ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 3, 1998
The biggest obstacle to conducting a phone interview with a touring musician is pinpointing precisely where the artist will be at a particular time. Which city, which hotel, which room, and—if they’re big shots like Robert Plant—which alias they’re using that day. The promotions arm of an artist’s record label usually helps in setting up the “phoners”, but what do you do when the label isn’t even returning calls?
As the wife would say, you’re humped, and that’s how I feel trying to interview Louisiana blues-rocker Tab Benoit in advance of his gig at the Yale on Tuesday (December 8). Fortunately for me, the promoter of the show, Ron Simmons, puts in a last-minute call directly to Benoit’s management in New Orleans, and with their help I track the acclaimed guitar wizard down at a hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My first question concerns the poor communication habits of his Houston-based label, Justice Records.
“I think they’re about to go out of business,” reveals Benoit, “so we just gotta start over and change things, you know. It won’t be long before we figure out how to do this.”
Before the label’s financial troubles put it out of phone range, Benoit released four albums on Justice, including his most recent, Tab Benoit Live: Swampland Jam. The new disc features veteran Louisiana bluesmen Tabby Thomas, Henry Gray, and Raful Neal, and was recorded at the Blues Box, the famed Baton Rouge venue that Thomas owns and that holds a special place in Benoit’s heart.
“When I was first tryin’ to find a place to play the blues,” he recalls, “everybody was sayin’, ‘You gotta go to the Blues Box,’ so that’s where I went. It was kinda like my first gig in a real blues bar, you know, where you didn’t have to play somethin’ else to keep people interested. They wanted to hear the blues all night, and that was good for me. I ended up playin’ over there pretty regular.”
It was at the Blues Box that Benoit, a native of Houma, Louisiana, met the trio of older blues artists who made a vital and lasting impression on him. Looking back, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist is extremely grateful for their support. “Those are the guys that gave me the most encouragement when I was lookin’ for somethin’,” he says, “tryin’ to figure out if I was doin’ the right thing. I mean, I was doin’ it ’cause I enjoyed it, but where I lived there was no blues scene, and people just weren’t into what I was playin’. But I figured somewhere, somebody’s gotta enjoy this kinda stuff.”
As well as giving him and his friends reason to jam out on classic blues numbers by Albert Collins (“Too Many Dirty Dishes”) and John Lee Hooker (“Crawlin’ Kingsnake”), Swampland Jam allowed Benoit to spread the word about his little-known cohorts. “I felt kinda bad in a way,” he notes, “because here these guys have been playin’ all their lives—they’re a lot older than me—and nobody knew about ’em. I thought everybody knew about ’em until I got on the road. So [Swampland Jam] was a good way for me to see all my old buddies and also give them a little exposure, which I’m sure they could use.”
Although Benoit’s name is also not that widely recognized, he has been garnering lots of praise in music publications since the ’92 release of his debut album, Nice and Warm. His captivating rhythm/lead approach has even seen him touted by some as the next Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“People say things like that,” he points out, “but, you know, it’s hard to say who’s the next what, because really, I’m not tryin’ to be. A lot of people that listened to what he was playin’ are listenin’ to what I’m doin’, so I could see how they could come up with that. But as far as bein’ the next Stevie Ray, I think there’s only one. And he’s gone.”
That may be true, but with inspiring players like Benoit around, Vaughan’s spirit is surely not forgotten.