By Charlie Carroll
ArtsPost staff writer
“At Mardi Gras, everyone loses their minds to find their souls!” yelled Fred LeBlanc as he stirred the enraptured crowd into a fervor that threatened to tear down the roof of the 9:30 Club. Masks, colorful beads and classic Mardi Gras flags were strewn across the stage, covering amplifiers and instruments alike. Hundreds of rowdy 30-somethings ardently cheered the singer/drummer of Cowboy Mouth on as he looked over the audience from the throne of his red Slingerland drum set.
With eyes closed and hands in the air, Fred LeBlanc humbly requested that everyone hug and get to know the person next to him or her. With all the passion of a Louisiana minister preaching to the congregation, he declared the crowd a community with the sole purpose of celebrating life. He followed with a countdown from four that culminated in an explosion of energy from the crowd, hands in the air, screaming away their troubles. Welcome to a Cowboy Mouth show.
After more than 15 years, 2,000 live shows and at least seven lineup adjustments, Cowboy Mouth still has all the raw energy of any younger, up-and-coming band. The four-piece hails from New Orleans and represents their hometown with all the pride in their hearts. If LeBlanc were to somehow cut his arm on a splinter from one of the hundred drumsticks he tosses around throughout the performance, it would surely bleed Mardi Gras yellow, purple and green.
The band got its start in the early ’90s, releasing its first album, “Mouthing Off,” on Viceroy Records in 1993. They hit it big with their 1996 release of “Are You With Me?”, the group’s first major label release on MCA Records. Since then, Cowboy Mouth has moved from label to label due to some albums’ low record sales. Despite this, the band has steadily persevered because of the passion of its members and a thriving, dedicated fan base that make album sales insignificant. Having sold more than 8 million tickets over the course of their careers, they show no signs of stopping.
Their Friday night show at the 9:30 Club opened with a set by country singer Junior Wilson, strutting with his white cowboy hat and double-neck guitar, and singing his brand of good ol’ country blues. Supported by his clean-cut, gray-suited bassist and drummer, Junior Wilson mumbled out his rolling, bass vocals about troubles with the law, women and the Lone Star state. Wilson seamlessly mixed his Johnny Cash voice with the intricate guitar work of Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose “Pride and Joy” he covered at the end of his set.
Although Wilson’s performance was appreciated (even with the sometimes ear-splitting high guitar notes and simple, repeated bass line), the crowd only really came alive once the lights went out and Cowboy Mouth took the stage. LeBlanc’s drum set sat front and center, clearly positioning him as king for the night. To the left stood lead guitarist John Thomas Griffith in a brown fedora, and to the right rhythm guitarist Jonathan Pretus and bassist Regina Zernay, whose pigtails playfully bounced side-to-side throughout the night.
The group opened with a Fats Domino cover, then into “This Much Fun,” during which LeBlanc stirred the crowd into a frenzy. Throughout the entire night, his dominance over the audience was unwavering, constantly working the crowd up with hand clapping and screams of “I can’t hear you!” followed by deafening shouts from the audience. One fan captured the mood perfectly.
“He’s got so much charisma he can command the whole f****** crowd,” he panted after the crowd favorite “Belly.” “Obama thinks he’s got charisma, but it’s nothing compared to this guy.”
The president could only dream of having the support that Cowboy Mouth had that night. The group’s brand of poppy, alt punk party rock kept everyone on their feet, jumping and dancing for the entire set, begging for more. With his tongue lapping more furiously than Gene Simmons, LeBlanc beat away at the drums, belting out the lyrics to classic, energetic anthems of “I Know it Shows,” “Joe Strummer” and “Jenny Says.” During “Everybody Loves Jill,” the crowd ceremoniously threw a barrage of plastic red spoons on stage at the end of the last verse.
The night’s festivities could be summed up as an intimate tribute to the city of New Orleans and the turbulent, carpe diem spirit of Mardi Gras. In between the tumult of their faster-paced songs, Cowboy Mouth fit in the hometown anthems of “New Orleans” and “I Believe,” the band’s faith-inspiring dedication to the New Orleans Saints, who LeBlanc confidently proclaimed the soon-to-be champions of the 2010 Super Bowl. He also told the audience why their beloved hometown deserved Mardi Gras with a spot-on cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
By the end of the night, despite all the sweat and hoarse voices that were sure to come, fans demanded an encore, unwilling to call it a night. LeBlanc capped the show with “Follow Me” and “Disconnected.” For the audience, the performance amounted to nothing less than a cathartic, religious experience. In the span of only an hour and a half, the raucous Cowboy Mouth chewed up everyone’s troubles and spit out a masterful live performance, reinventing Washington as the nation’s party capital for the night.