Tab Benoit still jamming — and talking wetlands
The Aspen Times
You can ask Tab Benoit the obvious questions, and he’ll answer them, respectfully and honestly, all while seeming as though he’d rather be discussing something else.
Who were your music influences? Why, at a young age, did you choose to learn and play the blues? Is the blues still as popular as it was in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when you were starting out in the business? What did you learn while gigging at Tabby’s Blues Box, the famous dive club in Baton Rouge, La.?
He’s heard them all before.
But his passion rises to the surface — slowly, like a gator rising from a swamp bottom as it eyes a chunk of bait dangling from a tree branch — when the talk turns to another subject: his beloved Louisiana coast.
Benoit, 45, grew up in the Cajun country of southern Terrebonne Parish, one of many beleaguered areas in the battle to save the Bayou State’s eroding coastline. (Ironically, Terrebonne means “good earth” in French.) The taming of the Mississippi River several decades ago resulted in the loss of natural freshwater channels to the area, which were crucial in staving off the saltwater intrusion that speeds up coastal erosion. Oil and gas production in the time that followed, which led to the cutting of man-made canals through lands where cattle once grazed and crops once grew, hurried the process even further.
About a decade ago, Benoit formed Voice of the Wetlands, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing attention to the many problems facing the Louisiana coast. Occasionally he performs benefit concerts with a variety of musicians under the name Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. Attention to the cause was heightened even further after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the state’s coast in 2005.
Benoit said he’s not out to raise money specifically toward the effort — it will take many more billions of dollars to repair the damage to Louisiana’s coast, which, with its many fishing estuaries and cultural attractions, many see as a national treasure.
“There are already a lot of people who are fighting for the money for it,” Benoit said while driving on his tour bus through Kansas toward Colorado on July 29. “There’s no need for us to continue to do the same thing other organizations are doing. There’s another huge element to this whole thing, and that’s the thing that has held back any progress.
“To me, if there’s a will to do something by the government, they find the money to do it. Money is no object when the will is there. All we’ve been really trying to do is get the government to go and look at it like it’s something we can’t afford to lose.”
Currently, Benoit said, there’s no real plan to fix the Louisiana coast the right way.
“There’s a lot of plans for a lot of Band-Aids, and we waste tons of money on that every year,” he said. “When you get politically active and you start digging into what’s going on and what decisions are being made, you realize the truth is skirted to the side, and ideas come up for other reasons, not to do the right thing. It’s up to us that people stay informed and that the elephant in the room is being acknowledged.”
Benoit grew up in the Bayou Little Caillou area of his parish, on family property that once counted 300 acres of land, mostly marshes and swamp. Today there are about 40 acres left, he said.
“That’s 260 acres that have gone in about 20 years,” he said. “There’s not a tree left. Everything is dead. It’s just open water.”
Benoit might not have a platform to talk about the Louisiana environment, though, if it weren’t for music and his talent and his status as one of the few authentic Louisiana bluesmen left in the world. Benoit has paid his dues within the genre, sweating it out as a young adult in places like the famous but now defunct Blues Box, where he learned from Louisiana music legends such as Tabby Thomas, Henry Gray and Raful Neal.
He maintains a busy touring schedule, crisscrossing through Colorado every year. In fact, he’s got more than 30 gigs booked between now and New Year’s Eve.
Benoit used to be an annual presence at the former Double Diamond club (now Belly Up). It’s been a few years since he’s been to the upper Roaring Fork Valley area of Aspen and Snowmass, he said.
“The popularity of the blues has always fluctuated, I guess,” he said. “It seems to coincide with what’s going on. When the economy is down and people are down, the blues is there for them. Everybody is going to get the blues, but the music is there to try to help you get rid of it.”
Benoit laments the fact that today’s popular music — the stuff that gets played on commercial radio — no longer has a “real” quality.
“With the technology today, you can’t hear a vocal track on a pop record that hasn’t been auto-tuned,” he said. “It’s a sound that I recognize instantly. The blues doesn’t have that; it still has a link to the hands-on instruments, and the vocals are recorded in the way that they came out naturally.”
He employs a guitar-slinger style, and his set list is primarily original compositions with the occasional cover. In years past, his version of Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw” has been a live highlight.
“When I listen to the blues, I usually go back to stuff I always liked,” Benoit said. “I like Albert King and B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert Collins and Buddy Guy — all the Kings and all the Alberts. And Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. All that stuff still works on me.”
Benoit’s blues trio kicks off at Snowmass Village’s Fanny Hill at 6 p.m. Aug. 1.
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Break out the neon windbreakers and the ski jeans for the last week of the at Snowmass: the lifts stop turning at the end of the day April 25.