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Tab Benoit's Bayou blues 

This time, it's personal

The music of New Orleans is known throughout the world. It's the birthplace of jazz, home to a musical gumbo that incorporates a diversity of ethnic styles and influences.

But when guitarist Tab Benoit (pronounced ben-WAH) was growing up in the rural wetlands community of Houma, La., his passion for music led him not to New Orleans, but due north to Baton Rouge. The area may be less famous as a music center, but it's steeped in a blues tradition that includes Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim, Tabby Thomas and others.

Benoit discovered his love for music at an early age and has spent most of his 34 years on the planet pursuing it. "My earliest memories were musical memories, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin," Benoit recalls. "I remember feeling really drawn in by that when I was 5, 6, 7 years old. I remember how I felt when I found out that Ray Charles was blind. I still feel that way when I see him."

Benoit found a lesson in the resilience and joy of Charles' music, despite the pianist's blindness. It's a lesson he extends to blues music in general.

"His music didn't sound down. [I realized that] blues wasn't music to bring you down," Benoit says. "It was music to bring you up -- dance music; happy, 'celebrate life' music; music that says, 'This is life. It ain't heaven, it ain't perfect. It wasn't supposed to be in the first place.'"

There was no jumping blues scene in the boggy bayou of Houma. "The road in front of my house ends at the swamp," Benoit says. "And you go some more in a boat and reach the Gulf."

So Benoit began traveling two hours to Baton Rouge to play at Tabby Thomas' Blues Box club, where he found kindred spirits in Thomas, Raful and Kenny Neal, and others. "Tabby said, 'We don't play no rock 'n' roll here; we don't play nothing but the blues here," Benoit recalls. "I said, 'Man, I've been waiting to hear that all my life.'"

Soon, against Thomas' "don't sign nothing!" advice, Benoit inked a deal with Texas-based Justice Records, recording and performing in a guitar-centric style that invoked inevitable comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and others. "At that time [1992], people were looking for the next Stevie Ray -- someone to take his place," Benoit says.

His record label and his producers "used [Vaughan] as a marketing tool. It was easy -- too easy. It wasn't going to work. I'd seen too many copy guys, and I didn't want to be associated with that."

Benoit reflects on that time -- and his first two recordings -- with chagrin and regret, because he didn't have control over his music or his image. But the guitarist acknowledges he learned plenty as a result of the experience.

You can hear the difference in his latest recording, Wetlands, which captures the energy and flavor of blues, Cajun (sans accordion) and other roots influences in a personal, contemporary fashion. The plainly derivative Albert King/Stevie Ray signature licks are nowhere to be found. It's no overstatement to say that the album is an artistic breakthrough for Benoit.

"I'm trying to make sure that whatever I feel in my heart gets to the people through the music, and that nothing gets in the way of that," says Benoit. "I'm putting more of myself into it -- and when it get more personal, it's going to mean more."

Tab Benoit performs Thurs., April 11, at Darwin's, 1598 Roswell Road, Marietta. 9 p.m. $12. 770-578-6872. www.darwinsblues.com.

This column covers music outside the Perimeter. E-mail or mail "outside" music news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045.

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