New Orleans marching to Aspen
ASPEN Tab Benoit says he hasnt written many songs lately, and precious few songs about the issue that seems nearest to his heart, the precarious state of the Gulf Coast.Benoit has been busy recording at his steady album-a-year-pace; touring with his own band and also doing dates as frontman of the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars. He also serves as president of the nonprofit group, Voice of the Wetlands.Fortunately, Benoit jumped on the issues confronting the Gulf Coast early, both as an artist and an activist. In 1995, a decade before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf region including Houma, La., the town some 50 miles southwest of New Orleans where he has lived all of his 40 years Benoit released Standing on the Bank. The album revealed that at least part of the singers mind was on the land he had grown up on: Songs included Rainy Day Blues and the title track; the cover was an ominous black-and-white image of some branches sticking out of a swamp.Over the years, he maintained his interest in the environment of the region, with such albums as Wetlands (2002); Fever for the Bayou (2005); and last years Power of the Pontchartrain, whose title refers to the massive lake that flooded its banks in late August 2005, wreaking havoc on neighboring New Orleans.And in January 2005, seven months before the storm, Benoit hooked up with a southern Louisiana supergroup, including Dr. John, Neville Brothers singer-percussionist Cyril Neville and others to release Voice of the Wetlands. The album, with songs like Clean Water and We Aint Gonna Lose No More (Without a Fight), was an overt call to arms, pointing to the impending danger caused by poor design of levees, political and business decisions that favored commerce over people, and a lack of preparedness for when the big one ultimately hit. As it turned out, Katrina hit in between the making of Voice of the Wetlands and the CDs release in September 2005.So, despite not having the time to write new songs about the fragile Gulf environment, Benoits got plenty of relevant tunes to sing. Unlike most in the area, Benoit was preparing for the storm, foresaw the horrific results, and stockpiled the necessities in his case, songs.These concerns were always in there, said Benoit, speaking with the frantic passion of a man on a mission, by phone from Denver. Ive been singing about Louisiana since my first record. Ive been watching our land wash away my whole life. Beautiful swamps, where I walked and camped, are gone; theyre open water. And this isnt ancient history. This is in my life.Benoit has made it his lifes work to do something about that situation, both in his music and away from it. Around the turn of the millennium, he began attending public meetings in Houma, in which representatives of oil companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), levee boards and more would gather to inform the community of what was being done to protect the region. Benoit was amazed to hear what the politicians and businessmen had to say, and alarmed that few of his neighbors showed up to listen.If the public had been showing up, they might have jumped up and started screaming, said Benoit. Because the main concern there was not people; its commerce. They werent talking about things the way we wanted to hear. This was years before Katrina.And these kinds of things showed their face with Katrina. We saw how people were left for five days, to die, because they were rescuing refineries and the ports. And this was the way it was talked about before Katrina. Anybody who heard what we heard would have been shocked.Friends tried to persuade Benoit to enter the official political fold. He saw the sense in that: Because politics is the start to all this. The Corps of Engineers started this, not building the levees right. Someone, somewhere along the line decided to do that, and that was a political decision. And getting it fixed is a political thing. I really looked into it, really thought about it. If it took someone like me, with a voice, to dive into it, then OK.Ultimately, Benoit came to the conclusion that politics move too slowly especially in the face of wetlands that are being lost at the rate of an acre an hour. Moreover, he already had a voice, as a well-known musician, and believed that singing the blues, singing about the Louisiana swamps, would get the message out quicker and more effectively.I felt if I got into politics, it would choke down the voice I already had as a musician, he said. And I could gather other musicians to make our voices bigger and better and easier to hear.Benoit had already been into the practice of gathering musicians. Over his career, the singer and guitarist has shown a tendency to collaborate, mostly with other Louisianans. His 14 albums have featured the band Louisianas Leroux, New Orleans singer-songwriter Anders Osborne, fiddler Waylon Thibodeaux and more; he has also shared credit on two albums with fellow bluesman Jimmy Thackery. But with a focus on the very land he lived on, Benoit made the biggest, most devoted collaborative effort of his career. For the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars, launched in the early 2000s, he gathered Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Meters bassist George Porter, Jr., drummer Johnny Vidacovich, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and harmonica player Jumpin Johnny Sansone, as well as Osborne and Thibodeaux, to form the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars.In addition to recording the Voice of the Wetlands CD, the Allstars have toured a bit and played numerous benefit dates. The next set of dates are in the Rocky Mountains on Sunday, Aug. 24, at both the Democratic National Convention and the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver; on Wednesday, Aug. 27, at Belly Up Aspen; and at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts in Wyoming on Friday, Aug. 29.Featured in the Aspen show are the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars. The group will be without Dr. John, but his absence should be overcome by the wealth of additional players on the bill. Among the players for the show, a benefit for Voice of the Wetland Foundation and the Tipitinas Foundation, are three quarters of the originals Meters Porter, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and guitarist Leo Nocentelli; funk player Walter Wolfman Washington; pianist Henry Butler; the trio of saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr., sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, and trumpeter James Andrews, billed as the New Orleans Brass Allstars; and singers Lauren Barrett and Mary McBride. The show also features a second-line parade with the Soul Rebels Brass Band and the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians. Non-Louisianans in the show include Widespread Panic keyboardist JoJo Herman and Woody Creeker John Oates. (The lineup shifts from date to date; Benoit will not be part of the Jackson Hole show.)
Such musical forces have been critical to New Orleans slow, painful recovery over the last three years. In the wake of the storm, many of the citys musicians were forced out of town. Their homes, disproportionately clustered in the washed-away neighborhoods of Gentilly, the Lower Ninth and the Seventh Ward, were destroyed; on top of that, there were few gigs to be had in town. So they hit the road, and along the way, they spread the word of not only the flooding, but the pathetic official response, the tortoise-like recovery, and what the city needed to right itself.Music-oriented efforts to help the so-called City That Care Forgot sprouted up everywhere. Here in the Roaring Fork Valley, Jazz Aspen Snowmass started a campaign to raise funds for relief; the Glenwood Summer of Jazz series did two years in a row of all-New Orleans shows, ensuring gigs and paychecks for the artists.Theyre the heartbeat of the city, said Bill Taylor, director of the New Orleans-based Tipitinas Foundation. Theyre the driving force of the recovery. You say, Whats the sign of normality in the city? In New Orleans, its the musicians playing.Taylor says the strong musical culture of New Orleans has been significant in attracting attention from the outside to the citys plight. People come to JazzFest and see whats happened, and hear from the musicians, he said. Its an example of being embraced by music people from around the world.Taylor himself is an example of how seductive the music, and the overall unique culture of New Orleans, can be. A native of Delaware, he began visiting when his brother attended the citys Tulane Law School.It was love at first sight for me. I was blown away immediately, said the 37-year-old Taylor, who last year became the booking agent for the legendary New Orleans club, Tipitinas. I couldnt believe a place like that existed. Seeing the music, and all these traditions Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands I loved that. When you go to New Orleans, youre blown away by how much a part of life music is here the clubs at night, kids playing in the street.Taylor became the first employee of the Tipitinas Foundation when it was founded, in 2003. The organizations first mission, in those pre-Katrina days, was to make sure local kids had the chance to continue the citys musical heritage. Instruments A-Comin, which predates the official launch of the foundation, has become an annual concert event to raise money for instruments for New Orleans young folks. Since Katrina, the concerts have raised some $2 million for the Instrument Giveaway.And since Katrina, the mission of the Tipitinas Foundation has expanded. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Tipitinas itself became the Musicians Co-op Office, a community center where the artists could eat lunch and strategize how to carry on performing. The foundation also works to shore up New Orleans defenses against the elements. The organization is presenting the show at the Denver Convention Center and in Aspen; Taylor is music producer for the events. (Another group, Friends of New Orleans, is presenting musical events, featuring the same core group of players, at the Republican National Convention in September, in Minneapolis.) As a blues singer, Benoit has been familiar with singing about heartache and despair. The blues, however, has generally focused on interior emotions more than societal ills. But Benoit, who has earned Grammy nominations as well as Contemporary Male Blues Artist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year from the W.C. Handy Music Awards, sees himself associated with an even older form than the blues.Being a musician, being an artist is not just about making a living doing your art work. It has a much bigger responsibility than that. It means youre a communicator to the public, he said. We learned about ancient civilizations from those cave paintings, and the jewelry left in tombs. We dont really know anything about King Tut; we know him by the artists who left us something. Artists have always been the great communicators of the world.Becoming involved with issues of levees, wetlands and post-Katrina reconstruction has forced Benoit to expand his thinking even further. I jumped on this to change my backyard, he said. But the deeper in I got, it became more than about my backyard. To fix my city, I had to fix the state. To fix the state, I have to fix my country. This is a presidential thing.In a democracy you should be required to talk politics. If you want democracy, youve got to fight for it. The tools and the rules if you dont fight for it, someone else will.After all the effort he has put in, Benoit totters between depression and hopefulness. He says New Orleans remains 60 percent abandoned left alone, a world-wide embarrassment. But he is encouraged by how receptive people around the globe have been to his message. When I talk to people out of the country, Im blown away by how much they know about this. They care about our culture, about New Orleans, said Benoit, who has also brought his concerns to Capital Hill.On another level, hard times have resulted, as they can, in great art. Benoit says the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars are the finest group he has been associated with, and he believes he can speak for all the members in saying it is the most enjoyment he has gotten from music.We got together with a cause in mind, and you cant get together like we have in any other way, he said. Its our favorite group because were doing something with the music.At the same time, the state of the Gulf Coast has taken some of Benoits attention away from his career. When asked how his music had been affected by Katrina, he said, What music?Ive been too busy to write anything new. But eventually, theres going to be something that comes out of this.New Orleans Traveling Road Show, Wednesday, Aug. 27, at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen.firstname.lastname@example.org
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