Despite New Orleans' arguable claim as the Home of the Blues, the local blues scene is often overshadowed by the attention given to jazz and funk. The most visible proof of blues' unfortunate second-tier status is the lack of a nightclub solely dedicated to presenting New Orleans blues; Mama's Blues on Rampart Street is the latest example of a venue that tried to present an all-blues roster, but quickly yielded to other genres.
To their credit, Louisiana's blues artists soldier on undeterred, and a recent batch of CDs attest to the varied stylistic options available for blues aficionados. Here's the cream of the latest crop of local blues:
Tab Benoit's Wetlands is his debut for Telarc and inspires a case of deja vu -- in a good way. Since his early-90s debut CD, Nice and Warm, Benoit's shown musical growth on every successive album, and Wetlands is his biggest leap forward yet. The somewhat cold, by-the-numbers blues-rock of Benoit's beginnings has gradually been replaced with a warmer, funkier guitar tone and a grittier vocal delivery that speaks to Benoit's dogged touring in smoke- and spirit-filled clubs. Benoit's blues pedigree is formidable -- he learned his craft at Tabby Thomas' Baton Rouge hotspot, the Blues Box -- but Wetlands shows that Benoit's blossoming by thinking outside the box and forsaking traditional 12-bar shuffles and slow blues.
He didn't have to look far for inspiration. Wetlands is a tribute to the varied south Louisiana music that's inspired Benoit, from zydeco and New Orleans R&B to swamp pop. By covering Boozoo Chavis' "Dog Hill," Professor Longhair's "Her Mind is Gone," and Lil' Bob & the Lollipops' "I Got Loaded," Benoit's tapped something primal, playing and singing with a loose enthusiasm suited for the material. The rhythm section responds admirably, keeping the flow away from a power-trio mentality. A couple of the album's original songs, "Fast and Free" and "Stackolina," live up to their titles, and Benoit snaps off some impressive elastic licks closer to John Mooney tone and territory than his previous Albert King-style sustained bends.
The kicker is the album's closing track, an informal acoustic jam featuring Benoit trading vocals and licks with Anders Osborne and Brian Stoltz on a sweet, lowdown version of "Georgia" -- singing about a woman, not the state. Benoit celebrates the release of Wetlands with a CD-release party on Thursday, March 28, at Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl.
If you can forgive the uneven sound production and abysmal cover art and liner notes on Blues 2002 -- A Collection of Original French Quarter Blues (French Quarter Productions), there's some compelling material here -- no cover versions -- from a few mainstays of the Bourbon Street circuit. Vocalist CP Love is the real star of the proceedings, offering two Stax-reminiscent soul cuts that boast Love's gruff-around-the-edges crooning, tasteful horn charts, and an unexpected harp break on "Stubborn Girl" that recalls Stevie Wonder's early Motown work. E.J. Phillips (a Funky Pirate regular) spins out the brooding walking blues of "Willie Brown," while Chewy "Thunderfoot" Black takes a page from Bobby Bland's Duke/Peacock annals with soulful, horn-driven cuts that favor the rhythm component of R&B. Bryan Lee and Willie Lockett & Blues Krewe deliver the kind of polished performances that have made them distinguished veterans of the local blues scene, but their cuts suffer from diametric audio problems: Lee's songs sound like they were recorded through a pillow, while Lockett's tracks brandish more distracting high end than a Jennifer Lopez video.
That said, the CD's independent producer, Marita Jager, is onto something here worthy of further, more professional exploration. Stereotyping Bourbon Street bands is an easy knee-jerk away -- and guitarist Jeff Chaz's overwrought singing and million-notes-a-minute soloing show won't change that overnight -- but there's much more to the scene than meets the eye. With the right backing, songs and promotion, Bourbon Street performers like CP Love deserve the accolades accorded their more famous New Orleans peers. All the artists on Jager's project celebrate the CD's release with a joint show on Friday, March 22 at House of Blues.
On the opposite stylistic end of the spectrum from Bourbon Street is Big Daddy-O's That's How Strong My Love Is. The singer/guitarist's debut CD is a no-frills, acoustic, country blues-flavored album filled with clean, tasteful fingerpicking and a diverse batch of cover songs. Whether he's tackling Lonnie Mack's "Oreo Cookie Blues," Little Charlie & the Nightcats' "I Don't Drink Much" or the Rolling Stones nugget "Spider and the Fly," Big Daddy-O wraps it all up with a deep oak-barrel voice and percussive guitar lines that function as a one-man rhythm section. Producer John Autin augments selected tracks with splashes of horns, harmonica and accordion. Autin gave Anders Osborne his first record deal, and discovering and recording talent like Osborne and Big Daddy-O is just one way that people like Autin are keeping the New Orleans blues scene alive.
- Tab Benoit's Wetlands is the Houma bluesman's finest CD to date.