Every once in a while it’s healthy to come back to your comfort zone. On my way to see Ben Labat and the Happy Devil play, I knew I was in for a scene of familiar faces, affectionate crowds, and potent drinks. In fact, while paying cover at Carrollton Station, I realized that I’ve never seen Ben Labat play anywhere else. Though the band – fronted by the eponymous former lead singer of Baton Rouge collegetown favorites the Terms – surely exists in a realm outside my narrow understanding of the world, as it so happens I associate this band with this bar nearly on instinct.
Indeed, the Happy Devil has been anything but tied down in the past year. Since really heating up around last year’s Foburg Festival, Labat and Co. have played venues all over the city of New Orleans, stretched their tour north to Shreveport and west into Texas, and managed to record and release two albums (with a third one forthcoming).
Tonight they were joined by Shreveport’s recently-formed Super Water Sympathy, a band featuring several other former Terms. Though this was just their second show, I was floored by their professionalism, especially singer Ansley Hughes, whose deep, affecting wail soared above the ambient, textured synth and the adroit guitar work, creating a captivating post rock vibe that blithely bounced through synthpop passages and alternative riffs with surprising fluency.
After briefly joining his former bandmates on stage for the SWS set, Ben Labat emphatically kicked off his own. Shifting between the intimate one-man feel of latter day Mark Oliver Everett and the sprawling eclecticism of Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia, he ran through cuts from both of his albums with a level of confidence and buoyancy that I’d never seen in a Labat show.
The Happy Devil – they deserved the credit, the singer would later tell me – even went as far as to give the crowd an astoundingly perfect rendition of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. Labat employed his own flare for vocal interpretation, of course, but that off-kilter bass/guitar interplay in the chorus was still there verbatim, and every time the band would knock out a chorus, I’d look around, blown away, yelling, “Is anyone else seeing this?!”
The rest of the audience members may not have realized it, but what they were seeing was a musician at ease in a familiar atmosphere – one that’s allowed him to kick start his still-young band while feeding his drive to perfect his live craft.