Straight Whiskey and the Full-Tilt Boogie
Tab Benoit hit the Birchmere stage the way great artists leave it. He started the night with the intensity of vision and ferocity of attack most performers leave for the second encore. And he built from there.
Singing “Gonna get my friends/we’re going crawfishing,” Benoit began by anchoring his blues firmly in the rich soil of the bayou. And it was from there that everything made sense and connected to the real world; while at the same time transcending the blues that easily besets our mortal souls, lifting us out of our present circumstances into a place where family, food, and music offer a respite from the spiritual ravages of our political and technological world.
Disclaimer: There is a basic rule in good writing. That rule says that a good writer should not use the same word over and over again. The hell with that. The word? Tone. With Benoit it is all about tone.
I was curious to see Benoit on his second stop at the Birchmere in 2016. His February gig had been wonderful. What would the return be like? Would it be as good as that cold February night? Benoit answered that question with his opening salvo, and everyone in the room sat up and took notice.
Benoit’s second song was the classic Julie Miller penned “Shelter Me” and he launched into the song with a fervor often reserved for a Pentecostal meeting. The drumming of Terence Higgins thundered along with the lyrics to the song providing a sense of gravity. This was promptly followed by the old Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic, “I Put a Spell on You,” a number that would have caused most Pentecostals to run for the exit. It was then, at the end of the song, that Benoit paused to let his comic side surface.
“I don’t make the rules, and I don’t play by them either,” Benoit said. This credo would resurface later in the night, as the Cajun guitarist would occasionally drift into comical observations on his craft, and on the world in general. On the subject of rehearsals: “I don’t practice. When I play at home I don’t get a check. If I practice this stuff, I’m gonna know where I’m going before I get there. That ain’t no fun.” He added, “I’m Evel Knieveling it. Bring the people, let me see if I can do this.”
To see an artist like Tab Benoit is to see an artist without artifice, without special effects, without guile. It is all laid out for the audience. No pedals. No cheesy technological assists. Nothing but a man and his guitar. And the gator head. You can’t forget the gator head perched on top of the amp.
Throughout the night Benoit played as if the fate of the world rested on his musicianship, all the while cracking jokes. It was as if he was a circus performer, standing on the precipice without a net, knowing he was risking it all, yet somehow able to see past his sense of mortality and find the humor in it.
One of the great things about Benoit’s virtuosity is his ability to remain focused on the song. One of the missteps many guitarists make is to create music that serves as a vehicle for showing off pyrotechnics. While those type of records might be initially interesting, they seldom get heavy rotation in this writer’s home because at the end of the day it is all about the song. Benoit never forgets that.
At one point Benoit went into a long solo while muting his strings. The genius of it all rested on the rhythm pattern laid down with his right hand. During the middle of his break, Benoit was clearly simulating the sound of a rubbing board on his telecaster, something I had never heard before. As the night wore on, he never let his intensity flag or his focus become distracted. This was about his stellar fretwork and his mastery of tone. Heavy, deep-fat-fried tone.
Corey Duplechin and Terrence Higgins on bass and drums, laid down a groove for Benoit to ride. And when he did pause to catch his breath the moments between songs were opportunities for his oddball, skewed sense of humor.
Playing with the cord that ran from his guitar to his amplifier, Benoit noticed a funny sound. “You know how things work really good right up until they break?” Later he would segue into a rambling monologue about his merchandise. “Don’t ever put your face on a shirt. I don’t wear my own shirts, that’s weird, man…walking around with a shirt with your face on it. Okay…I did it…once.”
On the subject of his name: “It’s Tab. My Mama gave me that name. Like the soda. It kills laboratory rats while you lose weight. So pour yourself a glass, and put a little in a bowl and stick it behind the refrigerator.”
As funny as his rambles were, Benoit never let them go too long, or overshadow the music. The rest of the night was like a highlight reel, and the bayou bluesman played to his audience and to his strengths. Particularly pleasing was “I Got Loaded,” a party song that never seems to disappoint. Calls for “Night Train” were rewarded with a hard rocking rendition that seemed to excite Benoit as much as the crowd.
And Benoit’s fretwork never grew tiresome, as he managed to vary his approach to the Telecaster in a way that allowed him to showcase his technique while remaining focused on his bandmates and on his material. It was full-tilt boogie all the way. When the last note was played and the house lights came on, my buddy Carl turned in his chair and said, “That was no fruity drink music; that was straight whiskey.”