Tab Benoit released his first record in 1992, and hasn’t slowed down since. He’s an old-school road dog, playing a phenomenal number of shows each year in support of his records. If folks in my neck of the woods are any indication, fans never get tired of seeing him come around.
Part of that appeal lies in Benoit’s impressive, fiery guitar-playing. He’s easily the equal of any of his guitar-slinging blues peers. More importantly, though, Benoit offers something different: it’s blues, sure, but with a healthy dollop of Louisiana spice and flavor. Baton Rouge-born and bred, Benoit’s never forgotten his roots, even going so far as launching Voice of the Wetlands, an organization devoted to saving Louisiana’s wetlands. Live, Benoit’s combination of talent and regional allegiance makes for one heck of a party, especially when his zydeco roots start showing.
Best of the Bayou Blues hearkens back to those early days when Benoit was just learning to ply his trade and solidify his own style. Covering Benoit’s first five records on Vanguard, it’s a useful compilation that shows Benoit expanding past his obvious debt to East Texas bluesmen like Stevie Ray Vaughan and discovering ways to include his Louisiana heritage. That push-and-pull of allegiances ranges from somewhat hesitant and tricky (“Voodoo on the Bayou” mixes fairly standard, Vaughanish guitar boogie with a hint of the bayou) to fully realized (the live zydeco of Clifton Chenier’s “Hot Tamale Baby” is an absolute barnburner).
But even at this early stage, you can hear Benoit stretching out and finding ways to hide the stitches. His cover of Hank Williams, Sr.’s “Jambalaya” rides an uptempo riff reminiscent of the blues classic “I Got Loaded” (which Benoit would, in fact, cover later on), while “Rainy Day Blues” is a gentle guitars-and-voices-only blues that features Willie Nelson (who wrote the song) sharing vocal duties. “These Blues are All Mine” features a little B.B. King-style guitar sting. “Nice and Warm”, an ode to the warmth of his home, finds Benoit easing into the song on churchly organ tones before turning the song into a scorching, slow-burning blues workout. Providing contrast, “Somehow” is an acoustic country blues that shows Benoit capable of leaving the amplifiers behind. A few cuts from his Live: Swampland Jam disc show how it all comes together to crackle in front of an audience.
So Benoit’s approach to bringing the bayou to the blues consists of more than singing about crawfish (although, to be honest, there are plenty of lyrics about etouffee and crawfish); he finds ways to inject little pieces of his heritage into familiar blues styles. At his best, he successfully bends the inherent strictures of the blues to include Louisiana rhythms, conveying the swamps, the cooking, the humidity, and the culture of his birthplace.
Benoit’s really perfected that synthesis in recent years, as albums like 2005’s Voice of the Wetlands and Fever for the Bayou prove. Benoit’s developed some serious swamp boogie, and while Best of the Bayou Blues doesn’t show the end-product (so far) of Benoit’s artistic travels, it’s a strong portrait of the foundations that got him where he is today. Besides, it’s always a blast to hear someone play blues guitar with such fire, no matter where they’re from.