Louisiana native Tab Benoit has become such a large part of the Baton Rouge-New Orleans blues community that his music and career is virtually indistinguishable from the region he's identified with. While the talented songwriter and guitarist has often incorporated elements of swamp-rock, country, and Cajun music into his original vision of the blues, he has also become an outspoken and effective advocate for wetlands conversation and the victims of Hurricane Katrina, his social activism as heartfelt as his music.
After spending the early 1990s on an indie label, Benoit signed with the venerable Telarc Records as the decade was coming to a close. He released Homesick For The Road in 1999 and, from that point on, Benoit has released an album almost every year, ten in all, building a worldwide audience. Not for nothing has Benoit twice been named The Blues Foundation's "B.B. King Entertainer of the Year." With a fat catalog of great blues and roots music under his belt, it only makes sense that Telarc should honor the prolific and popular bluesman with the Legacy compilation, which collects 14 of Benoit's best tracks on a single disc for the hardcore and fair-weather fan alike.
Tab Benoit's Legacy
The songs on Legacy aren't presented in chronological order, so we start out with "Shelter Me," a forceful swamp-blues dirge from 2007's Power of the Pontchartrain album. Backed by Louisiana's LeRoux, Benoit delivers a scorching performance that mixes a down-n-dirty soundtrack with soulful vocals to great effect; the result is so earthy that you'd swear you were knee-deep in cypress and swamp water while listening. Jump back to 2004 and "Night Train," from Fever For The Bayou, with Benoit leading a three-piece band that puts the muscle back into the power-trio concept. The song itself is a rolling, roaring locomotive with Darryl White's powerhouse drums fueling the rhythms while Benoit lays down some greasy guitar licks and gruff, hurried vocals. Benoit's spirited solo less than two minutes into this high-octane rocker shows him to be a vastly underrated blues guitarist.
Legacy features around a 50-50 mix of Benoit's lively originals versus well-worn covers, but the odds are good that you've not heard Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" tossed around like a ragdoll, as it was on Benoit's 1999 debut. Capably assisted by fellow Louisiana music legend Kenny Neal, Benoit infuses the song with a bluesy malevolence missing from many cover versions, playing down the rock 'n' roll elements in favor of a slow-burning fuse approach. With Bruce Katz's eerie organ riffs chiming away in the background, and Neal's solid rhythm guitar as a backdrop, Benoit lets his freak flag fly with a series of short, shocking solos guaranteed to singe your eardrums.
The Blues Is Here To Stay
Stephen Still's classic Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth" may seem an unlikely cover, but Benoit blues it up nicely, slowing down the pace and discarding the country-rock vibe in favor of a twangy blues-rock sound that relies heavily on Louisiana LeRoux's enormous instrumental textures, on top of which Benoit lays down some smoky vocals and sizzling fretwork. Benoit was joined for his 2002 album Whiskey Store by fellow axe-mangler Jimmy Thackery, formerly of the Nighthawks and a successful solo artist in his own right. The two guitar virtuosos are backed by Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble cohorts for the positively SRV-styled "Nice And Warm," a Benoit original that rocks and rolls with jazzy intensity and a blues-rock heart. The chemistry between the two guitarists is natural and carefree, which would later lead to a live album featuring the two talents.
Benoit is joined by one of New Orleans' favorite sons, Cyril Neville, for "The Blues Is Here To Stay." Co-written by Neville with Norman Ceasar and the great Taj Mahal, the song is a sort of inspired history of modern blues music, Benoit and Neville swapping verses, both singers bringing a lot of joy to the lyrics as the guitarist adds his Delta-inspired, New Orleans-forged fretwork to play in the margins. Benoit displays a different side of his talents with a soulful cover of Otis Redding's classic "These Arms Of Mine," from 2002's Wetlands. Slowing down a bit to a grueling, heartbreaking pace, Benoit doesn't mimic the Stax Records legend as much as pay tribute with a powerful, emotional vocal performance that is bolstered by his elegant guitarwork. Working with fellow bluesman Anders Osborne, Benoit and crew stomp and stammer all over the title track to his 2011 album Medicine, the performance resulting in a blistering, swampadelic houserocker.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
As somebody much wiser than myself once said, "too much of a good thing is never enough," and in my mind you just can't get too much Benoit in your listening diet. My only bellyache about Legacy is that while the album's tracklist pulls from all ten of Benoit's Telarc albums, six albums are only represented by a single song. An artist of Benoit's stature in the blues community could have easily carried a two-disc "best of" set and offered up a couple songs apiece from all ten platters. That minor cavil aside, Legacy is both a wonderful introduction to this talented and revered bluesman for the newcomer, and a welcome reminder of Tab Benoit's talents for the long-time fan. (Telarc Records, released April 3, 2012)
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