By Elizabeth Ward
ArtsPost staff writer
“This is no wine tasting. This is kick-ass southern Louisiana rock ‘n’ roll!” exclaims Cowboy Mouth’s front man, Fred LeBlanc.
If the audience wasn’t clued in to the impending pandemonium by the Mardi Gras-inspired set covered in yellow, purple and green paraphernalia, they were reassured of it as soon as Cowboy Mouth stormed onto the stage yelling, “Happy Mardi Gras, DC!”
With a New Orleans craze, a life-possessed front man, almost a dozen album releases, a grueling tour schedule, and a life-changing live concert that has gone unchanged for more than a decade, Cowboy Mouth still continues to electrify its audiences across the country.
The band ransacked the 9:30 Club on a recent Friday with yet another cultish crowd-raising clang. Opened by the laudable but shrilly uninspiring Cash-like Junior Brown, Cowboy Mouth proved anything but lackluster. Their goal of the night (as it is at every concert): Make you live in the moment.
Founded in the early 1990s, Cowboy Mouth entered the music scene back when M.C. Hammer and Sinead O’Connor were the hottest commodities on the charts and alternative rock was just breaking onto the scene. Playing around 200 concerts per year to audiences that rarely reach more than a thousand, Cowboy Mouth continues to wear its New Orleans heart on its sleeve, winning audiences over not by its disappointing albums, but by its live Mardi Gras energy.
Cowboy Mouth is an ever-changing physical conglomeration of characters. Lead vocalist, drummer and psychotic front man, Fred LeBlanc, is a shoeless Jack Black meets Meatloaf meets Yogi Bear persona. He is the justification for Cowboy Mouth’s existence, as he goofily takes front stage at his drumming throne. Lead guitarist and the only other founding member, John Thomas Griffith, is a Mraz vest and fedora hat exterior with a Jimmy Ray Vaughn talent – almost the yen to LeBlanc’s unedited yang.
Bassist of three years, Regina Zernay, is the band’s token anime character. She wildly shakes her red-colored hair in pigtails and rocks a black mini skirt with white patent leather boots, all while keeping the solid bass groove. Finally, rhythm guitarist Jonathan Pretus is the quiet sideliner in his unassuming jeans and characteristic New Orleans Saints “Who D@t” t-shirt. Different from the rest, Pretus seems to defer the spotlight to his alpha band mate characters as they “rip the living hell out of” classic Mardi Gras songs and Cowboy Mouth originals.
Yet somehow this improbable equation works – and rocks.
LeBlanc is the hamster keeping the wheels spinning as he literally feeds off the crowd’s enthusiasm and frenetic energy to make it through the show. Between almost every song, he chants, “Give me rhythm, give me rhythm, give me energy, give me rhythm,” for fear of an idle crowd.
Above all, he reminds us to continuously “scream out all the stuff that’s weighing us down” and to “jump up and down” like there’s no tomorrow. Songs like Glad to Be Alive and New Orleans are feel-good cues for our weary consciousness, while Voodoo Shoppe, Drummer Man and Joe Strummer keep us in a moshpit-like frenzy.
Yet while it is nearly impossible not to drink the juice of this participatory concert revolution, the blueprint of Cowboy Mouth’s music remains astonishingly derived and unoriginal. Even the songs that inspire movement, howls and Bourbon Street bead throwing necessitate New Orleans contexts to keep them cool.
The Hurricane Katrina response, “I Believe”, is a Billy Joel “River of Dreams” song with New Orleans reference. Crowd-favorite “Belly” is a long-lost ’80s anthem, and the only slow song of the night, “How Do You Tell Someone,” is Vertical Horizon mainstream drab. Cowboy Mouth is Barenaked Ladies with stage presence and New Orleans fervor.
Yet for some reason, I don’t really care – and neither do they.
Cowboy Mouth is already aware of its cliché. For the past 15 years, Cowboy Mouth has imparted an unusual survival system: put out albums people won’t buy, and put on concerts that people won’t deny. Essentially, create music that can’t survive — that has absolutely no character — without a Cowboy Mouth-sized live performance.
This explains why their music is so straightforward and their commentary is so desperately optimistic: crowds cannot help but sing and dance along and have an undeniably fun time. Every concert is uniquely the best night of their lives.
They are the spokespeople of what it means to be alive in happiness. Truly, there is something wrong with you if you can stand still during a Cowboy Mouth concert.
As a believer of good music — of unique voices, harmonic textures and profound lyrics, I can honestly say that I would unabashedly go back to a Cowboy Mouth concert in an instant.
Next time, though, I would bring a red spoon to throw on the stage during “Everybody Loves Jill,” practice my hairography to get it just like Regina’s, stand in front so I could hopefully catch one of LeBlanc’s flying drumsticks, and scream along to the much-anticipated 1997 headliner, “Jenny Says.” I would go for no other reason but to experience their life-giving fun.
At the very least, Cowboy Mouth made me a believer of the New Orleans’ Saints imminent Super Bowl victory. More important, they convinced me that a good band doesn’t necessarily need spectacular music — an unparalleled live set and an enraptured crowd can keep you around for decades.
I left that concert proud that I might have contributed to LeBlanc’s black apparel drenched in sweat, and too musically wired to call it a night.
Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.