Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cowboy Mouth

This was my most contentious piece ever. The editor of Yall loved the idea. The band loved it (and the publicist loved it, of course). My photographer colleague, Tom Beck and I met them in New Orleans, I wrote it, and we submitted our work. The photo editor kept asking Tom for different shots - the editor had no idea what he wanted, and he apparently was still in college. The editor I was dealing with had left and the publisher was running things. He decided that he wanted a Southern People and bumped this story without notice for one issue. No big deal, except that, in doing so, the band released a live album in the interim and their publicist wanted that in there now. Further troubling things was that the publisher changed his deadline for work three times, finally calling me and saying he needed a rewrite and could I do it in 10 days? I told him I could. He called me 2 days later and asked where it was. I told him I still had 8 days. He said he meant 2 days, but said 10. I sent him a rewrite, which someone reedited, and they published it. This is the version I originally submitted.

November 28th, the night after Thanksgiving. A crowd approaching one thousand men and women have come in out of the cold and filled Howlin’ Wolf, a music club in the warehouse district of New Orleans. The patrons, who have been warmed up by local punk-pop band, Gang of Creeps, and by a three-song reunion gig by The Red Rockers, generate happy, anxious excitement. They crowd the stage, awaiting Cowboy Mouth, one of the South’s favorite bands.
When the band takes the stage, an eruption of cheers that would be more at home in a stadium greets them. With little ceremony, they launch into “Light it on Fire,” a barnburner guaranteed to create a roar. It does. By the time they tear into their second number, “Disconnected,” the crowd is moving as one organic unit, almost desperate to absorb the band’s energy and return it to them tenfold. In return, Cowboy Mouth does their level best to blow the audience out the front door.

Standing front and center, Fred LeBlanc, the Mouth’s lead singer and drummer, pounds the skins and exhorts the fans to cheer, to jump, to take part in the show. The front man and chief cheerleader, he builds energy both on and off the stage with his ferocious drum work, his vocals, and his interaction with the crowd. He brings them into the show, refusing to let them be passive witnesses to the performance. There are no passive witnesses.

“They make sure you leave a show feeling better than when you arrived,” says fan Ginger Winstead. “It’s a catharsis. They won’t let you leave unhappy.”

This tall order might break a lesser band. Cowboy Mouth – LeBlanc, guitarists John Thomas Griffith and Paul Sanchez, and bassist Mary LaSang – play between 150 and 200 shows every year, to an estimated one to one-and-a-half million people. But these folks are not a normal band. They thrive on the road, playing venues of any size, from small intimate gatherings to festival concerts of 50,000 or more.

“It’s all the same,” LeBlanc says. “The same energy, whether you’re playing to a big crowd in a big space or a small crowd in a small room. It’s just what we put out. People respond to it.”
People respond to them. Alternately standing over and sitting at his drum riser, LeBlanc becomes the on-stage focal point for the band’s activity. A cheerful Everyman off stage, LeBlanc becomes a larger than life force of nature onstage, whipping the audience into frenzy with the fervor of a tent revival.

Griffith provides raw guitar power in the blues-punk style, preferring a playful stage presence to the trite angry guitarist image. He is also the band’s primary keyboardist, effortlessly switching instruments and never disturbing his ever-present cowboy hat.

Sanchez plays versatile guitar, switching from lead to rhythm to acoustic with nary a beat. He is the stylish Mouth man, with an aura of quiet, Crescent City cool that creates a counterpoint to LeBlanc’s intensity. Sanchez addresses the crowd frequently and easily, poking fun at himself and his band mates.

Prowling the stage is LaSang, seemingly unable to remain still. She brings a dash of fearlessness and sass to the band, without becoming the token female. She is a bass picker, creating a fat-bottomed sound to the music that gives her band mates more room to play. She smiles broadly – and often – clearly happy with where she is now.

Occasionally dismissed as a “frat boy” band, Cowboy Mouth is more of a bouncy blues-rock project, melded with a sheen of Clash-era punk, an occasionally raunchy sense of humor, and an overwhelming sense of Southern style. All four are gifted musicians, able to play various instruments. Everyone sings and everyone writes music.

Cowboy Mouth came into being almost by accident. The three men were all veterans of the New Orleans music scene. LeBlanc and Sanchez were in a band together before LeBlanc joined legendary swamp rockers Dash Rip Rock. Griffith fronted The Red Rockers, the political punkers who rode to fame on the strength of “China,” a huge single of the early ‘80’s. Griffith and Sanchez both suffered dead-end solo careers. Sanchez grew so frustrated with the music business that he left it altogether for a few years to work in the movie industry.

In 1990, LeBlanc called Sanchez and told him he had a solo record deal and invited him to join him on the album.

“[I] quit my job on the movie, came home, we drove three days to a studio in Wisconsin, and his A&R guy flew in and said, ‘I’m sorry, Fred. I got fired and you got dropped.’ Fred looked at me and went, ‘Sorry, dude. I hope you can get your job back.’”

He didn’t. Instead, they decided to put together another band.

“We rehearsed for two or three months and we stunk. We were lousy,” LeBlanc says. “It was me, him, and a bass player. We tried, tried, and tried, but we stunk.”

Eventually, they recruited Griffith, who was working in a whole foods store in New Orleans. It made all the difference.

“From the first song we played together, it was magic,” says LeBlanc. “We went from stinking really, really bad to being really, really good in the space of three seconds.”

“I know when we all finished, I can honestly say, we all three…looked at each other.” Griffith taps his chest. “I can feel it right now, like I just want to take a big old deep breath. I definitely went, ‘this is going to rock. This is going to be fun.’”

Together, the three formed Cowboy Mouth with bassist Paul Clement. Over the years, the band has Spinal Tapped their way through a series of bassists; including Steve Walters and Rob Savoy. Savoy, a six-year veteran of the band, left amicably after Mardis Gras in 2003. After his departure, the band sought a fresh sound and found it with Mary LaSang, from the band Dingo 8. She was the first bassist to audition.

“When Mary joined, she added fire,” LeBlanc says. “She’s got a great attitude, a great spirit. She’s a wonderful player. She’s game for anything. She doesn’t have that hesitation that sometimes guys will have on stage, because they’re trying to look cool.”

LaSang suddenly found herself as a member of one of the hardest-touring bands in the country. “The biggest thing for me was – and still is – is that I’ve never been away from home, traveling so much, on a bus.” But it has its pluses as well. “I’ve never been able to play music full time, without having a day job. That’s a really wonderful thing.”

LeBlanc says the rest of the band gets a bonus from LaSang being a member: “It’s fun to see what we’ve experienced for a while, by someone who is completely new.”

Sanchez agrees. “She really kicked us in the butt and reminded how fun it is to play rock and roll for a living.”

Cowboy Mouth is currently touring in support of Uh-Oh, their eighth album, and their first with Bay Area-based 33rd Street Records. The record is arguably the band’s most radio-friendly release yet, meshing their robust stage-ready style with a modern rock edge that elicits comparisons to the Foo Fighters and Barenaked Ladies.

“Can’t Stay Here,” written and sung by Griffith, adds a distinct Southern California feel to a bluesy lament. “Invincible,” a driving Sanchez/Griffith number with Sanchez on vocals, harkens back to mid-‘80’s pop rock as performed by the Foo Fighters. “Disconnected,” the current radio single, manages to turn the feeling of alienation into a jumpy, upbeat number.

“You are, to a certain extent, responsible for what you put out there,” LeBlanc says. “You can’t translate the experience for your audience all the time, but you can do your best to put out something that’s constructive, instead of destructive.”

“With Cowboy Mouth, we consciously made a decision to try to do something positive initially. We weren’t sure how we were going to do it, but we knew we didn’t want to be a regular negative band.”

“We never discussed how to do it,” Sanchez says. “We never conceptualized the band. We just got out there and went, ‘duh,’ and it was good. As long as we keep doing that, I think we’ll keep being good.”

“I’ve never seen a band who puts more heart and soul into their music,” says Andrea Blum, who flew from Detroit to see the show. “Their live shows are like no other. You have to take part…and be thankful to be alive.”

Cowboy Mouth roars through a twenty-two-song set of new cuts and the classics: “Everybody Loves Jill,” “Hurricane Party,” “Jenny Says.” When they finally leave the stage, they – and the audience – are exhausted, sweaty, and feeling on top of the world. The tumult of cheers and applause remains long after they have gone.

“I always try to remember that feeling when we first started playing,” LeBlanc says. “We’ve been fortunate to have this thing last as long as it has. I still try to play with that give-it-everything-now, because one day when I’m sixty or seventy, I just want to say, ‘I had a ball. I played in one of the best bands in the world and gave it everything.’”

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