I’ve only been to Louisiana once, about 15 years ago, but I immediately fell in love with the place: the food, the hospitality, and yes, even that smothering humidity that made this South Carolina boy feel like he had no idea what a real southern summer was all about. The years have let my mind do a pretty good job of romanticizing the small towns I visited back then, but my weary, pessimistic side tells me it’s probably gotten pretty much like my hometown and every other piece of small-town America: Walmartized, clogged with urban sprawl, and sprinkled with meth labs. I certainly hope such an outsider’s generalization isn’t the case, but how long can even one of the country’s most distinctive regions hold out?
Folks like Tab Benoit make the fight seem like it will go on at least a little while longer. It’s not just that Benoit is actively involved in efforts to save Louisiana’s wetlands (even launching his own organization, Voice of the Wetlands); he’s also, over the course of 11 records, contributed to the area’s cultural stew by perfecting a straight-ahead blues style that finds the Delta blues tradition by way of a roadhouse shack deep in the swamp. It doesn’t seem crazy to say that Benoit might become to swamp blues what Stevie Ray Vaughan was to Texas blues.
It doesn’t hurt that Benoit can flat-out play the guitar, as evidenced by Fever for the Bayou‘s scorching opener, “Night Train”. Benoit fans will recognize the basic riff from other Benoit rockers like “Muddy Bottom Blues”, but it’s a template that refuses to get old. As guitar boogie goes, it’s just monstrous, and unrelenting.
Benoit’s not really one to maintain that type of vibe for a whole record, though; his bayou upbringing makes him too laid-back for that. On Fever for the Bayou in particular, his goal seems to recreate the mood of a juke joint on Saturday night. To that end, you get Elmore James’ “I Can’t Hold Out”, complete with Benoit’s letter-perfect take on James’ slide guitar style. “Blues So Bad” even uses CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” riff as its launching point. For their parts, James H. Moore’s “Got Love if You Want It” gets a quick-stepping, zydeco-informed treatment and Clarence Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” is pure front-porch acoustic picking. Buddy Guy’s “I Smell a Rat” is the kind of slow burner that fits right into Benoit’s wheelhouse.
It all comes full circle in a pair of tracks: the homage to blues legends found in Cyril Neville’s “The Blues is Here to Stay” and the Big Chief Monk Boudreaux-penned and sung Mardi Gras chant “Golden Crown”. Each shows a different aspect of Benoit’s blues path, and if one started the album and the other ended it, they would act as perfect bookends.
It’s hard to convince skeptics (and I’ve counted myself among this number during periods of extreme jaded-ness) that the blues can hold anything new. Perhaps it’s true that the traditional blues forms have evolved as far as they’re going to (despite the periodic monkey wrench thrown in by folks like Jon Spencer or the North Mississippi All-Stars). Benoit, for his part, seems to possess “rising star” status despite over a decade of recording music (guess that’s what you get when your genre’s elder statesmen have been playing longer than you’ve been alive). But it also points to a sense that Benoit’s on the verge of something exciting, that he still has promise left to fulfill. Hearing some of his recent records, such as 2002’s Wetlands or 2003’s The Sea Saint Sessions, you’d be justified in saying to yourself, “Great guitar, expressive voice, range of styles! My cup runneth over already!” And you’d be right; as of right now, Benoit’s already done the blues a service by proving that Louisiana still has plenty to contribute, and by treating his home’s blues heritage with as much reverence as fellow Louisiana native Michael Doucet shows with traditional Cajun styles. Fever for the Bayou already seems like a perfect synthesis of Benoit’s influences; if this is as far as he gets, the blues world will be pretty blessed.