Mouths to feed

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."

In fact, the multi-talented Griffith was the first Mouther to actually put out a solo CD, though, technically, Son of an Engineer, served as a musical segue between his stint in Red Rockers (he wrote the inescapable 1983 MTV hit "China") and his introduction into the Cowboy Mouth family. Nonetheless, the record was seminal in the group's progress, boasting such material as "Angel With a Broken Wing," "Son of an Engineer" and "Rose On Fire"--all of which are beloved favorites in the Mouth repertoire. The rest of the CD--which was released Germany in '91 and still gets some European airplay--features the anthemic rock of "Crossfire," "Fall Again," and "Waiting For My Call," as well as the flamenco flavorings of the bipartite "The Matador." Plus, as LeBlanc noted, Griffith is a classically trained pianist who ultimately hopes to score movies for a living; he's just been contracted to do his first soundtrack for a full-length feature film about a high school athlete who contracts a terminal illness.

Griffith also gigs with Sanchez, whom he'd known for years. Their acoustic collaboration, the Lonesome Travelers, served as a fine apprenticeship for their present, two-guitar partnership in Cowboy Mouth. Griffith also has two other New Orleans-based back-burner projects--the Fate Brothers and the

Wild Peyotes (the latter of which might well have been one of the seminal alternative country bands).

"The Wild Peyotes started five years ago," Griffith says, "doing what they're now calling, well, put it this way: We were insurgent country when insurgent country wasn't cool. It gets my goat about the timing, but it's really more of an amusing thing. Just for posterity, it'd be fun to get out a disc of that stuff, or at least be on a compilation."

He pauses. "Everybody appreciates being noticed for their individual accomplishments--I'm grateful anyone even knows I have a solo record--but the bottom line is that I'm in this to take Cowboy Mouth as far as we can take it. Whatever it takes. The other stuff is incidental. Fun but incidental."

LeBlanc agrees. "When you have a band that is a combination of four intensely different personalities," he says, "you've got to make room for all those personalities to grow and expand in a creative way. And that's what we do with the solo material. I know the main focus for everyone is the band, but we all can explore different sides of our songwriting and performing--and if something in that works in a certain way, hey, bring it to the band and we'll turn it into something completely unique. As [bassist] Rob [Savoy] is finding out."

Indeed, newest member Savoy, formerly the lead vocalist for Lafayette's immortal Bluerunners, who just joined the band two years ago, hasn't actively pursued solo work--yet. But he's by no means the forgotten Cowboy: It's just that after diving head-first into the Mouth during a string of extended tours--just in time for the recording of Are You With Me?, their major-label debut for MCA, he's only recently had the time to begin composing material for the group.

"It takes time to get acclimated to playing in Cowboy Mouth," Sanchez says. "In his other bands, Rob hadn't really had the opportunity to be a songwriter, and it's something he's blossoming into. We just worked up two of his songs, and they are just two of the best Cowboy Mouth songs that I've ever had the pleasure of playing."

As for a Savoy solo record, his time may continue to be scarce. With sales of Are You With Me? rising steadily--cracking the Billboard Top 200 for the first time last week--momentum may be building at an arithmetic pace, leaving leisure pursuits like solo CDs all-but-forgotten concepts for a while.

In addition to a summer full of festival appearances and headline gigs, the group's scheduled to shoot their first video--for the hit "Jenny Says"--and a performance on a prominent late-night talk show (they can't yet say which one) is all but assured.

In the meantime, all of the members' solo albums (with the exception of Sanchez's Jet Black and Jealous, which is out of print) are available at Cowboy Mouth shows and through the band's website. And Sanchez has just inked a deal through which Loose Parts will be distributed nationwide by the Blockbuster chain. All in all, there's plenty of quality and diverse material out there for the die-hard and curious.

"There's so much going on if you're a true music fan," Sanchez agrees. "When I was a kid and found a new band I liked, man, I would just dig in. I would go and buy every possible record connected with those guys. It becomes a whole mission, and--we've all talked about this many times--what we all do separately is so different that there's no competition musically or any way, really, and it makes us more interesting to ourselves and to the audience. When that happens--from our perspective--the whole thing comes full circle. The more successful we become as a band, then, probably, the more successful the side projects will become."

"It's exactly like I tell the guys," LeBlanc says enthusiastically. "We could all have really good little solo careers. But Cowboy Mouth is our chance to hit the ball out of the fucking park!"

Cowboy Mouth--with Paul Sanchez opening--will perform Friday, June 27, at Trees.


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