To Play the Blues...
Tab Benoit says he paints pictures with music
The Decemberists politely request that you check your reality at the door
by Kevin Crowe
Tab Benoit has a nasty case of guitar face. It contorts unnaturally, as if his head is collapsing into itself. It looks painful every time he closes his eyes and his skin prunes. Then he sings with a voice that's less crude than your classic blueshound. Yet he always keeps it simple, the stuff that primordial ooze is made of ----
The blues, when played right, taps into the primitive, those innate, guttural affectations that can send audiences into bacchanal explorations of emotion.
When Benoit plays, he's in communion with something bigger than himself. "I didn't really choose to be a musician," he says. "It chose me." He's lost each night, transfixed by the blues. Just another preacher with a guitar, spreading the word in the backwoods, amid sin, sex and, if everything goes according to plan, salvation. Today, at the age of 40, this Baton Rouge, La. native is still on the road nearly 200 days a year.
"It's always new," he continues, as he drives an RV from Florida to Louisiana. "I don't make any plans. I always felt like, you know, the magic stuff is the stuff you don't plan out.... I just let it happen.
"It's not about perfection. It's about sending out some feelings. People are part of those feelings. That's why I'm on the road. I'm going to see them."
Benoit first found his voice in an old dive bar in Baton Rouge, a little place called The Blues Box, which stood in the heart of the steamiest, sweatiest bayou swampland. Tabby Thomas, guitarist and owner of The Blues Box, was famous for saying, I don't want to hear no rock'n'roll and I don't want to hear no country . Benoit felt right at home, playing with grizzled, forgotten masters. It was an unexpected hideaway, an oasis for young turks to explore the roots of American music.
"I learned how to act," he says of The Blues Box. "The stories, listening to the stories. A lot of it was sitting around the table and listening to the old guys talk about the old days, who they saw play. You sit around the table with those guys, it was nonstop."
In the early '90s Benoit took to the road, promoting his first album, Nice and Warm . Some critics went so far as to compare Benoit to Hendrix, with a swamp blues soul. That kind of critical puffery didn't slow him down. He kept on the road, playing for barflies and night owls, heading into the unknown.
"Practice would kill everything I've been working on my whole life. I'm practicing not practicing," he chuckles. "And I'm getting pretty good at it.... I just play, try to make it feel like it's moving. That's really all I do."
Benoit says his music is about things that are out of our control, things that are going to happen anyway. They take your love and your money , he sings. They take the shirt off your back/ Why are people like that?
In 1985, Benoit founded "Voice of the Wetlands," an organization of volunteers devoted to raising awareness of coastal erosion in Louisiana. "I grew up watching my land and state disappear. I'd wonder why.
"Put it this way," he goes on, "what happened with Hurricane Katrina wasn't a mystery to me."
When Katrina hit, Benoit was working with filmmaker Greg MacGillivray on the IMAX production of Hurricane on the Bayou , an exploration of the fragility of the Louisiana wetlands. The timing was poetically sad.
"You're only on this planet for a short time, so you want to help, make this planet a little better. If you do that, then you've done your job."
Benoit's newest album, Brother to the Blues , is a collection of songs that focus on the power of love in spite of all the crap that the world throws at you. It's a singularly sad album, at times, but there's always redemption. There's always hope when he's singing, even when everything seems to be going to hell, those moments in life when it's easy to believe in curses and voodoo. It's going to be alright, in time.
Under the shadow/ Where there was light once , he sings on "Grace's Song." Mercy waits outside the door... It will get better/ Dust has to settle.
"I think happy is a goofy word," he explains. "Happy is stupid. Happy lasts for only a couple of minutes, then you go back to yourself." He pauses for a moment and adds, "All I can do is what I can do. I ain't gonna fix it with the blues."
Who: Tab Benoit
Music for English Majors
by Leslie Wylie
Murder inside the belly of a whale, wounded cranes who morph into beautiful women, war-torn love affairs that transcend enemy lines, the tribulations of lonely chimneysweeps... combined, it's the stuff of crusty, leather-bound storybooks, or withered folk ballads passed down from one generation to the next. It's magical realism, prose poetry half-hidden behind the velvet curtains of theater, a streaming broadcast of majestic fiction and grandiloquent lies. It wasn't, until The Decemberists got their hands on it, the stuff of indie rock.
Drummer John Moen should know. Best known for his work with indie icon Steven Malkmus' backing band The Jicks, Moen is an established fixture of the Portland, Ore., music scene: He's held his ground there since the early '80s and has a 20-plus band history to his name. But even with his vast lineage, he couldn't have known what he was getting into when he signed on with Portland's most eligible upstart, The Decemberists, two years ago.
"Steven Malkmus, he tells great stories, but they're often a lot more obtuse, less 'Here's the scene, here's what's happening.' It's a little harder to wrap your head around sometimes," he explains. "With The Decemberists, it's fun to debate where you stick to [the narrative] and where you let it veer. You don't want to sound like this soundtrack band for the crazy Victorians. The music has to elevate itself out of just being a story for it to be rock."
It's hard to tell, in any Decemberists song, whether the instrumental backdrop is custom-cut to match the lyrics or vice-versa. Most likely, that's because there're interwoven entities, sewn together just loosely enough to trade places in the spotlight every now and again. At times the lush balladry, which includes an arsenal of organs, accordions and melodicas in addition to more standard rock'n'roll fare, roars up from behind Colin Meloy's Brit-pop vocals and tugs the narrative's linear progression off course into the realm of the whimsical or the dark, circling round and round before realigning itself with the theme.
"It's interesting where you make a compromise," Moen continues, "where you drop the fact that you're telling a pretty straight little story and do a crazy Emerson, Lake & Palmer keyboard thing even though you're doing a story about, say, rape down by the river in 1800-whatever."
But Moen notes that even when the music veers into uncharted territory, the band rarely loses its composure, or its sense of proportion. "They're competent musicians, and really tasteful. I think as much as they know how to play the instruments well, they also know when not to play at all. I'll look over at [guitarist] Chris Funk, and he'll just be standing there, not playing, just being patient. It's not a contest. Not everyone has to be playing at once," he says.
Since the band was formed in 2001, it's ridden a crescendo of increasing popularity, radiating outward from an epicenter of hometown buzz. Its 2005 album, Picaresque , was the last to be released on the Kill Rock Stars label, as the band was signed to Capitol Records shortly thereafter. The Decemberists' 2006 major label debut, The Crane Wife , was voted Favorite Album of the Year by NPR listeners and earned the band a host of new fans, most notably Steve Colbert, who invited The Decemberists onto his show for a now infamous "green screen challenge."
Moen says of the newfound fame, "It's a little weird, but it's great. You're doing something that people dig somehow, someway, and it's a good feeling. There is, or at least there used to be, this unspoken indie rule where you had to act like you never wanted things, success, but that's just absurd. I don't get it."
When The Decemberists signed to Capitol, there was some apprehension amid fans and critics that the band might feel pressure to tone down what it was doing, make its music more accessible. But Moen doesn't seem concerned. "So far we've had no reason to second-guess ourselves," he says. "With [ The Crane Wife ], we did exactly what we wanted to do and got more support than we expected. I'm sure there's some dark alley we could turn down that people would be like, 'Oh God'--there is such a thing as overreaching--but we're pretty decent self-editors. For the most part we know when to say, 'Eh, we shouldn't have done that.'"
So, with boundaries defined only by the imagination, what next? Moen mentions that some of Neil Young's work, albums that were recorded in his barn, has captured the band's
What: The Decemberists w/ My Brightest Diamond