August 2003

Tab Benoit - The Sea Saint Sessions
Telarc CD-83573
Released: 2003

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

All right class, let’s see a show of hands from all those who really dig the blues. Good. Now I want all you fans of Cajun music to raise your palms to the sky. Very nice. After such an enthusiastic showing, I believe that Tab Benoit’s The Sea Saint Sessions will be right up all your collective alleys, a sort of musical balm for your souls.

Benoit, one of the rising young blues stars being looked upon to carry the blues torch into the 21st century, was born and raised (and still lives in) Louisiana. He grew up feeding his musical jones on the local Cajun/blues music scene. But his main influences ended up being the Alberts, King and Collins, and guitar genius Jimi Hendrix -- and if he was going to base his style on anyone’s, those three are about as good as it gets. But you’ll also detect B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan casting their long shadows over the music of Tab Benoit. For the most part, though, you’ll hear Tab Benoit, because he’s distilled all the essences of all his mentors into his own distinct sound.

The Sea Saint Sessions showcases Benoit with his regular band: Carl Dufrene on bass and Darryl White on drums. But, as it was with his previous effort, 2002’s Whiskey Store, the guest musicians help to define this recording. Then, it was Jimmy Thackery and Double Trouble; here Benoit gains support from Brian Stoltz on guitar and vocals, George Porter on bass and guitar, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Cyril Neville on percussion and vocals. And, boy oh boy, do they make beautiful music together.

Benoit wrote or co-wrote eight of the 11 tunes on The Sea Saint Sessions either just before or during the recording sessions -- he considers spontaneity to be the hallmark of creativity. This album definitely lives up to that standard. There’s a loose-jointed, free-wheeling feel to this album that could only come from musicians who’ve either played together for a while, as have Benoit, Dufrene and White, or who are playing music that has shaped their very beings.

Benoit’s at his best when he sticks to his brand of Cajun-tinged blues, as he does for most of The Sea Saint Sessions. The weakest tracks here are the two semi-rockers, "Baby Blue" and "Making It Big." But once you get past those, this album just sings. Highlights include "Hustlin’ Down in New Orleans" with Stoltz, "Boat Launch Baby", "Monk’s Blues" with Boudreaux, and the closer: "Plareen Man" with both Boudreaux and Neville. Even the rockers don’t ruin the overall flow of the disc. It’ll still get you into a Cajun-blues groove from start to finish.

The sonics of The Sea Saint Sessions are almost as ravishingly good as the music. The sound of Benoit’s hollow-body Fender electric guitar is sparklingly clear and laid out front and center. The vocals float in the air just above the guitar. The balance of the instruments hang in their own space behind Benoit. And that may be the only bug-a-boo of this wonderfully musical album -- the soundstage is restricted to an area between the speakers. It’s almost fat mono. But its depth is the saving grace, allowing the music to bloom. The only way I could see an improvement here was if this had been released on SACD, which may be in the works.

So class, what’s your verdict? Yeah, I thought so too. This is one hot, groovin’, Cajun-blues festival -- the kind that seeps deep into your soul and calls to you, asking to be played again and again. Albums like The Sea Saint Sessions and artists like Tad Benoit give us a glimpse of the future of the blues.