Fred LeBlanc gazes across the House of Blues dance floor at an audience of his peers. LeBlanc and Cowboy Mouth partner Paul Sanchez are performing an acoustic duet set as part of OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Awards, and LeBlanc has just opened with an unsettlingly earnest rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that has the audience members shifting uneasily on their feet. A man of lesser ambition might have cleared the room with such a performance, but LeBlanc has achieved his objective. They are all waiting to see what he will do next.
LeBlanc launches into one of Cowboy Mouth’s several anthems, “Take Me Back to New Orleans,” one of those songs whose context was forever changed after August 29th. He draws murmurs from the audience with an altered lyric — “Take me back to Chocolate City” — then works his magic as the song ends with the backslapping exhortation: “It’s good to be back waddayasay?!”
By the time LeBlanc and Sanchez harmonize the chorus of the band’s best-known song, “Jenny Says,” LeBlanc has the crowd totally under his spell, chanting “Let it go, let it go, let it go! / When the world is coming down on you, let it go!”
The catharsis was palpable. The room itself seemed to exhale in relief. LeBlanc had accomplished his nightly act of shamanism.“All of a sudden that song is pretty relevant around here,” LeBlanc later notes. “We played at Voodoo Fest and we had about 10,000 people watching us. People in New Orleans have been hearing that song for 13, 14 years, but that day every hair on my body was standing completely on end. I just remember getting the audience to sing ‘Let it go, let it go.’ Those people just needed to be screaming ‘Let it go.’ People have to let go of a lot of really hard crap that’s gone down in the last few months. Having our music used as a catalyst for people to feel better even for a moment is a great thing to be part of.”
LeBlanc can also make people do things they don’t want to do. Anders Osborne was guesting on guitar with Papa Grows Funk earlier in the Best of the Beat show when LeBlanc commandeered the drums for the finale, a version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” The rendition was a mighty burner and LeBlanc went Keith Moon-wild at the coda, urging the band through a series of false endings and repeatedly yelling “Jump!” at Osborne until he finally took a tentative hop.
“I don’t like to leave my feet onstage,” a grinning Osborne tells LeBlanc a few days later over lunch at the Praline Connection. “So naturally people were coming up to me after the show and saying ‘My favorite part was when you took that jump.’”
LeBlanc’s persuasiveness is the key to his art and the not-so-secret ingredient to Cowboy Mouth’s success. He will do anything to stimulate a crowd — climbing the scaffolding and diving into the audience are typical moves, although he’s given up the practice of throwing the drums into the audience at the end of the set.
“I don’t know how he does it every show. It takes a lot of balls to do what he does,” marveled Cowboy Mouth lead guitarist John Thomas Griffith.
“He’s like a cartoon character,” adds Paul Sanchez, whose relationship with LeBlanc goes back more than 25 years. “It’s supposed to feel like you’re right on the edge with every song. That’s Fred on the high wire. He’s always on the high wire and he has been for 16 years. If he has to, he’ll light himself on fire. It’s a trick he can only do once, like Daffy Duck does in the cartoon, but he’s willing to go there. That kind of intensity is what Cowboy Mouth is about. There are some big bands who are friends of ours who won’t let us open for them unless Fred tones it down, which of course he’ll never do. It’s our job every night to leave the stage in splinters.”
The band has never had an album that approached that stage intensity until now. After 16 years of struggles, close encounters with stardom, a string of managers and record labels and a bass player problem reminiscent of Spinal Tap’s difficulty keeping drummers, the band is working together more closely than ever, energized by new bassist Sonia Tetlow, and it recently released what is by far the best recording it has ever made, Voodoo Shoppe. The title track is a clever R&B-influenced song about the former apartment of Sanchez’s good friend singer John Boutté, who lived upstairs from a botanica. The album is packed with Cowboy Mouth’s trademark sing-along anthems ranging from power ballads like “Hole In My Soul” to the flat out rockers “Misty Falls” and “Supersonic.” The standout tune is the album-opening “Joe Strummer,” a song that defines the band’s sound. Its catchy chorus is a tribute to Cowboy Mouth’s deep roots in the Clash — Griffith fronted the Clash-inspired Red Rockers, one of the best punk bands in New Orleans in the 1980s.
Sanchez and LeBlanc grew up in New Orleans, and Sanchez gave the drummer his first job when he was just out of high school.
“He came to my garage,” Sanchez recalls. “This was in Kenner. The garage door’s open, this kid drives up and reaches into his trunk and pulls out this drum kit that looks like a toy. It’s really a small kit. He drags it up the driveway and I’m going, ‘Oh. no!’ So I say, ‘Okay, let’s try this’ and it was immediately obvious that he was a great drummer. I asked him to sing some harmony on ‘Sit Down I Think I Love You’ and it was obvious he had a great voice, too. So I said ‘Cool, you’re in the band.’ He says ‘Let’s take a ride to the store.’ We go to the store, he buys a pint of Jack Daniels, asks me if I want a sip and I said ‘No, not really I’ve gotta go back and rehearse.’ He says ‘Okay!,’ downs the whole thing and says ‘Okay, let’s go play!’ I thought it was going to be a rough ride. It was.”
Their stormy partnership was the flip side of the band’s charismatic impact as they fought like Martin and Lewis delight an ever-growing audience. They played together for several years as the Backbeats during the early 1980s before breaking up. LeBlanc joined a rockabilly band, the Mistreaters, before signing on with Dash Rip Rock, where he made his first big splash. Meanwhile, Sanchez moved to New York to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter.
“I swore I’d never play in a band with Fred again,” says Sanchez. “Then I met with the guy who produced Neil Young’s Harvest, and he was interested in signing me, but he wanted to hook me up in a writing partnership with this drummer from New Orleans…”
Sanchez turned him down, but when LeBlanc called him two years later and asked him to join his band, Sanchez reunited with him. The two had known John Thomas Griffith’s work with the Red Rockers from the Backbeats days and asked him to join. The sound was magic, but the old tensions surfaced immediately. With only days to go before their first gig, they had a problem.
“We needed a name, and Cowboy Mouth was the only name we could all agree on,” says Sanchez. “It was the only name that didn’t spark an argument. I read the play, and the monologue about what rock ’n’ roll means is great and Fred sort of lives that, he’s a rock ’n’ roll savior with a dirty mouth.”
Griffith had a hard time coming to terms with the confrontational atmosphere in the group.
“When I joined the band, we went out on the road those first years and they would fight like cats and dogs,” he says. “I never understood it. I thought you were supposed to get along in bands, hang out, party together and have that camaraderie. There was always friction. It was horrible.”
Cowboy Mouth continued to be a popular touring band, but the group never really found itself in the studio, even after being signed for major label deals with MCA and Atlantic Records. “We used to write the songs quickly and go into the studio and bang them out in between tours,” says LeBlanc. “So our records sounded like a bunch of guys banging it out in the studio.” Voodoo Shoppe , on the other hand, emerged out of the chaos that followed a period when the band agrees it probably came closest to breaking up.
“It got to the point where we accepted where we were and didn’t bother to do too much about it,” says LeBlanc. “We had to learn how to care about Cowboy Mouth again. We had to take a hard look and realize that the band wasn’t getting in the way of solo projects.”
As the ’90s came to close, the band seemed adrift. The respect that accompanies a cup of coffee on major labels had worn away, and it was surviving on the strength of LeBlanc’s charisma and the band’s collective energy. The individual members were growing apart creatively, though, and side projects seemed more important. Sanchez made six solo albums and his most significant writing partner was Boutte, while the last Cowboy Mouth studio project, Uh Oh, was essentially a LeBlanc solo record.
“We came close to the end many times, and each one of us individually came close to leaving,” says Sanchez. “There was something inexpressible that wouldn’t let me leave. Part of it was that we’d never been a group on CD. It was always about ‘Am I a good writer? I’m gonna prove I am by getting some songs on the record.’ You’re trying to prove things to yourself and the world. We were a dysfunctional family.”
In early 2004, Cowboy Mouth decided to attend a self-help program as a group.
“Instead of sitting there and privately nursing our gripes, we all came together and communicated with each other,” says LeBlanc. “We hashed out a lot of ugly stuff and it proved to be a really constructive thing for us. Instead of being creative individuals, we decided to try to be a creative collective.”
On previous albums, band members had all brought songs to the project. This time, they determined they would write all of the songs together.
“We decided to make a real Cowboy Mouth album for the first time,” says Sanchez.
The record was recorded in three locations with three different producers — Russ-T Cobb in Atlanta, Mark Bryan in South Carolina, and Mitch Allen and Mike Mayeux in New Orleans.
“We had all been frustrated,” says LeBlanc, “even with our successful records like Are You With Me? because they never really caught what we were all about live. Even if you record a show directly on to a DVD, it’s never going to capture that feeling of being lost in a moment, that swirling miasma of sweat and high intensity emotion. We were very conscious of trying to do that on this record. That’s why we hired Russ-T and Mark and Mitch, because we felt they had a better understanding of how to translate energy through music in the studio than we did. You’d see these acts have these great sounding records and they weren’t half the band we were onstage. These records would sound like eruptions of the soul and we wanted some of that. Before that, we just tried to go in and bang it out and that’s what it sounded like, four guys banging it out. It never had the emotional grandeur that we’d like to think is part of our show live.”
So there they were, in the studio late last August recording the final takes of an album that they felt would define Cowboy Mouth once and for all when the world came crashing down on them.
“We were all in shock,” says Sanchez. “The flood hits and Russ-T has got to finish the record with people who are literally sobbing, glued to the TV, glued to the Internet, watching our city being destroyed and then we would have to go on the road to do gigs and we came back and Rita was hitting. He was really calming. He kept it light, funny, kept it moving and made a great record.”
The band’s newfound unity paid immediate dividends when two new songs emerged in the aftermath of Katrina — “Home,” a defiant vow to rebuild the city, and “The Avenue,” a coming-to-terms with past and future from LeBlanc, who vowed “”I plan on growing old on the Avenue.”
“We walked into the studio with these last two songs, and Russ-T agreed we had to put them on the album,” says Sanchez. “He had a huge hand in arranging them and adding to them. We had written them so fast. With ‘Home,’ I was on the bus with the first few lines and we all worked on it and we had a song. Russ-T changed ‘Avenue,’ fleshed it out and added a maturity to it. It was a pretty upbeat record up to that point, mostly rock ’n’ roll, then we came up with those last two songs and it took a different turn. Fred’s vocal on ‘Avenue’ is the most honest vocal he ever put down.”
Playing live was difficult at first after the hurricane.
“I couldn’t imagine going through that hurricane with a band that wasn’t from New Orleans,” says Tetlow. “We didn’t have to explain how we felt to each other. I don’t know that I would have been able to play shows with any other band.”
At first, the band stopped playing one of its most popular songs, “Hurricane Party,” which Sanchez had written about deciding not to evacuate during Hurricane Andrew.
“It was almost impossible for us to play,” says Sanchez. “I just couldn’t do it. The kids like to throw tootsie rolls during that song and those tootsie rolls landing on the stage sounded like nails in my heart. I just couldn’t sing the song, but kids just kept holding up their New Orleans driver’s license and calling for it. Finally, we got home and we were doing the reopening of the House of Blues show and we put it back in. It was cathartic because it’s the nature of live performance, but they were the most difficult shows I’ve ever played in my life. The best thing about playing music is that you can disappear in the moment.”
Cowboy Mouth has emerged from its turmoil with renewed purpose in the wake of Katrina as the band looks forward to the Mardi Gras record release of Voodoo Shoppe.
“It’s never been more important than now to be in Cowboy Mouth. When you stand up there on that stage and say you’re from New Orleans, it means something,” says Sanchez.“This Mardi Gras counts and I plan on raising as much hell as I possibly can,” concludes LeBlanc. “I intend to have the greatest time of my entire life this Mardi Gras. Everybody who’s in New Orleans now, we’re in charge of saving the city. We’re in charge of saving Mardi Gras. We’re in charge of the culture of the city. It’s up to us whether the city goes on. I’m not talking about my band or myself. I’m talking about everybody who lives here. That’s why we need people to come visit this Mardi Gras, this Jazz Fest. It’s not just about putting some money in our pockets. It’s about saving the culture, saving this creative musical celebratory way of life. If we don’t do it, it won’t get done. Period.”