What better way to ease earthquake jitters than with a Bayou-flavored swamp romp? That’s one reason why a near capacity crowd turned up at the Birchmere Tuesday night to hear Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars conjure something akin to an abbreviated edition of the New Orleans Jazz Festival —“all in one economical package,” as blues guitarist and band co-leader Tab Benoit put it.
Benoit spoke about the group’s mission to help preserve and protect coastal wetlands, but only briefly, as if aware that the concert’s pacing was tricky enough given the talent assembled. Besides Benoit, the show generously showcased a Louisiana-seasoned front line featuring guitarist Anders Osborne, percussionist Cyril Neville, fiddler Waylon Thibodeaux, and accordionist/harmonicist Johnny Sansone. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who wore a MardiGras Indian costume crowned by a towering and brightly plumed headdress, joined the band’s vocal ranks late in the show.
At first it looked as if Neville’s soulful croon would be eclipsed by a thundering guitar squall, to say nothing of the fierce attack forged by bassist Corey Duplechin and drummer Johnny Vidocovich. But halfway through “Louisiana Sunshine,” Neville’s voice and personality began to peek through the resonating mix, evoking the golden age of Crescent City R&B. The lineup boasted several strong singers, though none more powerful than Sansone, who has the kind of steel-belted vocal cords that bring Howlin’ Wolf to mind, or more engaging than Thibodeaux, a charismatic showman.
The tunes were drawn from several places — the band’s recordings, solo CDs and traditional sources — but what the All-Stars played wasn’t nearly as entertaining as how they played it. The rhythm section was unflagging, with blues shuffles giving way to slippery grooves and sharply syncopated second-line struts. Benoit mostly played fluid, single note lines, while Osborne emphasized jarring slide guitar riffs. Now and then, though, the two musicians fell into elegant sync, matching bent note for bent note and producing streaming harmonies. Switching back and forth from harps to squeeze box, Sansone bridged southern roadhouse shouts with zydeco dancehall thrust, while Thibodeaux’s electric fiddle vibrantly amplified early string band and Cajun sounds.
With the crowd singing along, the festively attired Boudreaux saluted Professor Longhair (via a chanting “Go To Mardi Gras”) and helped cap the concert with “Li’l Liza Jane,” colorfully punctuated by Benoit’s chicken-pickin’ licks.