The true test of a band’s talent, at least as far as I’m concerned, is how well it performs live onstage. Just about any act can record a decent sounding album in the studio, especially if any amount of studio magic is employed to clean up the musician’s shortcomings. Get a band live onstage though, and it’s up to the individual musicians to work together to give their audience a memorable experience. For nearly a quarter of a century the New Orleans band Cowboy Mouth has been going above and beyond in its live shows to make sure each and every fan at their live performances gets their money’s worth. The band’s larger than life frontman, Fred LeBlanc, doesn’t just sing lead in Cowboy Mouth. He also plays the drums (unlike most bands, LeBlanc’s drum riser is pushed up front and center to the edge of the stage), and serves as a sort of combination of circus ringmaster and rock and roll preacher, whipping the crowd into a frenzy that really has to be seen to be understood.
I relayed my first Cowboy Mouth experience to LeBlanc this past Friday evening as we sat in his hotel room next door to the Windjammer on Isle of Palms. Cowboy Mouth was set to play a two night stand at the legendary beach club, and as LeBlanc lounged on one of the hotel room beds, resting up for the show set to start in a few hours, he listened with a knowing smile on his face. I told him how, in the mid-90’s, a friend of mine, Christel, had started raving about this band she’d seen at the Music Farm. “You have to see these guys,” she’d said. “They’re the most incredible live act I’ve ever seen.” At the time I thought to myself, “Yeah yeah, I’ll check them out sometime.”
LeBlanc chuckled at that from his bed, and it was apparent that he’d heard this same story more than once from any number of fans.
After two or three more times of Christel imploring me to come to a Cowboy Mouth show I finally relented. That night at the Music Farm my musical life changed. LeBlanc took his usual place at the front of the stage behind his drum kit, and as the band kicked into “Light It On Fire,” I witnessed a transformation. LeBlanc went from being a smiling drummer from the Crescent City to being a cross between the Tasmanian Devil from those Bugs Bunny cartoons crossed with the WHO’s Keith Moon. My jaw remained on the floor for the remainder of the night, and by the end of the show I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I left the show with the “happy to be alive/nothing can stop me” feeling that going to a Cowboy Mouth show gives you, but at the same time I was pissed off. No, I wasn’t angry at the band, but rather at myself for not listening to Christel earlier. I wanted those three or four shows I’d missed back.
LeBlanc seemed quite amused with my story, despite having obviously heard it many times before. As we talked about the band, it became apparent that giving the audience a good time is at the very core of what Cowboy Mouth is about. While the band has never really achieved what most would consider super-stardom, the little band from New Orleans has had an interesting ride through rock and roll’s trials and tribulations. Fred has been witness to everything from shady mishandling by record execs, to losing the band’s merchandise to Hurricane Katrina, to having to dismiss band members when their egos caused them to lose sight of what Cowboy Mouth was really about. Then again, the band has toured with plenty of big name acts, played all over the US, and counts celebrities such as Kelly Ripa (the band wrote a song about the daytime talk host) Ellen Degeneres (her brother, Vance, played guitar for the band for about a year) and Amy Adams as fans.
Before starting Cowboy Mouth in 1990 LeBlanc played with another great New Orleans band, Dash Rip Rock. He left that band after four years to work on a solo career. When a record exec advised him to get a band together, LeBlanc gathered together guitarists John Thomas Griffith and Paul Sanchez and bassist Paul Clement, and Cowboy Mouth was born. Only Griffith and LeBlanc remain from the original lineup, and the band has seen a steady stream of new guitarists and bassists over the years. Most recently added to the band is bassist Brian Broussard, who has been onboard all of two weeks and joins guitarist Matt Jones as the newbies of the outfit.
LeBlanc talked fondly of playing in Charleston, a town that has always had an enthusiastic following for Cowboy Mouth. “I remember playing the old Music Farm down on East Bay Street for about a hundred people in the 90’s,” said LeBlanc. “Our friends from Hootie and The Blowfish always told us about the Windjammer, but we didn’t find out until later how cool that club was.” LeBlanc credits Hootie, who’s star was on the rise at that time, for much of his band’s initial success. “Those guys were very good to us,” said LeBlanc. “They took us out on tour with them. I remember at the time we went from playing a dive bar in Lafayette for college kids to opening for Hootie at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Darius (Rucker) and the guys in Hootie were also responsible for us getting our first major label deal.”
Surprisingly, LeBlanc was quick to tell me that he doesn’t consider himself the best singer or musician out there. “I’ve always been really good at moving energy,” he said. “As a kid on Sunday mornings I used to watch the religious programming that came on before the cartoons. I was always drawn to the way the preachers were able to get the crowd going, and I wanted to have that sort of power over an audience. Since I wasn’t going to be a priest, I decided to incorporate it into music.” Indeed, attending a Cowboy Mouth show often feels like a beer-soaked, rock and roll tent revival. LeBlanc is all about spreading positivity and getting the crowd to “Let It Go,” as the lyrics to one of the band’s most popular songs, “Jenny Says,” goes. “I want to show people the best in themselves,” said LeBlanc. “It’s not about the band, it’s about the audience. I always try to look at the show from the audience’s perspective. If you’re coming out to the Windjammer, you’re probably bringing a date, so that’s $40 for tickets, then you’re probably getting something to eat before the show, getting drinks at the show, then there’s gas to get there. It’s already a pretty big investment for one night of fun, so we try to make it worth what our fans pay.”
If the energy level at last Friday’s Windjammer show was any indication, it would appear that the fans definitely got their money’s worth. After a medley of upbeat music over the PA system by bands such as The Beatles, Neil Diamond (the crowd sang the appropriate “Ba-ba-ba!” parts during “Sweet Caroline”), and Elvis Presley, the band hit the stage just before 11pm and kicked into “Light It On Fire” as LeBlanc drummed up a storm and got the crowd hyped. After gauging the crowd’s energy level and appearing to be dissatisfied, LeBlanc put on a concerned face as he admonished his fans good-naturedly. “That’s not the energy level I expect at a Windjammer show,” scolded LeBlanc. “If I was in Columbia, then I might expect that. If I was in Savannah, then I might expect that, but I’m in Charleston, South Carolina, and I expect better. ARE YOU WITH ME?!?”
And the crowd was with him, down to the last person. Even the guy in the Cowboy Mouth t-shirt dancing madly in the back corner of the club. Even the older woman in the motorized wheelchair parked right in front of LeBlanc’s drum kit, rocking back and forth and obviously having the time of her life. Even the man in the Hawaiian shirt that LeBlanc dubbed “Mustache Guy,” and made up a song about on the spot because he was standing with his arms folded during the opening song, and there was no way in hell that was going to keep happening at a Cowboy Mouth show. Even this writer, who eventually gave up trying to dance and take photos at the same time. I guarantee you every soul in that club had a blast on Friday night, and then again on Saturday if they chose to return for the band’s second show. During Friday’s show the band tried out a few songs from its new CD, “GO!” The new tunes, including the title track, were well-received, but it was the Cowboy Mouth classics, especially the show closer, “Jenny Says,” that really got the crowd going. Everyone left the Windjammer sweaty and spent, but with a huge case of permagrin. Even Mustache Guy.
Devin Grant’s love for live music began back in 1982 when he won tickets off a local radio station to see Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. Had that show been anything other than epic, he would probably be an accountant, or perhaps a podiatrist. Since that fateful day Devin has attended hundreds of live shows. Once he figured out that he could get free tickets in return for writing about the shows, music journalism seemed a logical choice. Devin’s work has appeared in Charleston’s Free Times, The Charleston City Paper, The Post & Courier, Charleston Magazine, and No Depression. He has interviewed the likes of Mike Watt, The Rev. Al Green, Tori Amos, Mike Doughty, Warren Haynes, and Loretta Lynn. He has photographed hundreds of bands, including The Police, My Morning Jacket, The Eagles, Willie Nelson, White Stripes, and Taylor Swift.