The conventional wisdom concerning Tab Benoit is that early in his career he had a tendency to try too hard, to play too many notes, to wring too much oomph from his Louisiana electric blues. Whether one agrees with that or not, it’s tough to see anyone making that criticism of his newest record. Medicine is a smart, slick album full of strong tunes and impeccable playing, tied together with Benoit’s rich voice.
Benoit’s career spans 20 years, stretching all the way back to his 1992 debut Nice and Warm and numerous albums for Justice Records and Telarc. Success has been inconsistent, though, despite his powerful singing and skillful playing. Medicine brings aboard guest guitarist Anders Osborne, who also coproduced the album and cowrote many of the songs. Benoit and Anders enjoy a successful chemistry, serving up a varied but energetic mix of tunes that are always polished and occasionally outstanding.
One criticism that could be leveled at this record is it leads off with its strongest song. “Medicine” opens in a welter of guitar squealing, boot-stomping rhythms and Benoit’s gruff voice, which sounds more like Lonnie Mack than anything I’ve heard in years. In fact the Mack comparison is unavoidable, from the soulful-white-guy delivery to the bumblebee-in-a-mason-jar guitar solos of “Come and Get It” and “A Whole Lotta Soul.” (If you’ve never listened to Mack’s 1990 live album, Attack of the Killer V, do yourself a favor and go listen. Now.) At nearly six minutes, “Medicine” is also the longest song on the record, and the rest of the tunes can’t quite measure up.
This doesn’t mean the subsequent tunes are failures, just that the first song sets the bar impossibly high. Still, Benoit and Anders do their best, making a point of varying their stylistic approach throughout the album, so the slow, introspective blues of “Sunrise” and “Nothing Takes the Place of You” stand shoulder-to-shoulder with funky, electric workouts like “A Whole Lotta Soul” and “In It to Win It”. There are rockers like “Come and Get It”, as well as “Broke and Lonely”, which starts off with a lick swiped straight from “Good Morning Little School Girl”, especially if your benchmark for that song is Johnny Winter. (Mine is.)
Cajun flavor is evident to “Can’t You See”, courtesy of Beuasoleil fiddler Michael Doucet, while acoustic guitar and fiddle lend a different tone to “Long Lonely Bayou”. One of the strongest tracks on the album, “Long Lonely Bayou” benefits from a violin that is mournful rather than festive. Benoit’s voice is perfect for this kind of song, with his long Southern vowels, the clutch in his throat and an overall air of bewildered weariness. Now that’s a blues song.
The backing musician here are on-target throughout, with keyboardist Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers) a standout on “A Whole Lotta Soul”. Anders is a guitar legend-in-the-making, and Doucet’s fiddle is already legendary. It remains to be seen whether this record launches Benoit into the first rank of guitar gods, but judging from this album, he has a pretty good claim to such a status.