[31 May 2012]
The blues is often referred to as one of the quintessential American art forms. This is not necessarily because Americans are more depressed than the citizens of other nations—it is because the blues arose from a unique cultural tension in a country that was founded on a principle of equality for all, but in reality brutally subjugated a portion of its people for most of its existence. Blues is an art form that reflects theoretical American values and rhetoric that often does not correspond to reality, and certainly had no relation to the reality of the men and women who developed the music. Blues is open to anyone with a cheap, beat-up guitar, anyone with a story, anyone who can sing and clap – pretty much anyone who is interested. Blues rewards hard work. It is structured but not suffocating, and it values innovation within and around its structures. In true democratic fashion, the blues is played in every part of the country. he sound has not changed much; despite falling out of popularity, it remains basic, repetitive, and powerful.
Tab Benoit hails from Louisiana, and he first recorded his blues in 1992, releasing the record Nice & Warm on the Vanguard label. In 1999, after several more releases on Vanguard, Benoit switched to Telarc Distribution, where he has released the bulk of his recorded material—eight studio albums, as well as a live recording. The new greatest hits compilation, Legacy: The Best of Tab Benoit, contains at least one track from each of Benoit’s Telarc releases, at least three of which cracked Billboard’s blues album top ten.
Benoit is an experienced player of blues, and he wields all its tools as the genre demands. His singing is strong and articulate, with a hint of scratch in his voice and a powerful yell he brings out when needed. He is adept, whether hot-footing his guitar through the chug of “Night Train”, starting off the rolling “Nice and Warm” – apparently recorded in a single take – with a lengthy solo, or laying down a rhythm on “Darkness”. In addition to Benoit leading his band on guitar and vocals, the disc offers a few of his collaborations with other artists. “Comin’ on Strong” adds slide guitar and a fiddle for a country feel. “The Blues Is Here to Stay”, written by New Orleans R&B royalty Cyrill Neville and the famous blues player Taj Majal, runs towards the smooth and funky. The last two songs on the album give a taste of the Benoit live experience, both singing the praises of different facets of New Orleans – the ladies and their “sassy style” and the “Bayou boogie”.
Interestingly for a greatest hits compilation, three of the 12 selections are Benoit’s covers of other songs – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What Its Worth”, and Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine”. Covers are a time honored tradition in blues; compositional originality is not as important as interpretation. While these songs show that Benoit makes brave choices when it comes to covers, the label might have been better served by sticking to some of his other original material for this disc. The original “I Put a Spell on You” (which has already been covered numerous times, perhaps most famously by Nina Simone) is a wild, extravagant, chilling tune; a song that explodes out of its simple template. Benoit’s straightforward rendering seems tepid in comparison, comatose when every moment of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rendering literally screams out its life. “For What Its Worth”, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘60s anthem, is played in an uninteresting groove. On “These Arms of Mine”, Benoit’s singing pales next to Redding’s, especially at the beginning, when his voice is exposed, accompanied by only light guitar and bass. These are tough songs to cover, and Benoit doesn’t bring a new approach to the table.
Benoit sings blues in the traditional fashion. While this has advantages, it’s also limiting, and his take on the music of other artists is too straightforward to be interesting. If you are looking for a modern man to sing the blues, he might be your guy. But then again, you might want to go back and listen to the men and women who perfected the sound Benoit aspires to make.