When the blues burn it down

Louisiana blues innovator Tab Benoit drew an impressive crowd at the Harris Center, marking another success for the Folsom venue

Tab Benoit performed at the Harris Center in Folsom on Nov. 5.

Tab Benoit performed at the Harris Center in Folsom on Nov. 5.

photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

From the Mississippi Delta to the Cajun bayous, the sonic language of the American South continues to be sharpened by the blues. It’s a music that keeps cutting to the center—and into the nation’s soul.

On Nov. 5, one of Louisiana’s best-known bluesmen brought his riffs and licks from the cypress swamps to Folsom’s Harris Center for the Arts. Tab Benoit has long been considered a guitar-wielding messenger for the vanishing coastal wetlands he grew up in, and as he performed song after song about those cattails and oxbows, he received loud applause from a region that’s struggled to protect its own imperiled Delta.

Benoit’s appearance marked the second major act from New Orleans to light up the Harris Center this year. In August, the renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band played to a sold-out audience. Benoit managed to pull nearly the same sized crowd.

The first half of the night was a showcase for Whiskey Bayou Records, which Benoit recently co-founded, partly as vehicle for musicians from Cajun Country. Event-goers arrived to find Benoit parked behind a drum set rather than brandishing his signature Telecaster. The headliner took on percussion duties as songwriter Eric Johanson treated the crowd to his earnest blend of roots-Americana singing and brawny, backwoods guitar grooves.

The combination especially shone when Johanson played “Oh Louisiana,” a track from his new album on Whiskey Bayou, Burn it Down. Benoit stayed on drums during hard-charging guitarist Eric McFadden, who’s also signed to the label. There has always been a little devil legend and mystic distortion in the blues, and McFadden played like a man possessed by both legacies.

After intermission, Benoit finally strapped on his guitar. He quickly had fans clinging to every stinging and sterling note, the naked intensity of his string-bending laid bare against the rawboned backing of a two-piece rhythm section. The bluesman then launched into the calm, fervent fire of “New Orleans Ladies.” Between drawn-out, sultry chords and the stormy way Benoit sings it, it’s not hard to see how the song became a favorite in the Crescent City.

Benoit poured on the Southern charm as he talked to the audience. At one point, he joked about how different the state-of-the-art and meticulously maintained Harris Center is from those old French Quarter saloons and Baton Rouge honky-tonks where he learned to gig.

Near the end, Benoit erupted into his blistering blues apocalypse, “Shelter Me.” The guitar’s lashing snarl overtook the theater, the ominous toms and bass stomps rumbling just under Benoit’s scorched-earth vocals. It was another example of a pure, bottom-up style of music that easily resonates from one delta to another.