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Guys like Tab Benoit keep the NOLA blues-jazz tradition alive

Big Easy Blues


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Considered the granddaddy of nearly all forms of popular music, the blues has been resurrected from the dead more times than Dracula. But with performers like Tab Benoit still hitting the road, preaching the gospel of heartbreak one hellacious guitar lick at a time, now is not the time to turn out the lights at your favorite jukejoint.

"The cultures tend to blend more in the South, whereas it seems like people tended to stick to themselves in the North and other areas of the U.S.," Benoit explains. "There are a lot of cities up north where each certain culture has a section of town, and that's it: Chinatown, Little Italy — places like that."

The guitarist continues, "Down here, people are all mixed together, and I think that just opens everyone up to accepting different parts of certain cultures. Especially around Louisiana, there's a culture that comes from different backgrounds, and everything gets mixed together and creates a new one."

That openness has always been both a credit for the people of Louisiana and a lucrative arrangement for those who showcase the artist. While New Orleans may be a destination for music lovers, if they knew that the only thing waiting for them on Bourbon Street was an endless battle of the bands between Dixieland jazz outfits, it wouldn't take long for it to become a haven for lovers of all-things kitsch.

The new blood of talent that continues to pour out of the bus stations and train depots is a never-ending supply of fresh ideas and musical styles that keeps the Crescent City's music scene a vibrant one. Benoit acknowledges that the blues legends that remain in NOLA are more than happy to allow this new generation of roots revivalists to sit under the learning tree and train with the best.

"New Orleans has always been open to people coming in from other places. The city has always been like that, just accepting of everybody that wants to give music a shot. A lot of young kids move there to soak up the history and learn the old ways, and generally they are accepted. The old guys who have been playing the clubs forever kind of say, 'Come on in, and take your shot,'" he says with a laugh. "The masters that are still around are pretty accessible to anyone that wants to learn this stuff."

The multiple Grammy Award-nominated singer is now so synonymous with the music scene of his home that he has become one of those masters. Revered by both the traditionalists who helped him hone his swamp-blues guitar-playing, and those more lax fans who expect more of a rock-show vibe when attending his concerts, Benoit has yet to gain that all-too important crossover hit that would make him the biggest name in blues today. Multiple wins at the Blues Foundation's Blues Music Awards is great, but a regular spot among Clear Channel's nationwide network of radio stations would do even more for the performer's bank account.

Still, he continues to pack audiences into clubs around the country, grateful that the fans show up to hear anything from his catalogue. The positive side of not having a signature hit is knowing that the audience appreciates more than three minutes of your total career.

"I'm glad I'm not a one-hit wonder — that's for sure — with everyone just waiting to hear one song and then leave," Benoit admits. "With the kind of music I'm doing, it doesn't really lend itself to that anyway, as I am rewriting them basically every night. All of my songs are always open to improvisation. I don't really write songs out that have to be performed a certain way every single time. Songs are written in a vague enough manner that things can be changed at any time so that they remain free to the moment. I think it's important as a live performer to make the audience feel as if they are part of the moment. They don't know what's going to happen, I don't know what's going to happen, and the band doesn't know what's going to happen."

He continues, "It's the Evel Knievel way: I think I can make it through this, so set up the ramp, turn on the camera, and let's go try it. No one really knows what's going to happen, and I think that keeps the excitement there for everyone — not just the audience but the band also."


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