BluesWax Sittin’ In With
“Filled to the brim with strong convictions on all fronts”
By Robert Putignano
Singer, songwriter, guitarist Tab Benoit lives near New Orleans in Houma, Louisiana, and is forty-four years old. Since the 1990s Benoit has been on the road learning and extending his craft. His first major label release came on the Vanguard record label, and since 1999 (other than the Voice of the Wetlands) he’s solely waxed for Telarc. In total Benoit has sixteen albums, quite prolific for this day and age, and a powerful statement from an artist who is still in his mid forties. His latest is a “Best of…” single disc Legacy: The Best of Tab Benoit. Tab mentioned to me that he had no input for the selections chosen, and preferred it that way. This brings us to the time when I had the opportunity to catch up with Tab and we spent the better of two hours chatting, and we were both surprised where our discussions took us.
Thoughts about the new “Best of…” CD: “I really wanted no part deciding the selections, it’s hard for me to go back and listen to my older recordings, and my voice has changed a lot over the years from just being older and from being on the road for some time now. I’m doing things differently now, I have my own studio and I am starting to produce local bands. I figured I should not limit my career choices, and actually enjoy the challenges of working in the studio. I’ve gone through great lengths to try to figure out how to make albums sound better by using better microphones, and their placement. I try to project where and how a person who buys these recordings might be listening to it and, lets face it, it’s probably going to be on their computers or some sort of MP3 player. I try to make recordings that sound as close to analogue as possible; it’s not easy, but progress has been made. If a record outshines your live performance, you’re done! It’s hard to create good energy in the studio, but I think I am getting good at it. I am a student of analogue records, but I don’t have a lot of LPs in my collection. Back in the fifties there were a lot of one-off blues recordings where there wasn’t a lot of time put into the process, but by the early seventies the industry had a lot more money to throw at artists and allowed a lot more time for musicians to record. I just watched Pink Floyd’s The Making of Dark Side of the Moon; there still wasn’t a lot of technology around at that time, but those guys knew what they were doing. Tom Dowd had great artists to work with, especially at Atlantic Records, and probably a good budget too, but it always comes down to;that the music has to be played well, as all the technology in the world won’t make the notes sound better.
Today’s recorded music brings us back to an even playing field, but it’s still a challenge, a different challenge, because digital and analogue are not the same. Digital sounds dry and clinical, I try to pickup the nuances of the room and record the room space. I often think about different ways to record, and how a potential audience listens to music. You can get caught up in the game and overproduce, that’s why I created my own studio, to make things right and to make records sound better. I try to make it sound like there’s an audience in the studio, and try to capture the feeling of performing in a club or whatever venue. There’s an artistry of its own trying to achieve this, a roots sound just feels better. That’s why you will never see me play my guitar with pedals or effects, no box for me to plug into. I tell other people to play within yourself, don’t distort with electronics, make your own signature sounds; it’s like painting a picture, but not the ones with numbers on it like we had when we were kids. Be unique with your sound, get your heart into it, it’s a process you should go through to learn.”
What about band dynamics? I mostly play in a trio setting and surround myself with players that know where the next change is going to be. My philosophy is that if I can’t pull it off by myself, I can’t make it better with a band. Having Corey Duplechin on bass works well, he’s been in my bands from the very beginning, left for a while to go on the road with Chubby Carrier, and is now back in my band. We come from the same part of the country, we eat the same food, and we know each others moods and playing styles. Allyn Robinson was a previous drummer in my band; he’s one of the rare New Orleans drummers who knows how to play a blues shuffle. In fact B.B. King told him so, and loved his groove. That’s why he’s a perfect fit for big bands, like the ones Luther Kent has, it’s a perfect match. Allyn learned a lot from when he was with Wayne Cochrane, too. He also had a deep relationship with Jaco Pastorious. Jaco’s replacement in Cochrane’s band was the bassist David Lee Watson; Allyn and David Lee were with me for a long time.”
How about Europe? “I like it just fine here in the good old USA, it’s also hard to make good money in Europe, it’s very expensive, and I don’t like the long travel time. I’m not into sightseeing and crossing the ocean depletes my energy, I like to stay vibrant and fresh, and that’s not easy to do when you travel so far. I need to feel that I’m putting out a lot of energy when I perform, and didn’t feel comfortable being able to do that from afar.”
The Delbert cruise and other cruises: “I love it! I get to play a lot, and I like being settled in one spot for seven days not worrying about moving on to the next city and gig. I enjoy collaborating with other musicians too, sitting in with other bands happens a lot on the cruises and it’s a blast. One night Delbert was playing piano at a late night jam, who knew Delbert could play piano? That’s what makes the cruise experience special; musicians take more risks, let their hair down, and have some fun. By the way I also played drums with Delbert at that late night jam!” I love it when shit like that happens; it recharges my interests as to why I started playing in the first place.”
Any new projects? “We are always trying new and old things too, soon I will be performing at the Swampland Jam in New Orleans, had fun back in the day with blues greats Raful Neal, Tabby Thomas, and others, now its with Johnny Sansone, Wayne Thibodeaux, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, and Anders Osborne. We are opening for Luther Dickinson, Karl Denson, and Anders, who are about to release their version of the Stones Sticky Fingers. Monk’s easy to work with, a simple guy who also loves to fish and cook. Last year we did more Voice of the Wetlands gigs than ever, again with Anders, Thibodeaux, and Big Chief Monk. I enjoyed working and collaborating with Osborne on the Medicine album, I hadn’t been writing for a while, and working with Anders was a very good experience for me. I’m not sure what’s coming next, I rarely plan ahead as I like to be spontaneous and build theme-concept albums when the thoughts come to me. Albums should be made like assembling a family photo album, create the themes, and do it honestly. If none of this works out I can always go back to my day job as an airplane pilot.”
Speaking of Dickinson, I saw you jam together at the Crescent City Blues & BBQ fest. “We had a blast, we had been talking to each other a lot, but we never performed together live. It was a one-off that just worked well, and I can tell you that there’s a lot of mutual respect between us. I’m looking forward to see what Luther and Anders can do together, too.
“I recently performed with Steven Segal at his wedding, his wife is from Mongolia, and they had this Mongolian throat singer there, it was amazing! A throat singer can sing multiple notes at the same time, and it’s really roots music that has similarities to Mississippi music. It was an amazing experience for me.”
Okay, last topic: politics? “As you know we are loosing our land here, so I felt I had to be a realist and get into the game of politics. I felt as “We the People” I had to make something happen. The Constitution is our doc, eventually it’s up to the people. So I got involved, went to town meetings, I even went to Congress and participated on a briefing about the Gulf Coast! So everyone can exercise and utilize the Constitution. I don’t care if you watch CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, people just need to be engaged. Make your feelings heard. You won’t be depressed if you are working on something that means a lot to you. Remember that elected officials work for us, not the other way around. So get in the game, get involved, no excuses, we have no one else to blame but ourselves if we don’t participate. You really can get to talk to elected officials, that door can be opened, so get your opinions out there and make a difference; the system works, if you motivate yourself. Always remember that the elected officials understand well that majorities matter, so make things happen, as we are the people! We need to do the smart things, apply public pressure; local, state, and federal officials will hear you. This is not only about our rights, it’s about freedom, and doing these things is our responsibility. The people of this country are the root source of the problem, and that needs to be fixed. Don’t tell me that we cannot make a difference because the heart of this country is strong and powerful; we are all in this together and need to band together.
“Politics with paybacks is a worldwide embarrassment! I wouldn’t let most of our elected officials drive my own car. Our media is messed up. The BBC talks more about the truth than our mainstream media and cable news. The way we print money here just paints an illusion, kind of like using studio effects to gloss things over. To be a true American you need to be proactive. Everyone needs to suit up and get in the game and see how good things will happen quickly. I trust the USA more than any country in the world to do the right thing for the future of this country.”
So there you have it, Tab Benoit has no problems speaking his mind; his convictions are very strong in a very positive and motivating way. Whether it’s about music, the studio, recording processes, or politics, this man has an opinion, is a free thinker, speaks from his heart and soul, and also has somehow figured out having a good time doing all of it. Knowing Tab after this interview has been both an uplifting and refreshing experience for me that also makes me understand more about what ignites his music and artistry.
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
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