Tab Benoit is no longer the blues' best-kept secret.
Making his first performance in Orange County since his stunning 75-minute performance at the Doheny Blues Festival in May, the Louisiana bluesman headlined before a near-capacity crowd at the Coach House on Thursday night (Sept. 20, 2012). As he went on to prove throughout his second-ever performance at the veritable San Juan Capistrano venue ("Thank you for having me back; its been awhile"), lightning can definitely strike twice.
With 50 minutes more at his disposal than his set in Dana Point four months ago, Benoit unleashed flashy guitar play, top-tier singing and compelling storytelling about life in the Bayou with a mixture that worked especially well in the intimate setting. What was thankfully clear from his opening shot, the high-octane "Why Are People Like That," his style is at odds with the been-there-done-that presentation of Chicago blues-minded acts that are so plentiful nowadays. I can recall no other shows hearing the headliner discuss the joys of eating alligator and frog.
Backed by a bassist and drummer, Benoit played with a delicious ferocity where he wrapped loads of guitar solos around sung verses and choruses. Breaking guitar strings (as he did during several tunes) never slowed him down or diminished the power of his set. "That was the five-string version of that song ("Why Are People Like That")," he joked after noting breaking a string at the beginning of his set. "Not on purpose, but that's okay."
On the second song, "Night Train" he performed several inspired solos, with a full range of dynamics and seemingly-endless tones plucked from one of a trio of Fender guitars he used. In his skilled hands there were whistling strings, speedy runs and bends that seemed to add up to a language all of their own.
Even on the R&B-tinged ballad "Sunrise" where his emotive vocals were displayed, Benoit availed textured and magnificent guitar work to bring another level of beauty to the song. He minded similarly-powerful depths on the gospel-flavored "Shelter Me."
On "Medicine," a heavy mixture of blues and rock marked a late-in-the-set highlight, with Benoit and bassist Corey Duplechin locking into a heavy groove on their way to a powerful finale with still more breathtaking guitar work.
Throughout the entire show, which didn't end until after midnight, Benoit demonstrated that he has earned his place alongside Joe Bonamassa and Derek Trucks as one of this era's best and most original blues guitar heroes. And as her proved during a lengthy and jaw-dropping drum solo late in the night, Benoit seems to be gifted at just about everything he does.