Tab Benoit: Brother to the Blues

Robert R. Calder

Not musically as close as a brother to the blues, this is a committed set of old-style country music, with a couple of blues-ish items like you’d find thrown in by people without Tab Benoit’s gifts as a bluesman.

Tab Benoit

Brother to the Blues

Label: Telarc
US Release Date: 2006-04-25
UK Release Date: 2006-05-29
iTunes affiliate

For this new CD Tab Benoit has got together with what the record's paperwork refers to as "members of the cult blues/R&B/rock combo Louisiana LeRoux", as well as "veteran country songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, Americana pioneer Jim Lauderdale and Cajun fiddler Waylon Thibodeaux". Benoit has, it seems, always been fond of the "country music" characteristic of Southerners whose skin tone is in common with his own, mine, and that of sometime-presidents Bush, Clinton, and indeed Lincoln. So here is a range of music including that, but also blues, and blues very well performed.

Gonzalez Chandler's "Pack it Up" has an uneasy title for an opener! It's soul/R&B, a vein further explored in the choice of Sam Cooke's "Bring it on Home to Me" as the second track. That Cooke song does belong to a vein of sentimental stuff which extends across the strata of "soul" and of country. I have a graying memory of something akin to it, if not this Sam Cooke song then something very like it, on an early album by the Rolling Stones, with a sort of mock-Southern boy crowing delivery from Mick Jagger. Track three still contains nothing for fans of the blues, rather than the other music: in musical terms, Brother to the Blues certainly isn't that. The song identifies its singer (or persona dramatis) as himself "a brother to the blues", but that means the blues as an emotional affliction rather than a musical genre. This vein is one that self-pitying country fiddle and twangy lap steel only serve to exacerbate. I can't say as I personally would feel confident paying out the line, "You're just a sister to satisfaction, and I'm just a brother to the blues" to a young lady.

Then comes "Why are People Like That?", a very good Chuck Berry-ish number, complete with Johnny Johnson-style piano from Nelson Blanchard. Slightly more unusual is "I'm on Your Side", with -- for all its country accompaniment and style -- an unusual rhythm not specifically distinctive of the genre it belongs to almost wholly. Probably there is something rhythmically distinctive to this and that American genre. Interesting results can follow when two are brought together -- but not neutralized in the process.

In contradistinction to the decidedly C&W "I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow" which follows, Little Johnny Taylor's "If You Love Me Like You Say" comes on as the next item with a sort of combination of Albert King and, again, Chuck Berry. I suspect this set is less for blues fans than for admirers of the Mr. Charlie music which now turns up in pure style, with the sound of an aging cowboy preceded by Thibodeaux's fiddle and Benoit's work on the pedal steel that he uses on a few tracks. The vocal on this number does have some echoes of Johnny Cash. It also has a vulnerable, ever so slightly wobbly, elderly sound: it is love for the lady addressee, rather than the singing vehicle of it, which is "comin' on strong".

Benoit's "So High" starts something like "What'd I Say?", a blues rocker with extended solo work. The band is tight and impressive, and here it's clear why blues fans might take to him. Composed by Jim Lauderdale, "Grace's Song" is very different: pop and sentimental, performed with a backbeat, and on the edge of rolling into reggae. An interesting mixture. The electric guitar progressions brighten up the fiddle interlude. "Moon Coming Over the Hill" is another Benoit song, but after beginning with unadorned blues guitar and blues-like delivery it slips into white folks' mode, and stays there, definitively pinned by Waylon Thibodeaux's fiddle. Yet another from Benoit, "Somehow" could be called a blues ballad for its echo of a less bellowed sort of Albert King number. But really this is country rather than a blues record, right down to "Can't Do One More Two-Step" -- with funky bass guitar but a band vocal response in the chorus, and after the blues guitar interlude another on the fiddle. Benoit's talent for blues makes real appearances, but blues numbers as such are exceptions. This is a band playing together and working at the music without any added effects or so-called enhancements. They need none.

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