp of moving to the next level, but may be limited due to his bluesiana sound that keeps a player from making the national scene, just as some Hollywood hopefuls are limited to life-long roles of character actorsthose seen in hundreds of television shows, and quite a number of big-screen films where they play their roles to a tee as they compliment the acting of the stars, yet you can never remember their name---if you ever knew it. This also seemed to be the case, along with personal problems, of another South Louisiana Swamp-Pop artist, Wayne Toups.
Tab Benoit and Wetlands
Tab Benoit grew up Houma, Louisiana, which is a bit northwest of the New Orleans area. However else you may label his style of music it will always have the accent of his Cajun roots. Some of his songs are given over totally to his heritage. Thrown into is musical melange are varying proportions of the blues, swamp-pop,New Orleans jazz music, country-rock, and zydeco. The proportions change with each song. In short, Benoit's music is bluesiana.
The Wetlands CD, recorded in 2002, is not Benoit's first. It is his sixth, chronologically, in a total of fifteen recorded. I would venture that most of this musician's CD's are sold during his live appearances and to his local fan base.. Benoit has also been a guest player on many other recordings by other, many of them famous, musicians. On this CD, Benoit mixes some of his own songs with familiar tunes of old, but all have the signature of his voice and guitar. In addition to his own guest musician's, Benoit is accompanied by the only two members of his road band, bassist, Carl Dufrene and drummer, Darryl White, both accomplished musicians.
The first song on the CD is one of Tabs own, in Fast and Free Benoit seems to be singing of his own career, yet there is nothing specific to that meaning. The upbeat song, as is most of Benoit's music, is saturated with guitar. He sings, ...and its a good thing I didn't wanna be anxious, and its a good thing that I'm ready to roll, because nothing that was ever worth while, chile, came fast and free to my soul.. Though sometimes difficult to classify Benoit's songs as a type of music, I venture to say this song is Cajun-rock with a tint of a blues style, especially on the guitar leads.
Though a Benoit original,Stackolina is reminiscent of a delta blues tune with an economy of lyrics which serves as a frame to the music. However, the song could just as easily be labeled Cajun in its roots, as some of vocal sounds are famously tied to Cajun music. Upbeat in tempo, this song reflects a bit of the Johnson playing style. I enjoy the good dose of harmonica that accompanies Benoit's guitar on this cut.
The third song, I Got Loaded is, in spite of the CD jacket's credits to Peppermint Harris, is not an exact copy of the Harris original. However it is the re-make of a version of the tune first presented by Lil Bob and The Lollipops. No matter what or who was first, Benoit's version is heavy with guitar and Cajun seasonings, making it just the right beat for the Cajun Jig or Jitterbug, forever a popular dance down on the bayou.
Benoit's tempo only slows a bit as he sings The Muddy Bottom Blues, another original by the artist who, in all likelihood has had direct experience in attempting to struggle through the thick mud of of the swamplands. If you have ever tried to walk through swamp land with a soft bottom, or through areas referred to as gumbo mud you may understand the singer's dilemma and the songs double entendre' of being stuck in a predicament with one's fate sealed. Benoit sings I've got the muddy bottom blues and I'm just tryin' to get through... He laments of his predicament of being stuck on muddy ground, singing, It's too soft to walk and too hard to swim. He notes the futility of crying for help in the deep swamp. Finally, as the sun lowers, the ill fated swamp man sings, I've got the muddy bottom blues and I'll never break free...and that gator's eye is on me, that gator's eye on me.
With the fifth song on the CD, Benoit puts on the brakes for a slow original, When a Cajun Man Gets the Blues. This is, by far, my favorite song on this CD. In it, Benoit pulls off a sound that matches the title in its style...Cajun Blues. He opens with the lamentation, My cherie she has left me for good, after I gave my love for so long.
She's out there with somebody new and I just can't sit here alone...no.
But its so hard to drive
with these tears in my eyes
and its such a long way to get to Baton Rouge.
But all I want is to hear somebody play my song:
When a Cajun man gets the blues...
In part, the song is a tribute to Louisiana, as Benoit manages to work in the names of several cities and towns across the state into its lyrics. The song closes with his roots calling him home:
When I'm feeling the pain,
the bayou is calling my name
and that's an offer I just can't refuse.
Oh, its hard to miss you Louisiana,
when a Cajun man gets the blues.
Not one to keep a slow tempo for more than one song, Benoit launches into another original song, a Cajun swamp-pop, blues number entitled Too Sweet For Me. This is the type of song that will immediately get a South Louisiana crowd up and moving toward the dance floor for a Cajun Jig. Here Tab sings about a woman that treats him like gold when gold is not what he deserves.
Down In The Swamp keeps the tempo high. This is a Benoit original in which he sings of his home among the swamps and waterways. In expressing his need to return to the place where he spent his childhood he tells the listener, ...you can come on down and look for me, way back in the swamp is where I'll be...
Usually, I have a disdain for remakes of tunes that have received widespread acclaim by other artists. However, Tab Benoit's recording of These Arms of Mine, is one exception. Relying much more heavily on his guitar to provide most of the music for the tune than the original version made famous by the late Otis Redding, as well as slowing its tempo a bit more, my wife and I agree that Benoit's voice possibly improves this heart-breaking classic hit. My wife describes his voice in this belly-rubbin' music as rough and romantic
Dog Hill where the pretty women at. once again speeds up the musical tempo. In this Zydeco tune, by the late Boozoo Chaves , Benoit, with his guitar prowess recreates the original washboard sounds of Chaves. The song's opening sounds much like a second-line tune of a Dixie Jazz Band as it begins. This tune, one of the few on the CD with background vocals has an economy of lyrics and seems to made just for good-time, dancing.
The next song on the CD is one really I really enjoy. Her Mind Is Gone, a Professor Longhair original, features yet another upbeat tune with humorous lyrics. It spans the time of a man meeting a new girl, to love gone wrong, and finally, all the way to giving relationship advice: I ain't gone tell no story, I ain't gonna say no more, but if you get a woman like I had, down the road you'll go!Cause her mind is gone! Yes, Her mind is gone. Once a woman starts doin' wrong, she won't do right no more!
Love's Lips comes as close opening with a pure, slow, blues lick than any other cut on this CD. However, it does not take long, at least for my ear, to hear other elements of his musical heritage to enter the song. This is yet another tune that would have any South Louisiana crowd up and moving toward the dance floor to do a slow Cajun two-step as Tab tells his cherie, ...honey, when you talkin' like this you're speaking true love.
Benoit's last original on the CD is another high energy song called Let Love Take Control. The lyrics are about the age-old trust issue that pulls us back and forth between protecting our hearts from the potential pain of exposure and rejection or diving in to learn if you sink or swim. Of course, as the title says, Benoit believes if you want real love nothing can be held back. If you ever want to be happy....you better find some. If you ever want to be free...you better get you some.....I'm talking about love, good ole love....give up your heart and soul and let love take control.
For the last tune, Benoit teams with another area musician and the song's creator, Anders Osborne, in a slow and winding tune called Georgia. No, it is not any of the Georgia's you may have previously heard. This acoustic beauty which lasts over seven minutes, is of yet another Georgia. Benoit and Osborne soulfully sing and with Osborne and Brian Stoltz of the Funky Meters teaming up on bottled neck slides, create the mood to match the songs ultimate question: ....Georgia, won'tcha' take me home? This beautiful and soulful song sounds as if it were being played by three friends down da bayou at dey camp---and it only adds to the beauty of the song.
More than his abilities on the guitar and his rough and romantic voice, Tab Benoit has a greater thing going for him. He has a passion for what he does. Though less able to tell on his recordings than in his live shows, it is easy to see Benoit's passion, and perhaps need, to play and sing. It is easy for me to imagine that had he not pursued a career in music, it would still be the axis around which his life revolved. You can check out the ton of pictures on his website: tabbenoit.com. You will notice in each photo that is taken of him while he is performing, he is definitely caught up in his passion.
However, fortunately for us, Benoit did pursue a career in music and brings us a perfect blend of geographical musical influences that produce a sound that is unique to him. Unfortunately, the same unique sound may limit his chances of ever making the big time which reduces his chances to record in the best studios, using the best equipment. That is the one drawback to this CD. It is recorded on what sounds to be a tight budget, as it lacks the polish of the best recording that money can buy. However, do not let that stop you from enjoying Benoit's music.
As an aside, if Tab Benoit's voice and guitar playing ability were not enough, Benoit is cursed with handsomeness. His dark complexion, dark hair, and dark eyes reflect his Cajun ancestry. He is the type that can go two days without shaving only to have it improve his chiseled good looks. As a measure, there are only two stars that inspire my wife to get that ga-ga look in her eye when she sees them. The first is singer/musician, Randy Travis. Guess who runs a very close second....
Thanks for Reading,
Note: A special thanks to miller1611 for the inspiration to break ground in yet another category!