Offstage, Benoit mingled easily with the crowd, stepping onto the sidewalk outside to smoke a cigarette, nodding a shy hello to his fans and graciously autographing scraps of paper.
Onstage, his fingers danced a wild progression of blues riffs as he sang about the swamp. A few times, he talked to the audience about his Voice of the Wetlands project. Long before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a collaboration of Louisiana musicians vowed to bring attention to the ecological devastation to their state's hardwood forests, cypress swamps and marshes that shelter vast fisheries, rich deposits of wildlife and a cultural mix found nowhere else in the United States or the world.
Had the wetlands remained undisturbed over the last century, Katrina and Rita might not have been so devastating to New Orleans and the adjacent low country.
But in the rush to control nature after the devastating flood of 1927, the hundreds of miles of southern Louisiana wetlands were cut off from the source of their growth, the Mississippi River, by levees and manmade channels designed to keep the river within its banks. Progress, defined as the growth of cities and industry, could not be impeded by an unruly river, even one as mighty as the Mississippi, which drains 40 percent of the runoff of the 48 contiguous states into the Gulf of Mexico.
As the nation's hunger for natural gas and oil grew in the last half of the century, so did the number of canals cut out of the wetlands for mineral and oil exploration. Industrial and economic progress was measured by thousands of jobs and the construction of massive, pollution-creating chemical factories and oil refineries.
The growth of coastal wetlands, meanwhile, which had remained steady thanks to 5,000 years of sediment deposits and rich networks of uncontrolled waterways, came to a gradual halt and, eventually, declined. An estimated 113,300 acres of wetlands have disappeared in the last 60 years along the coast of Louisiana.
Tab Benoit's blues are the blues of lost wetlands and, potentially, a lost culture. As the bayou and the wetlands flourish, so do its people. When the swamp dies, so do its people and their riches.
Millions of people have toured the Louisiana bayou in low boats, ogling snakes and gators, nutria and raccoons, red fish and mullets, gliding past shrimp and crab boats through the maze of waters crisscrossing the low country. Millions who've never been there feel as if they know the place just because they've inhaled the spicy aroma of gumbo, bitten into a sweet Gulf shrimp, danced to a zydeco beat or listened to a round of New Orleans jazz and blues.
Do these millions care if the bayou survives?
I watched Benoit urging people to care about the restoration of his homeland, and thought of the talking heads on CNN and Fox News dispassionately discussing whether the federal government should bother rebuilding the region. Make the levees higher and impenetrable and turn New Orleans into a tourist haven behind a fortress, some have suggested. Few have extended their curiosity or their generosity toward the bayou, though hundreds of billions of dollars have been promised.
Many ecologists have observed that in nature, as in humanity, everything is connected to everything else. That's what we forgot in our march of progress in the 20th century. It seems the perfect time to correct that and use south coastal Louisiana and the great city of New Orleans as models for new development that acknowledges connection.
In his book, Bayou Farewell, journalist Mike Tidwell reports that every 2.7 miles of marsh between the sea and solid land decreases the storm surge of a monster like Katrina by one foot. South of New Orleans, in the past 35 years or so, 30 miles of wetlands have been lost. You do the math.
Tab Benoit takes his show on the road more than 200 nights a year, connecting with fans who love his music. His hope is that people will hear the bayou and love it, too.
For more, see the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana Web site, crcl.org.