He's a bluesman with the soul of Otis Redding, sounding like Delbert McClinton with a Cajun accent.
Houma, La.'s best-known export, Tab Benoit's electric swamp soul sound sets him apart from most of the gator and gumbo practitioners from his neck of the woods.
But Benoit says that to a bluesman, the soul thing is just a natural progression. "Blues is just a little more guitar work," he said recently by phone from a tour stop in Colorado. "In a soul band, you talking about horns, you talking about a big group. It's a little bit different, but I think the music is all rooted in blues."
Still, Benoit was reluctant to tackle soul head on. "It was almost taboo to try to do an Otis Redding song," says Benoit, who thought about it for three albums before getting up the courage to cover Redding's classic "These Arms Of Mine" on '02s Wetlands. He allowed fans to send requests for songs for him to record to his Web site. "Somebody else asking for it gave me a little bit more confidence to try it," Benoit says, "and it's still one of my most requested songs." Benoit punctuates Otis' husky, tear-stained vocal style with some laid-back blues licks on guitar that curl around the melody like a blue flame.
"You make it your own, that's the whole trick," he says of the Redding cover, as well as a funky redo of Fess' rollicking carnival classic "Her Mind Is Gone," replacing Longhair's roller coaster piano antics with searing blues riffs. "Some people will think, 'Hey, it's your song,'" he says, laughing.
On his latest, Power of the Ponchatrain, Benoit does his own makeover on Stephen Stills' anthem "For What It's Worth," transforming it into a modern day protest song calling attention to post-Katrina Louisiana. Although it's the same melody as Still's original, Benoit has added soul as well with some original lyrics: "Can't help our people in need/muddy water in the street/ there's no sense of pride/I wanna know who's really on our side." Benoit is a passionate spokesman for his home state, founding the environmental organization Voice of the Wetlands to educate outsiders about the plight of Louisiana in the wake of the hurricane damage.
"We have a situation where we live which no other state has," Benoit says. "We're losing land at a rate of an acre every hour, and that's been speeding up." The singer/guitarist, who has a commercial pilot's license, and was earning his living with that before his musical career took off, says he first became aware of the problem years ago seeing the erosion from the air.
Now, Benoit takes time during his concerts to try to convince people of the importance of fixing Louisiana. As laid back as his music is, Benoit's commentary on the state of the wetlands in his home state is intense.
An avid hunter and fisherman, Benoit has watched 15 miles of coastline disappear in his lifetime alone. He says most people's perception of the situation, based on the way the news presents it, is way off the mark.
"From what the news showed everybody, we built these cities below sea level in vulnerable areas, and it's just a bunch of poor people living out there and we don't have to worry about it," Benoit says. "We didn't build a city below sea level. We've been sinking as we've been eroding."
But Benoit isn't just pissing and moaning about it. He actually has some concrete proposals. "I really believe we ought to have us another party in the government and call it the truth party," he says. His concept is if you deal with the truth of what happened before, you know what to do next. "It's not rocket science, man," he says. "We have to deal with nature, we have to pay attention to our environment; it's the only way we can survive."
He has another solution to the problem as well. "Tell people to take their next vacation down in New Orleans. Enjoy what's left, because it's not going to be there for long if it keeps going like this. Go take a look through the Ninth Ward and through New Orleans East and all the places that were flooded and see that's it still sitting there, just abandoned. Then go home, write, e-mail congress, the president, and tell 'em what you saw. Tell 'em how you felt about it. Exercise democracy," he says, cackling. "Let's see if that works."
Tab Benoit plays Thursday, Dec. 6, at the Double Door, 218 E. Independence Blvd. Call 704-376-1446 for times and prices.