Tab Benoit lives and breathes the blues.
As passionate about his politics as he is about his guitar playing, Benoit brings a largely improvisational style to all his activities, trusting that in the best blues the truth comes from the heart. As Benoit excitedly noted when I recently spoke with him over the phone, “Every show is different for me. It’s all about improvisation. The band doesn’t know what I’m gonna do, and neither do I.” The only way to truly know what his November 8 show at the Earl Warren Showgrounds will be like is to be there and see for yourself. Benoit exclaimed, “I’m a live artist. That’s what I do. That’s my art form and my medium. Recording is a snapshot of my life and music at that time. Every night playing live is where I paint the picture. Every night is a different canvas, and has a different feel.”
Benoit’s most recent release, Night Train to Nashville, captures a live musical snapshot of him in this type of creative setting where he works best. As he stated simply, “It’s better when there are people there.” The album includes many classic guests, including Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie), Jim Lauderdale, Johnny Sansone, Waylon Thibodeaux, and Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson. Benoit described the process of working with these legends as providing him with “a little something different to work from and to learn something from. Playing with them gives a great feeling of accomplishment.”
Yet Benoit’s true measures of accomplishment go far beyond the musical realm. During the course of the interview, it increasingly became clear that his passion for helping people is what defines Tab Benoit. As much as he communicates with his guitar, this 2007 Grammy Award nominee also clearly possesses a powerful commitment to his work as an environmental activist. Most notably, he serves as president of the Voice of the Wetlands, an environmental organization he cofounded in 2003 with the goal of preserving the endangered Delta Wetlands.
Benoit blasts the mistakes he feels that people, and especially the government, have made in letting environmental and economic problems get out of control (he has met with members of Congress to discuss what needs to be done to help the people of Louisiana). He said, “The more I dive into these things, the more I realize what happened here. These are all manmade problems. And when you look at the problems our nation is having right now, they are all manmade.”
Benoit’s desire to put a spotlight on these problems comes across very clearly: “Tell people, Louisiana is in bad shape because of manmade problems. We need a manmade solution. Encourage people to take their next vacation in south Louisiana. They may be able to find a part of themselves that’s missing and find the power to fix it.”
A deep believer in the power of people, Benoit’s philosophy as a musician and as an activist lies in the heart. He elaborated, “The hardest part is letting it happen instead of stopping it from happening. You can talk yourself out of letting your heart into your music because you’re not sure what’s it’s gonna be like. The best I can do is to let it happen honestly.” He cautions that “the head keeps the heart from speaking out.”
Speaking out is exactly what Benoit does. Whether he’s jamming on his guitar or passionately riffing on the need for people to come together as a community, Benoit lives by this philosophy. Of course, there’s always an element of danger is this type of visceral, raw communication, and, on occasion, one is more at risk for playing the wrong note. But, on a good day, during the best jams, a powerful transformative truth carries forth as Benoit strikes a chord for change.
Tab Benoit plays the Earl Warren Showgrounds as a presentation of the Santa Barbara Blues Society on Saturday, November 8, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call 722-8155 or go to sbblues.org.