Tab Benoit plays the blues with all of the natural fury, sweet romance and dark mysteries of Louisiana — so neatly matching his home state’s essence in structure and feel that it might be easy to call him the Bayou State’s Stevie Ray Vaughan.
You hear all of that here, on the April 3 Concord release Legacy: The Best of Tab Benoit. As the set rumbles through 14 tracks from 13 years of recording for Telarc Records, Benoit’s range of expertise, emotion and foot-stamping exhilaration is revealed all over again. In fact, by the time it’s over, comparisons become much harder. Like the strange cultural mix of peoples and cultures in Louisiana, he’s one of a kind.
There’s the stinging saltwater groove of “Shelter Me,” a Buddy Miller song from Benoit’s 2007 album Power of the Ponchartrain that’s since become the theme song for the Discovery Channel TV series “Sons of Guns.” Working with producer David Z, of Prince fame, Benoit encapsulates all of the anger and sorrow that surrounded the devastating aftermath of Katrina. Together, they did a brilliant rewrite of the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth” on the same project, a tune that also finds a home on Legacy. The sadly appropriate “Darkness,” which encircles you like the tangy smell of burning sugar cane, was recorded for 2003′s Sea Saint Sessions — becoming one of the last recordings made at Allen Toussaint’s legendary recording haunt before it was flooded by the hurricane.
Yet, there is more to this than gloamy ruminations on busted levees. Benoit conjures up a brave resiliency on tracks like “The Blues is Here To Stay,” co-written by Cyril Neville and featuring the Meters and Neville Brothers legend on a shared vocal. The growling “Night Train” is from that same 2005 release, Fever on the Bayou. “Nice and Warm,” which boasts a frisky cochon de lait looseness, originally appeared on Benoit’s 2002 release Whiskey Store.
“Muddy Bottom Blues,” from 2009′s Wetlands, will be familiar to anyone who watches the Discovery Channel series “Ragin’ Cajuns.” Benoit’s aching rendition of Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” comes from the same ’09 project. Then there’s “Comin’ on Strong,” from a Grammy-nominated 2006 roots album that found Benoit backed by Louisiana’s Leroux; he brilliantly switches to steel guitar here, juking it up alongside country music rebel Billy Joe Shaver. (Leroux returns for a rousing live collaborative encore of their hit “New Orleans Ladies” later in this set.) That sense of musical adventure continues on the rambunctious live jam from 2004 featuring Jimmy Thackery, called “Whiskey Store.”
The oldest track here, both literally and figuratively, is a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1956 hit “I Put A Spell on You,” from a project Benoit shared with Kenny Neal and Debbie Davis in 1999. The newest finds Benoit collaborating on the title track from 2011′s Medicine with Anders Osborne. Other guests include fiddler Wayne Thibodeaux (“Comin’ on Strong”) and harpist Jimmy Hall (“New Orleans Ladies”).
If you’ve somehow missed out on this self-proclaimed “new kid from the old school,” Legacy provides a welcoming front porch from which to achieve a vista.
In the way that Benoit plays, in the focus of his songs, in the way he mixes and matches textures and influences, he seems to be holding a mirror up to Louisiana’s difficulties with its own history, with its own dwindling resources, with its difficult battles against the natural forces of water, of wind, of erosion. Yet, Benoit never gets bogged down, never lets himself become prisoner to empty slogans, or to the overworked blues cliche. And he never, ever lets it get him down. He has absorbed his state’s history, not to mention the age-old Delta genre that works as a centerpoint in his muse, without becoming subsumed by it. And, when all else fails, he can unleash a shotgun shack-rattling riff.
All of that combines to make Tab Benoit one of the more interesting voices in blues music working today.