Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars: Schwenksville, PA, August 19, 2012
Philadelphia Folk Festival
August 19, 2012
The farmland northwest of Philadelphia is a long way from the swamps of Louisiana, but the two came together for a good cause at the 51st annual Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville, PA. Closing out the Saturday evening set at the three-day festival that also featured an all-star lineup including John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Wanda Jackson, Little Feat, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and scores more, the Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars brought its message and music to thousands of music fans at the Old Poole Farm and had them screaming for more.
Formed in 2004 by singer, guitarist and Houma, Louisiana resident Tab Benoit, as a means of increasing awareness of the loss of Louisiana wetlands, the group became all the more significant following the flooding of the failed federal levee systems in post-Katrina New Orleans. No doubt that, had the wetlands of South Louisiana been intact, the tidal surge preceding Katrina would have been significantly reduced and may have prevented the flooding of New Orleans. These fragile wetlands, created over thousands of years by the Mississippi River, are an important part of the natural flood control system in south Louisiana. Presently, Louisiana loses 25 to 35 miles of land each year to coastal erosion and salt water encroachment. These lands produce forty percent of the nation's seafood, and some of the best musicians in the country, as was evident this night.
This mix-and-match group consist of some of the top born and bred south Louisiana performers. including pianist/vocalist Dr. John and guitarist Anders Osborne. On this rainy evening, the band included Benoit on guitar, Cyril Neville on percussion, Johnny Sansone wailing on the harmonica, Waylon Thibodeaux playing a screaming fiddle, Johnny Vidacovich keeping the Louisiana beat on the drums and joined by Corey Duplechin rounding out the rhythm section on bass. In the finale, the band was joined by the venerable Big Chief Monk Boudreaux in full Mardi Gras Indian garb.
This band takes its audience on a ride through the various styles of Louisiana music, including Benoit's hard-driving blues, the guitarist managing to break two strings playing hot licks on two of his four available guitars. Neville demonstrated his versatility with his soft, easy voice on the beautifully wistful "Louisiana Sunrise," and switched to the familiar, funky Neville Brothers-style "There Ain't No Funk Like Louisiana Funk." Thibodeaux brought the audience to its feet with his fiddling and singing on the Cajun tune about small swamp boats, "Row, Row, Row That Pirogue."
A highlight of the concert featured Sansone passionately singing "The Lord Is Waiting. The Devil is Too" in fiery evangelical preacher style. Singing so hard that he became red-faced and was physically shaking, Sansone created a frenzy among the audience members who were also feeling his passion. His harmonica playing was remarkable and, coupled with his passionate singing, he nearly had the Folk Fest audience begging for salvation from the energy radiating from the stage.
In a surprise moment for those in attendance, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, one of New Orleans most respected Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, came to the stage for the final two tunes in full Mardi Gras Indian regalia, looking quite "pretty"the high praise word of appreciation for an Indian chiefand leading the band in a traditional Indian call-and-response tune that became hypnotic in its rhythms and voicings. The set finished with the chief leading the audience in an upbeat version of the New Orleans classic, "Lil Liza Jane."
The uniqueness of the Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars is its two-fold purpose. The group represents all that is great about music from South Louisiana; musicians with rhythms and beats that can only come from this area. Musicians from this area are different from others anywhere else in the world. They have cross-pollinated each others' work to the point that the sound has become distinctive and highly recognizable. More than danceable, it is transformative. There is a palpable feeling of joy among the audience members and they are better after hearing this music than before. Depressions seem lifted and problems seem momentarily forgotten.
All of this leads to the second purpose for this group, in reminding audiences that the fragile land that gave birth to these musicians, and the good feelings they bring, is disappearing at an alarming pace. The culture of South Louisiana cannot just be packed up and moved to higher ground. It evolved precisely because the culture emerged in a swampy area where people work hard and play harder. If the land disappears, then the culture and its musicians will disappear with it. The Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars is more than a group of great musicians. If they succeed in their efforts, these musicians may become the cultural heroes that brought the attention of the countryincluding ten thousand rain-soaked fans on a hay farm in Pennsylvaniato the plight of Cajuns, Creoles and New Orleanians that are trying to save their land and culture. And, yes, it will take an act of Congress to do that. The Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars is one of the many voices that needs to be heard to save the land of South Louisiana and, consequently, its musical culture.