By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
That a solo, acoustic singer-songwriter will open Friday night's Cowboy Mouth/Sister Hazel concert at Trees is a bit incongruous. After all, The Mouth, in all their frenzied, sweat-slingin' passion, is one of the greatest live rock 'n' roll bands in the solar system. As such, to book one of those sensitive, "This land is your land" guys to kick things off seems, well, cruel--to the artist as well as the fans.
A Cowboy Mouth crowd, after all, is absolutely evangelical in its devotion to the band. There will be no shortage of beers inhaled, second-line mosh pits navigated, throats wrecked from screaming in supplication to the "be whoever you are" screeds of drummer-vocalist-head-loon Fred LeBlanc--and one needn't worry that car tape players en route to the gig will be blaring much Phil Ochs or Peter, Paul and Mary.
But if the opening folkie in question happens to be Paul Sanchez--the rhythm guitarist for Cowboy Mouth whose new Loose Parts CD is the third in an ongoing series of solo, alter-ego indie label projects--that changes the context a bit. True, the record is very much in the stripped-down, man-with-his-acoustic-guitar context, but Sanchez's inclusion on the bill reminds you that Cowboy Mouth--which absolutely remains the main goal and ultimate concern of its members--comprises four guys whose vibrant creativity can scarcely be contained by one band.
"The group's been especially generous," Sanchez says of his new album and the opportunity to warm up the crowd. "It's a pretty supportive group of guys. I think how incredibly lucky I am to have that outlet--to be in a situation where I know there's going to be a substantial audience there, a decent portion of which will give me their time and attention because I'm in Cowboy Mouth. And that's all the crack in the door anyone could ask."
Admittedly, the singer-songwriter niche is not one of the more substantial cash cows in the recording industry; Sanchez's literate, evocative--but appreciably non-Mouth--opening sets certainly wouldn't happen without his membership in the band. Loose Parts is crammed with delicate love songs for Sanchez's wife, Shelley (the title cut, "Little Boy," "Top of the World"), poetic sketches of his native New Orleans ("St. Louis Cathedral," "Hurricane Party") and anecdotal, typically folk tales of hard times in the land o' plenty ("Making a Living," "Remember When").
On the other hand, one song, "Shotgun In My Soul," has already been adapted by the band for live performance, as have tunes from Sanchez's previous, similarly flavored albums. "Light it on Fire," "My Little Blue One," and "Louisiana Lowdown," off Sanchez's brilliant and critically acclaimed first CD, Jet Black and Jealous, and "Hey Bartender" and "Irish Boy" from the LeBlanc-produced Wasted Lives and Bluegrass, have all peppered Cowboy Mouth records and are staples of the live shows.
"Obviously, some of my solo songs won't translate to the band," Sanchez says. "That goes for all of us. But I don't separate them; I don't think just because I'm playing acoustic that it's folk or blues as opposed to rock 'n' roll. By the same token, I think if Cowboy Mouth gets up on stage and plays any kind of music, then it's still going to sound like Cowboy Mouth. For me, 'Louisiana Lowdown' on Jet Black and Jealous is one version, and then the version by the band on Are You With Me? is another cool version."
And Sanchez isn't the only one to use Cowboy Mouth as a proving ground for solo material. LeBlanc, whose pre-Mouth days in Dash Riprock are the stuff of Louisiana legend, has his own solo CD, the excellent Dammit, from which Mouth hits like "Take It Out On Me" and "New Orleans" originated. A versatile eight-song album taken from hundreds of LeBlanc originals recorded at his home studio, the material on Dammit runs the gamut from a cappella Mississippi chain gang stuff to acoustic pop, heavy metal to the Bo Diddley-esque.
"It's a pretty good little album comprised of home demos which I did on my 4-track recorder," LeBlanc laughs. "But I'm actually pretty good on that, so it sounds, well, as good as a lot of people's records, but where Paul is a singer-songwriter, I'm an arranger. I lock myself in a room with a 4-track, take off all my clothes, and just go nuts."
Indeed, his skills as a Crescent City producer are such that he's earned a gold record for his work on Deadeye Dick's "New Age Girl." It might someday be a post-Cowboy Mouth career, as could his penchant for the written word; LeBlanc is also trying to find the time to shop a book of his own short stories.
"You know," he muses, "one of the problems with a band like this is that everybody doesn't get to do what they want to do. And that's why we try to compensate with doing solo projects. And sometimes we'll do 'em alone, and sometimes we do 'em with each other. Last Saturday, [lead guitarist] John [Thomas Griffith] and I did a show together at Tipitina's. It was billed as me, but John came up and played a large portion of the set on piano; he's a fucking wonderful piano player."