By T.E. Mattox
I’d heard about the Red Lotus Revue from a friend, Rod Piazza, and that guy knows his blues. The Revue did not disappoint.
Vocalist and harmonica player, Karl Cabbage told me a little about his previous band, ‘the Smokin’ Knights’ and an epiphany experienced in Memphis. “We had decided to do, like a Sonny Boy Williamson tribute band, and it just kind of evolved from there.”
RLR Guitarist Pete Fazzini nods his head in agreement. “When we came back, the Smokin’ Knights kinda’ disbanded. We had just met Jimmy Zollo and we started to do a Sonny Boy tribute band and then it evolved into a Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters type thing…and Robert Nighthawk. A very traditional mid ‘50’s to very early ‘60’s blues. We also do some early Smokey Smothers stuff, and originals in the same vein.”
I’m smiling because Smothers, in my opinion was much underrated when it comes to Chicago’s noted bluesmen. Both Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop played with, and were influenced by, Little Smokey Smothers. These guys have won me over, but I was curious why the band doesn’t have the traditional instrument line-up that most Chicago blues bands carried. Cabbage says, “We decided to save money.” (laughs) “No actually, just instrumentally we chose to not have a bass player. We thought nobody’s doing that anymore, so…” Pete adds, “A lot of it too, came from the Maxwell Street stuff, like Hound Dog Taylor didn’t really have a lot of bass players. It came more from the realization we could get the sound we were looking for without a bass player.” Karl finishes, “Yeah, and how much more space there was, with the lack of a bass filling up that space, you know, sonically.”
The whole band is young, really young, so what was it about Blues that hooked you so deep? Karl tells me, “Other than gospel music, it’s the most honest music form available.”
I note that gospel and blues seemed tied, their roots cultivated in the fields that cut through the Deep South. “Like the field hollers,” Cabbage relates, “The good news doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you get the bad news, right? I tell you what, about the music. This is American music and it comes from the South and there’s just something about it. You take Mississippi for instance, I can name like twenty major…MAJOR bluesmen that all lived within a hundred miles of Jackson, Mississippi. It’s just amazing.”
As a harp player, I was curious if his influences included Sonny Boy number One, ‘John Lee’ Williamson? “Absolutely.” Karl credits Chris James, with introducing him to Sonny Boy One. “Chris James from San Diego, really cut his teeth in Chicago, introduced me to a lot of Sonny Boy No. #1’s work. Chris played with Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop… a whole bunch of people.”
How about another Chicago harp legend, James ‘Snooky’ Pryor? “Snooky Pryor? ABSOLUTELY! I was able to meet him before I knew how great a man he was. I was much younger and not very wise, and now after he’s passed away, I get the depth of what he was saying.”
What is it about the blues that seems to be able to cross any and all language and cultural barriers…? “The blues is so international. It was innovated so far away, you know? And you think about W.C. Handy in the middle of his ‘St. Louis Blues’ it’s like an Argentinean tango piece. We just got back from an International Blues competition, and they’re guys from all over…you would NOT believe, like the guys from Poland and the Eastern Bloc, and Japan and they are ALL ‘getting’ the music. And why do you think that is? Because this music is universal and it’s eternal.” Amen.
You can reach Tim at his Blog here.