Cowboy Mouth, ‘Mouthing Off’ / Paul Sanchez, ‘Wasted Lives and Bluegrass’ (1994)

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Cowboy Mouth — announced this week as one of the many featured bands at the 2007 Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans — emerged in the early 1990s as a rugged, but distinctly popular rock alternative to the typical fiddle-and-rubboard fare associated with Louisiana music.

Not that its New Orleans-based members weren’t capable of spare and emotionally direct work.

Leave it to Paul Sanchez, then the band’s rhythm guitarist, to expose a tenderness that dwelled just beneath the surface of leader Fred LeBlanc, who had for so long cultivated a sweaty college-hangout, drum-lord persona.

Man, what a persona it was.

“Mouthing Off,” a 1994 live release on the indie Viceroy label, copped to the dicotomy in its original press material: “Although Cowboy Mouth’s debut album rocks, you’ve got to see this band live to get it.”

This 13-track CD includes a concert set, recorded in France, and two new studio cuts. The live stuff here offers an informative glimpse into the powerful mania that was a Cowboy Mouth show in its earliest days.

This was a tough group, and that played out in the way they muscled up Sanchez’s stuff, in particular “Picture of You Wearing Bones” and “Louisiana Lowdown” from his debut.

The in-studio cuts hinted, however, at something that Sanchez would more completely explore in his second solo release. There was a whole new looseness, best depicted in the band’s terrific cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).”

It made a nice companion piece with Sanchez’s “Wasted Lives and Bluegrass” on Monkey Hill Records from the same year, an airy affair done on solo guitar — and in the same style as his debut of a few years before, “Jet Black and Jealous.”

Sanchez ruminated on life and love, pain and passion. There’s a lot of cigarette smoking and coffee drinking. While that can’t match the torrid passion of Cowboy Mouth, Sanchez found a way to capture a piece of it.

The simple placity of “Still in Love” and “I Dreamt” were his greatest strengths, here and with the larger band. He’s no folk singer in the mode of Seeger, Guthrie or Dylan. Sanchez is a lover, not a fighter.

Of course, LeBlanc’s throaty growl gave voice to everything that got people up on top of tables at the local saloon. Sanchez, strictly speaking, has a vocal sound that’s a bit too sweet for rock, or even folk, music. It’s almost showy in its easy ability to sound world weary.

Still, Sanchez had the canny ability to disguise that vague weakness by pairing up with forces of nature like LeBlanc in Cowboy Mouth and also harp player John Hebert, who makes a stand-out appearance on “Wasted Lives and Bluegrass.” Hebert gave the second solo record a feel that wasn’t so much bluesy as it was forcefully, happily hillbilly.

Still, it’s the narrative, springy tunes that Sanchez does alone that reveal his best intentions. He wants to be a scruffy Johnny Mercer, writing unadorned lyrics in a bright, almost air-tight way.

And at Sanchez’s most effective — away from the crashing barroom brilliance of Cowboy Mouth — that still works, come rain or come shine.

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