It's Friday night in St. Louis, and inside the Pageant Theater, 2,000 people are soaking up a powerful message from Fred LeBlanc, drummer and vocalist for the New Orleans-based outfit Cowboy Mouth. Sporting a T-shirt bearing a one-word caption -- INTENSE -- LeBlanc prowls the edge of the stage, microphone in hand, assuring audience members that, despite what the world may tell them, they can do anything they want to, if only they set their minds to it.
"Are you WITH me?" he asks the nearly frantic throng, a group composed of people of all ages, most of whom have their fists stuck straight up in the air. The crowd roars back affirmatively; its collective wailing rattles the rafters in the restored theater. It is a scene that seems more suited to a revival tent or a political rally than a concert hall. A moment later, however, LeBlanc takes his place not at a pulpit, but at a drum kit plunked down in the center of the stage. He lays down a fevered wallop and flips the first of many pairs of drumsticks high over his head and into the stage drapes behind him.
So begins another concert by Cowboy Mouth, America's motivational-rock-and-roll machine.
Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue
8 p.m. Friday, June 8., $16, 303-830-6700
While many acts in popular music scramble for a label to separate them from the pack, Cowboy Mouth has carved a unique niche with a mix of self-empowerment anthems and radio-minded pop. Ten years in the making, the band's sound -- equal parts Anthony Robbins, Stuart Smalley and Hootie & the Blowfish -- is luring fans who crave Cowboy Mouth's odes to the power of positive thinking.
Here in St. Louis, there's no doubt that the you-can-do-anything message is what the crowd has come for. The vibe peaks late in the set when LeBlanc slips from behind his kit to roam the theater and lead the masses through a particularly uplifting Cowboy chorus. At one point, he asks the crowd to go silent while he holds a microphone over the upturned face of a girl of about ten. She's been singing all night from atop her dad's shoulders, and as the room quiets, LeBlanc instructs her to the show the audience how one really cuts loose on a Cowboy Mouth song. "Sing it like you're all alone in your room," LeBlanc asked politely, "like it's just you and the song and your Britney Spears stereo." A moment later, her tiny fist waving, she delivers her lines with adenoidal fury. "Let it go, let it go, let it go," she shouts. "When the world starts crashing down on you, let it go, let it go, let it go." As the kid finishes, the crowd roars, and the band kicks back in.
These moments are what LeBlanc and his bandmates (guitarists John Thomas Griffith and Paul Sanchez and bassist Rob Savoy) live for.
"For whatever reason, Cowboy Mouth is able to do that, even if it's for a brief second," LeBlanc says. "It's a real blessing, and it's great. And why not celebrate it? Why not have fun, dance your ass off, sweat like a pig and scream like you're having the greatest orgasm of your life? That's what it's all about." It's also key, LeBlanc says, to winning the game of life. "People get beat down so easily," he says, "because the media says if you don't smoke this cigarette or buy this car or have this haircut, or have big tits or washboard abs, you're basically worthless. To hell with that. We're all just little kids, we're all just celebrating. I say find that little thing inside you that makes you think that you kick ass, and run with it. Because you know what? It's right."
But while LeBlanc admits his act centers around a yes-I-can credo, he bristles at the suggestion that his music is designed as some unrealistic self-help tool. "It's not like we're Up With People or anything like that," LeBlanc says. "We don't just sing about how everything's happy, everything's great. Some of the songs we've written deal with the harsh realities of life. But there are many different ways that you can deal with what happens to you. We choose to celebrate it all, the good and the bad things. Because by acknowledging them, you have the power to wash them out of your system."
Such comments are enough to drive those who crave less strident messages straight to the exits. LeBlanc's Keith-Moon-meets-Sergeant-Carter stage persona is also likely to prove too much for those who savor subtlety. But LeBlanc's gonzo attitude is a hit with his audience, and it's something he's proud of today, especially considering his past. LeBlanc grew up like many teens, confused about who he was and where he fit in. He spent some of his youth abusing himself to the point of carving his own skin. But he found relief from his teenage troubles in the form of music.
"Rock and roll pretty much saved my life," LeBlanc says. "I was just real angry, real pissed for a large part of my life -- one of those pissed-off kids who would be self-destructive and really didn't want to live, didn't see any point in it. Listening to music, stuff like Bo Diddley, Howling Wolf and the New Orleans music of the Neville Brothers, along with newer stuff like the Clash and REM, really opened my eyes to what was possible. It woke something up inside of me that I haven't wanted to put back to sleep. Ever."
LeBlanc began making his own music in his hometown of New Orleans. After playing in a few bands around the Crescent City area, he drummed for legendary Louisiana barn-burners Dash Rip Rock before joining forces with Griffith (formerly with the Red Rockers), ex-Blue Runners bassist Savoy, and Sanchez. Cowboy Mouth has since released eight recordings, with sales estimated at more than 400,000 copies.
The band's current disc, Easy, was released on Atlantic/Blackbird last year and is, like its shows, a mixture of anthems and radio rock. And also like its companion live shows, the disc is at its best when LeBlanc is leading the group through upbeat numbers, pairing his saber-rattling with a welcome tad of campiness and humor. The title track and lead single is a pop basher that calls to mind the '80s new wave of the Call, with blaring guitars and thundering drums bringing home the Mouth's message: "Easy to feel like there ain't nothin' in your life/Harder to work, harder to strive, hard to be glad to be alive/But it's really worth it if you give it a try." "All American Man," which roars in with a giant "I Want Candy" groove, hints at the rousing, fist-in-the air feel of the group's shows, with LeBlanc singing with a tongue tucked partially in his cheek. "Get Out of My Way" delivers the same enjoyable punch and more Cowboy philosophy: "Don't give a damn about what anybody thinks I've done/While you were nice and happy, I was out here havin' fun."
Unfortunately, the recording loses ground when the band drifts away from its message -- or when LeBlanc hands the reins over to his mates. The Latin-flavored "Let Me Hold it Open" sounds as if it was written with Ricky Martin's sales figures in mind, complete with a Mexi-melt guitar solo and saucy studio touches. Griffith and Sanchez's "Everybody Loves Jill" sounds as blatantly commercial: In the song, the pair lifts the drum pattern from Gary Glitter's "Rock II" and pairs it with a dumb tale of a woman the world loves simply because she surrounds herself with red things. If it weren't so darned serious, "Always Leaving" would be a perfect '80s rock parody, loaded with awful lines ("Just like whispers from the well/The bartender rings me like a bell"), mystical studio accents (wind blowing in the background!) and enough feigned earnestness to make Bon Jovi blush. The disc also includes a remake of Griffith's Red Rocker hit "China" that dilutes the radio gem into a heavy-breathing mess that resembles Lenny Kravitz at his MTV-sexy worst. Still, despite these glaring flaws, Easy is doing well: The title cut and "How do You Tell Someone" are getting airplay on FM radio around the country and adding to Cowboy Mouth's fan base.
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The band's cynicism-smashing message is fueling that progress. LeBlanc said he had an epiphany a long time ago that is largely responsible for this aspect of his music: After years of counting on performing as a way to vent frustration and anger, his outlook shifted. As he recalls, "I thought to myself, 'If I'm going to do this and I'm going to be passionate about this, instead of doing something that's going to beat me down and deplete me, why not do something that ultimately makes me feel stronger and better about myself and about life?'"
That thinking certainly resonates with Cowboy Mouth's followers -- a group that includes a significant number of people of faith as well as dyed-in-the-wool rock-and-rollers: The typical Mouth gig is as likely to draw freshly scrubbed kids and silver-hairs as down-and-dirty rock fans. LeBlanc says the group has struck a chord with a segment of the Christian rock audience, but he's not one to preach to any demographic. "The whole thing about faith is, you've got to be careful about how you use it," he says, "because sometimes it will turn people off. The thing is, you come out to see Cowboy Mouth to celebrate your ass off. People can take from that what they want." The band, he says, "is just trying to translate that love, that feeling, that communication to other people."
Which is exactly what its members hope to be doing on its current tour across the United States: pushing a few buttons and helping listeners change through the power of music. But, LeBlanc, notes, even the musically impaired can make the sort of changes he himself made years ago.
"People can find that same switch through any means," he notes: "It doesn't have to be music. People just have to find that part of themselves that tells them they're special. That part that the world might have tried to kick down and might have succeeded in kicking down. The whole idea is to awaken that happy monster inside each and every one of us."