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Second-line suburbs

Cowboy Mouth takes Mardi Gras to the masses

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'When you're a kid, five miles might as well be 500," says Fred LeBlanc, who spent his childhood outside New Orleans in a nondescript little town called Harahan. "So when I grew up, yes, I was listening to Lee Dorsey and the Meters and Ernie K-Doe, but I was also listening to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and the Clash."

LeBlanc's band Cowboy Mouth embraces that dichotomy on its newly recorded Mardi Gras EP, which includes revved-up versions of Al Johnson's "Carnival Time," Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras" and K-Doe's "Hurry Up and Know It." A lead singer who also plays drums, LeBlanc sees his group's version of "Iko Iko," which is bolstered by Bonerama's horn section, as "the crystallization of that whole 'New Orleans by way of the suburbs' thing — and it works."

The collection's sole original is a moving acoustic rendition of "The Avenue," a post-Katrina lament in which LeBlanc sings, "My best friend's house lies beneath the teardrops God has bequeathed." The song ends on a resilient note befitting the city that inspired it: "The parades will ride again / I'll see my family and my friends / Because this will not be the end of the avenue / And yes the marching bands will roll / I'll find my city in my soul / Because there's nowhere else to go but the avenue."

LeBlanc, who's spent his adult life in New Orleans, has shown some resilience of his own. He was born deaf due to a blockage in his ears that, because of his underdeveloped lungs, couldn't be operated on until he was 3. During that time, his parents would place him next to the home stereo speakers in hopes of stimulating his hearing.

The musician's career path was further influenced by the "visceral power" of parading brass bands, which eventually inspired him to become a drummer. But it was an early band leader who convinced LeBlanc to become a frontman as well.

"I used to play in a rockabilly cover band, and the lead singer would jump up on my drumriser and bend over and sing to the la-dies," he recalls with a laugh. "And every time he did that, it was literally just a big old giant butt in my face. And I remember thinking to myself at that moment, I am never playing behind anybody ever again."

Cowboy Mouth, which is named after a play by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, dates back to 1990, when the former drummer for Dash Rip Rock (which is joining the band on this tour) took up with guitarist John Thomas Griffith, who'd fronted an MTV-friendly band called Red Rockers.

Being lead singer and drummer at the same time, LeBlanc insists, is "the most natural thing in the world," even if does involve a more modest approach than, say, what you'd see from Phil Collins or Don Henley.

"Those guys were used to having huge massive drum sets, you know, with like eight cymbals and thousands of tom-toms. I play a very small set, and I'm very conscious of being able to make eye contact with the audience. It's that kind of Ringo Starr theory, where if you play a small set of drums, people think you look bigger than you are. And I get that a lot, like, 'Man, you rock! You're kind of a little dude, though, aren't you?'"

bill@csindy.com

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