Where Guitar Firepower Meets Wetlands Activism
Story By Brett Milano
Photo By Jerry Moran
How did one of Louisiana’s meanest guitar-slingers become a tireless wetlands activist? For Tab Benoit, it was simply a matter of taking a good look around. And when fans from around the country come to Benoit’s Voice of the Wetlands (VOW) festival in Houma next month, he hopes they’ll take a good look for themselves.
As a blues-rock guitarist and bandleader, Benoit tears up the clubs nightly. He hit one of his favorite local haunts, Luna Live, in Lake Charles in early July; and August and September found him covering ground from New Orleans to Dallas to Las Vegas, on up to Colorado and back.
But this time of year also finds Benoit prepping for his annual party with a purpose — a weekend (October 13-15) of music prompted by a concern close to his heart.
“We lose an acre of wetlands every hour; 24 acres every day,” he says. “Do the math on that, and we’re talking about an astronomical amount that’s being lost. But unless you get out of the cities and into the towns, it’s not something that you’re going to see — until a storm comes along and you start seeing water where you never saw any before.”
Now in its 14th year, Voice of the Wetlands (which moved two years ago to its current location, 5403 West Park in Houma) is a themed festival with a difference. It’s not a benefit, since Benoit says that cash wouldn’t do much good — “You can’t go buy the wetlands back from the oil companies.” And you won’t hear a lot of preaching from the stage, since he never appreciates hearing that kind of thing himself.
What you will hear is three days of great music with a south Louisiana slant. The roster includes two of the region’s great, long-running rock ‘n’ roll bands — Dash Rip Rock and Louisiana’s Le Roux — plus younger rockers Colin Lake and the Honey Island Swamp Band, zydeco giant Chubby Carrier, and the funky jamming trio of George Porter Jr. and Brian Stoltz (half of the Funky Meters) with ace drummer Johnny Vidacovich.
The weekend’s usual highlight is the “Friday Night Guitar Fights,” where Benoit faces off with the other best guitarists in the house. Expect enough six-string firepower to set the swamps ablaze.
Still, Benoit does have an ulterior motive. He figures nothing will make people care about the plight of the wetlands like getting them out to where it’s happening. Once they take in the music, the local scenery and the Cajun cooking, they’re more likely to get the picture — especially if they take the festival’s plane rides over the coast.
Benoit is a pilot himself; his original career plan involved airplanes instead of guitars. He’s flown oil execs and tourists over the wetlands, and the aerial view of the disappearing coastline set him on course as an environmental activist.
“That’s probably why I got involved before a lot of people did. You can’t see it by driving along the coast in your car. At the festival we have airlines on call all day long. In fact, if people come to Hammond Air Service in Houma any time during the year, Charlie Hammond will take them up. People take the flight, and in less than an hour they learn what they need to know: here’s what it used to look like, and here’s what it looks like now. They come back shocked.”
It was still pre-Katrina when Benoit began advocating for the wetlands. What he found at the time was a lot of empty public meetings and general indifference. In that respect, he says things haven’t changed too much, and the erosion hasn’t slowed down.
But he did see one positive sign when Gov. John Edwards declared a state of emergency in June. “That’s something I had been waiting for, and I thought it was a great move on our governor’s part — especially since he’s from the northern part of the state. Though you can’t say exactly what it accomplished … Maybe there’s at least more talk about this on the Hill than there was before. What they need to realize is that we’re in a state of emergency all the time.”
You’d think that Benoit might be feeling less optimistic as the festival heads into the Trump era, but you’d be wrong. “I don’t think it makes any difference — no President has ever helped us, no matter who it was. I had friends in Obama’s administration, and they wouldn’t bring it up either. Nobody wants to talk about the wetlands until the next storm comes along. And if you thought Katrina was bad, you just wait.”
Strong words indeed. And they bring up the question of what any concerned folks can do when festival time is over. Benoit’s answer is simple: Go hit your local government and hit it hard.
“If you’re saying ‘I’m just going to vote,’ you’re missing the whole point of democracy. You’ve got to show up; you’ve got to speak out and be part of the solution. And that doesn’t mean going to protests, because you get water-bombed out of the scenario. But there are public meetings going on every week. So get off the couch and make an appointment. That office they’re working in — that’s your office; you paid for that.
“And when everybody starts calling out, that’s when the problems start going away. So if I’m doing anything here, it’s trying to get people involved. Because what you see happening down here with the wetlands — that’s a good example of what happens when they don’t get involved.”
The VOW Festival isn’t the only ambitious project Benoit’s taken on in recent years. He now has his own record label as well. Whiskey Bayou Records was officially launched four years ago, when Benoit produced some sessions for south Louisiana legends Dash Rip Rock. The resulting album Dash Does Shaver (devoted to the songs of Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver) was largely a stone-country album that stood apart from the band’s swamp-rocking output.
“Most people wouldn’t think they could do traditional country that well. I had them singing like the Gatlin Brothers on some of those songs. And I got to play pedal steel, which was pretty cool as well.”
That whetted Benoit’s appetite for getting behind the control board, and he started recruiting some lesser-known players from in and around Houma. The label’s newest release, Step Out by guitarist Jeff McCarty, was unveiled at the Rock & Bowl in New Orleans in July; Benoit turned up for the occasion to play drums as he did on the CD.
For Benoit, the label is part of another personal mission: to get area musicians out of cover-band limbo and provide an outlet for their own material. “Lots of people in New Orleans do the cover-band thing because it’s so easy. You do songs people know; they give you money. Then they walk out and nobody remembers anything.
“Jeff was one of those guys who got tired of that. The label is about trying to get some real music going on. I do all the production, the engineering, the mixing and mastering — basically everything except the artwork. We do things the old way, which means that you play what you feel right now. We record live and sometimes we write the songs as we go along. If the guys in the studio have a good feeling going on and it feels like a great moment, odds are that they’re going to play great. My job is to make sure that the red light is on.”
The label will also release Benoit’s next album (the follow-up to 2015’s Medicine) once he gets around to making it. But he’s in no hurry; for Benoit and his trio the real story is what happens night after night in the clubs.
“Every day is a new day, so I go out there and play on that day. It’s never about going out and playing exactly what we’d rehearsed. They come out different every time.”
And wherever the band goes, they bring some of south Louisiana with them. “People hear that in our sound, and I think that comes from the different rhythms — the more syncopated grooves that come out of New Orleans. We really are the northern part of the Caribbean, and our whole culture reflects that: the food and the music. You could have a whole radio station based on the music of Louisiana. Every genre of music you can name is represented right here in this one little place.”