Tab Benoit,
Fever for the Bayou
(Telarc, 2005)

I recently reviewed an album by Little Milton in which I praised the bluesman for being an ensemble player. It's not a sentiment I can echo in this review. The spotlight on almost every song on Fever for the Bayou is focused tightly on one person, singer/guitarist Tab Benoit. Benoit cooks up a spicy blend of the blues liberally flavored with the Cajun sounds of the Louisiana bayou. The result is hot, sweaty and loose.

Benoit's guitar playing is spontaneous and relaxed. It's capable of elevating a template blues track like "Got Love If You Want It," which in less skilled hands could sound drab and predictable. Benoit delivers the lyric with energy, and injects the song with a six-string sonic kick that transforms it into a raw and elemental experience. And when he turns his attentions to less formulaic compositions the results can be truly stunning. Buddy Guy's "I Smell a Rat" is served up on a bed of understated bass and drums with slowly simmering guitar chording. Occasionally though, the song boils over into a blistering solo of stuttering, angry notes that perfectly matches the song's barely contained frustrations over a lover's betrayal.

The next song, the album's title track, changes mood completely. "Fever for the Bayou" rolls along in joyous celebration of the Louisiana bayou, though I can't help but wish that some of the lead guitar lines had been handed over to an accordion to create an even steamier Zydeco atmosphere. Later, "Blues So Bad," with its John Fogerty swamp-rock tempo, displays yet another musical personality that can be wrung from Benoit's Fender guitar.

If every track found on Fever for the Bayou were as potent as "Blues So Bad" or "I Smell a Rat," this would be an indisputably great disc. Unfortunately, there are a number of weaker songs that bog down the middle of the album. "Lost in Your Lovin'" never quite finds its handle, the guitar break is the least inspired on the album and the melody is unmemorable. "The Blues is Here to Stay" is meant as a tribute to blues greats, past and present, but the lyric comes off like a shopping list, a series of names, absent of real passion.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras chant "Golden Crown," on the other hand, has plenty of punch but seems out of place as Benoit hands the stage over to the song's composer, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. This is a terrific track, but aside from Benoit's guitar breaks it feels like it's been airlifted in from a smoky bar across town. "Golden Crown" might have worked better as the album's closer. As it stands Fever for the Bayou wraps up with proof that Benoit can deliver the goods at less than a fever pitch via a lovely fingerpicked performance of Clarence Williams' "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It."

Fever for the Bayou is an album that, with the strange exception of "Golden Crown," is all about Tab Benoit, his virtuosity, his versatility. And while not every track is a killer cut, he's delivered a disc that captures the furious energy of live Cajun blues without allowing the studio setting to tame it. His guitar playing is both masterful and unchecked, running wild but never overpowering the songs. His robust voice also commands your attention with its driving, pain-soaked rasp. The combination, when the song is powerful enough to withstand Benoit's high-impact delivery, is magnificent. And even the album's weakest tracks are competent enough that they'd shine on a less impressive artist's release. As noted blues historian Art Tipaldi writes in the liner notes, Tab Benoit's music "crackles with intensity."

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 17 September 2005

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