Step aside Tabasco, Cajun bluesman Tab Benoit is rapidly becoming Louisiana’s hottest export.
In a rare west-coast appearance, Benoit brings his brand of swampy blues to Three Stages at Folsom Lake College in Folsom on May 25. Opening the show is local feel-good world music crew Mumbo Gumbo, who sound as fresh today as they did when they broke on the Northern California music scene 20 years ago.
Benoit was recently named best Contemporary Male Artist of 2012 and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, dominating the Blues Music Awards held earlier this month in Memphis. His most recent album, “Medicine,” took the Best Contemporary Blues Album award.
He’s also a tireless advocate for Louisiana’s shrinking wetlands, the founder and driving force behind Voice of the Wetlands. See related story.
Born in Houma, La., Benoit broke in at ramshackle Baton Rouge nightclubs as a teenager in the mid-1980s. He steadily improved, developing solid guitar skills and a Cajun-infused vocal attack.
By 2000 he was recognized as one of the rising stars of modern blues music, prompting comparisons to blues guitar heavyweights like Albert King, Albert Collins and even Jimi Hendrix. But he maintained a commitment to his Cajun roots, a goal that, according to his official biography, “often eluded him when past producers and promoters tried to turn him in a rock direction, often against his better instincts.”
At 44 years old, he’s just entering his prime with a mature blues growl, stellar musicianship and the looks of a heart-throb new-country star rather than the veteran New Orleans bluesman he’s become.
Along the way, Benoit has earned a stable full of friends eager to play with him. His Voice of the Wetlands benefit tours have become a who’s who of Louisiana roots music.
The line-up on “Medicine,” his first album in nearly four years, is no exception. Bassist Corey Duplechin plays with Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band; Ivan Neville is on the Hammond B-3 organ. He’s the son of Aaron Neville and the leader Dumstaphunk. Drummer Brady Blade’s resúmé includes the Dave Matthews Band, and on fiddle is the legendary Michael Doucet, whose Cajun revivalists Beausoleil are considered the best Cajun band in the world.
Doucet and Carrier will join Benoit in Folsom.
Swedish-by-way-of-New-Orleans songwriter and musician Anders Osborne co-wrote seven of the album’s 11 songs with Benoit.
The album came together organically, he said. “We weren’t trying to structure things. Most of the stuff here was played live; these are mostly first takes.”
“Medicine” debuted in April at No. 1 on iTunes and No. 2 on Amazon. Pretty good first takes, Tab.
Legend has it that a young guitar student once asked B.B King which single guitarist he should study. The King of the Blues famously answered “Tab Benoit.” In an unusual twist, Osborne plays B.B. King’s guitar, “Lucille,” on the album.
The opener and title cut, “Medicine,” is a dark blues rocker that kicks off with a guitar solo that feels like a shot of Jack Daniels going down.
The ensuing lyrics imply something even stronger. “Let music be the medicine,” said Benoit in a recent interview. “Like John Lee Hooker once said, ‘Blues is the healer.’”
Stylistically, the album is a mix of blues-rock, Cajun and slower, vintage 1960s soul numbers.
Lyrically, it’s equally diverse. After its bone-rattling first track, the album shuffles between gritty blues and soul elegies for the lost wetlands and upbeat Cajun and blues-rock “boy meets girl” themes, culminating with “In it to win it,” a hard-driving blues song that’s both autobiographical and inspirational.
“Whole lotta’ soul,” is an R&B number that asks:
“What’s the matter with the place we live in?
Did mother nature get it wrong?
Arrest the delta in the name of changing
Dig it till it’s dead and gone.”
The song builds like a tropical storm in the gulf, then rains down a potent lament:
“What you gonna’ tell the children?
What you gone tell the trees?
What you gone tell the spirit,
when the heart of the delta bleeds?”
The album is spiked with sunnier numbers that let Michael Doucet cut loose on fiddle. “Mudboat Melissa” is the bayou version of the classic “hot girl in a hotter car” story that swaps out the T-bird for a shallow-draft swamp boat.
“Can’t you see” is a grinning mix of Tex-Mex and Cajun that plays out a similarly classic narrative: “girl leaves boy; boy whines.” The couple’s future is left to Doucet, who employs his haunting French yodel in the final two verses.
“Nothing takes the place of you” is a classic 1960’s soul number that might have appeared on the B side of a Jackie Wilson single.
“In it to win it,” tells Benoit’s story, with some advice along the way:
“You gotta’ get in it to win it
Life is a game you play.
Get in it to win it.
Before you waste away.”
A scorching blues guitar solo drives the point home.
“Broke and Lonely” is a second-line strut that lets Benoit show off his chortle and demonstrate just how far he’s come as a vocalist.
Tab Benoit has become the quintessential Louisiana roots artist, serving up a rich gumbo of indigenous blues, Cajun, rock, soul and country music — all performed with a raw tone and honest grit that will continue to propel a career that’s already in the express lane.
His commitment to Louisiana wetlands preservation makes touring difficult. Promoter Mary Carrera said she’s been trying to book him for years, and is delighted to host him at the spectacular Three Stages Theater in Folsom.
Tickets are available at the Three Stages website, threestages.net, for $20, $30 and $40. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Carrera expects another in her string of sellouts at Three Stages.
As with many of her productions, a portion of proceeds from this event will benefit the Sacramento Blues Society’s Blues in the Schools program and the Folsom Lake College Foundation.