Cajun blues legend and wetlands restoration leader comes to PAC3

Protest tunes don’t typically sound like Delta blues or Cajun music, but Tab Benoit is changing that.

The Louisiana guitarist and singer has paired his on-stage skills with environmental activism that hits close to home for him. He’s become a leader in the call for wetlands restoration along the Gulf Coast, an issue that receives national attention only when storms threaten or hit Louisiana, as Hurricane Isaac did last month.

Benoit, who plays the PAC3 in Carbondale on Thursday, is also founder and president of Voice of the Wetlands, a nonprofit advocating for coastal restoration.

While it did damage and knocked out power in southern Louisiana for days, Isaac’s damage isn’t comparable to Hurricane Katrina’s from 2005, largely because a new levee system around New Orleans held up this time and prevented flooding.

Benoit rode out the storm at his home in Houma, La., outside New Orleans.

“We got lucky because the eye of the storm sat on top of us for a whole day,” Benoit said. “The eye is the calmest place. If it goes 20 miles west it’s a whole different story.”

The fury with which the hurricane hit southern Louisiana would have been far less furious, he noted, if the wetlands were in their natural state and protecting inland communities like Houma and New Orleans.

“Every time a storm comes through it opens the discussion again,” he said of renewed calls for coastal restoration in the wake of Isaac.

An acre of wetlands per hour on Louisiana’s coast disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the last 20 years, the Gulf itself has moved about 20 miles closer to downtown New Orleans and Houma. An estimated 1,500 square miles of wetlands have turned into open water since 1930 on Louisiana’s coast.

The result is far less natural protection against hurricanes. Wetlands have historically taken the brunt of storms at their worst, serving as a “speed bump” before they reach significantly populated areas.

“Our best protection against storms is the marshes and the coastline and it’s disappearing,” Benoit said.

Isaac’s highest winds blew at 80 miles per hour and the storm caused an estimated $3 billion in damage in the U.S.

Benoit and others have been pushing for years to restore the coastal wetlands, which host an ecosystem of their own and fisheries as well as providing natural hurricane protection. Benoit founded Voice of the Wetlands in 2004 — a year before Katrina brought the issue into the national spotlight — and it remains a leading wetlands advocacy group.

The wetlands are eroding largely because of the way the Mississippi River was redirected with federal levees a century ago, stopping it from depositing silt and nutrients into the delta where it would naturally. But doing anything on the ground to restore the coast has failed to gain political traction in Washington. Benoit provided testimony in congressional hearings on the issue in 2008, but has been frustrated with the lack of progress as the coast disappears.

“We’re ready to talk whenever they are,” Benoit said of the nation’s elected leaders.

Next month in Louisiana he’ll host the annual Voice of the Wetlands Festival, which blends activism on the issue with performances by Benoit and other Louisiana musicians. This summer he toured with his Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars Band, which includes keyboardist Dr. John and Mardi Gras Indian chief Monk Boudreaux.

Last year, Benoit and the band released an album, “Box of Pictures,” following up on their 2005 self-titled debut. The record is part of what has been a prolific artistic stretch for Benoit. Earlier this year, he released a greatest hits record called “Legacy” and last year also had a solo album, “Medicine.”

Benoit’s lively performances and guitar skills have made him the standard bearer for Cajun blues around the country. He’s made frequent stops in the Roaring Fork Valley, playing the Belly Up Aspen and the Thursday Night Concert Series in Snowmass Village, which included an impromptu jam with Aspenite and rock legend John Oates.

“Basically, I don’t know what’s going to happen until I get up there and start,” Benoit laughed. “I like to have it open and free so we can roll with the moments.”

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