DVD review: Lester Butler at his best
It’s very easy in hindsight to project added significance to the DVD “Live at Moulin Blues Ospel 1998 — Lester’s Legendary Last Gig.” Every song choice, every note, every glance can take on a different meaning knowing that Butler would be dead just a week later.
The reality is he probably considered it just another gig. A great gig, a lot of fun, but a gig nonetheless.
On any level you choose to watch it, this DVD is required viewing for Lester Butler and Red Devils fans.
Long available on bootleg video, this new official version actually enhances both Butler’s myth and his reality. It shows him to be an outstanding frontman and bandleader and also, for the first time, gives a glimpse at the offstage Lester his family and close friends knew.
While the opening graphic demures, “These recordings were never meant to be published. Therefore we apologize for the poor video and sound quality,” this DVD of the May 2, 1998, concert is a significant step up from the VHS version circulating among tape-traders. The sound and picture quality is very good most times; some mixing problems mar a few otherwise fine performances.
The set opens with the song that kicked off many 13 gigs, here billed as “Night,” but often called “The Devil’s Daughter” on bootlegs. Officially unrecorded, the song picks up where the 13 record left off — simple chord changes, a stomping beat and almost hypnotic vocals and harp by Butler. Here at Ospel, he comes out jumping and throwing himself into the lyrics:
Hey everybody here I come again, yeah
I’m gonna drink wine with my friends
I’m gonna drink the wine just like water
Mama I might not live tomorrow
Lord I don’t know what to do, yeah
Hey baby it’s nighttime now and I think of you
Very rarely do you see any band — let alone a blues band — come out firing with such a tough groove. It’s a song that would more traditionally be an encore — bands usually tend to build up to this kind of frenzy.
The song sets the tone for the night’s performance, with Lester hitting the high notes, and directing the band for the stops and signaling for the triplets with his flying fist. Lester looks fit and healthy and happy and totally engaged in the music.
For those who have the bootleg video of the Moulin concert, you’ll remember the trippy between-song segments of the band partying in Amsterdam, among other weird scenes. Here, the distorted video is dropped in favor of a seven-part Eddie Clark-taped in-studio segment of 13 with Chris Masterson on guitar building the Lester song “Business in the Street” on March 3, 1998. This new thread takes the emphasis away from the drug themes of the bootleg, and instead creates a narrative of Butler the artist. It’s a good counterbalance to the main event video, Butler the performer. It also has a “to be continued” feel that keeps the viewer engaged beyond the Moulin set, with a brilliant payoff at the end.
Back on the Moulin stage, a live favorite, “Down in New Orleans,” borrowing the “Tramp” groove and the lyrical themes from “Way Down South,” shows the band getting its groove on. It’s highlighted by a dirty/funky Alex Schultz solo, ripping the blues apart and taping it back together into something new. (Watch “Down in New Orleans’ video, from bootleg version)
The familiar harp intro for “Automatic” brings a roar from the faithful crowd, and the band performs the Red Devils’ signature shuffle with a jump and ease. It’s followed by another “King King” song, the swamp-stomp “Devil Woman.” Dedicating the tune to Paul Size, Lester dances like a mad conductor, with his eyes rolling in back of his head while he jams to Schultz’s guitar work.
The surprising highlight “Broken-Bass Boogie” is also, seemingly, the most spontaneous. The story: MIke Hightower’s bass guitar breaks, so Butler and drummer Clark devise a quick “Sing Sing Sing” groove on the floor toms, over which Lester plays West Coast-style jump harp.
Unlike anything heard on a Butler recording before, the jam is cathartic and spontaneous, with echoes of James Cotton and Sonny Terry. Over Clark’s sympathetic and almost telekinetic drumming, Butler vamps and breaks down a classic harp groove. The longer the music goes on, the more the audience’s anticipation builds.
While Lester walks a musical tightrope on the harp, he starts spinning plates, too: Keeping the music going, and checking on the rest of the band, cueing them by hand when to jump in. Finally, a bass is located (courtesy of James Harman) and Hightower and Schultz prepare to get on board. At the 5:17 mark, Lester blows one long note, throws his hands up, and everyone jumps in on the change. It’s a musical release that leaves the crowd dizzy, and Butler has the good sense and timing to end the song with the full band after only a verse and a half, not letting the instrumental overstay it’s welcome. The music was all build and anticipation, with one big climax — perfect.
For those critics who had said Butler wasn’t a harpist on par with his peers such as Rod Piazza or William Clarke, “Broken-Bass Boogie” finds him working out some classic big swing blowing and stagemanship that would rival any blues harp player or bandleader. (Watch “Broken-Bass Boogie” video, from bootleg version)
The band follows that tour-de-force with Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would.” The groove is sloppy (the DVD mix doesn’t help) and never really catches, which is problematic for a song that is all groove. Butler takes control of the song with a frantic solo over Clark’s Billy Boy by way of Mitch Mitchell beat. The song becomes a space jam, launching this tune furthest away from its “King King” origins.
Alex Schultz and the 13 band take an instrumental break with the jumping “Leftovers”/”All About My Girl,” Albert Collins-style, before Butler returns for a thumping rendition of “So Low Down,” marching right into the stop-time lumpty lump shuffle of “Anytime Baby.” It’s a bit of real Chicago-style blues that thrills Lester, who dances gleefully through the song. The band, now suitably warmed up, moves into the exuberant portion of the evening.
Ex-Red Devils guitarist Paul Size is welcomed to the stage to take lead duties on a precariously balanced “Pray for Me.” The song starts wobbly, with Size aggressively leading while the band’s dynamics are pulled back. Once they lock into the groove, Size roars a solo worthy of Hound Dog Taylor. He is met in turn by a restrained Butler harp solo. The song threatens to fall apart, but for Clark’s great timing on drums. It is a demonstration of how dangerous and thrilling live blues can be.
Sound problems continue on “Tail Dragger,” with Size’s familiar licks buried in the mix. Thankfully Schultz provides a slick solo while an obviously delighted Butler dances around and pops open a beer. When it’s his turn to solo, the harp is inaudible on the disc. The volume is raised in time for a fun call-and-response bit with Size, a moment of sheer joy for the band and, certainly, the crowd.
As any blues player can tell you, the fun often starts when the guests come up for some jamming. At this point, Lester welcomes keyboardist Tom Mann, harpists James Harman and Billy Branch and guitar-slinger Joe Louis Walker to the stage. Here, Lester is in his element: His old friends, his mentor, his peers, his devoted band jamming on stage. He steps back and just enjoys the music — a blues fan ready to cut loose.
Walker takes lead vocals on a shuffling “Checking Up On My Baby,” with Harman testifying on harmonica. “Icepick James” passes the bullet mic to Branch, as he and Lester form a dance line behind the soloists. Harman and Walker trade verses on a rollicking “One Mo’ Peep” before turning the stage over, one last time to 13 and Paul Size.
For his final number of the night, Butler channels his idol Howlin’ Wolf for a wild reading of “Mr. Highway Man.” As a viewer, one can’t help but be caught up in the fun and excitement of this fast shuffle. Looking back, the night’s closer brought the musical career of Lester Butler full circle: Coming back to Wolf as the man you build up to; a classic shuffle with a classic “leavin’ here” theme; on his last verse, duplicating the beloved “Off the Wall” harp part that made “King King” opener “Automatic” so damn memorable; closing with his “King King”-era lineup (two guitars, bass, drums, keys and harp), including his musical compadre Paul Size brought back into the fold.
As Butler blows through a tune he no doubt played hundreds of times, he cries a blues theme that goes back to the early part of the 20th century:
Mr. Highway Man, please don’t block my road
My head is spinning, Lord I’m goin’ down slow
The song ends and, with a simple good night, the video fades to black. And with that, Lester Butler’s music career was finished. No one knew what was to come just a few days later.
Fittingly for this tribute disc, however, the on-screen finale becomes the one full performance of “the song that will never be played live,” “Business in the Street.” After several segments showing the song being crafted from the ground up, the band gives one full performance of the finished rocker. “Business” is the evolution of everything Butler had done to that point. It’s a new groove, one “new” Butler song pulled from the air as a gift for fans. The video, shot March 3, 1998, at Yo studios in LA, was, perhaps, the last song Butler ever worked on, according to Clark. (Watch “Business in the Street” video)
The song demonstrates Butler’s commitment to his music, and ultimately leaves the viewer with one big question mark … “what if?”
Some artists who have gone too soon don’t get the chance for the “what if?” moment. This DVD, at the very least, captures Butler at his best. It’s a helluva way to go out.
- Down in New Orleans
- Devil Woman
- “Broken-Bass” Boogie
- I Wish You Would
- Leftovers/All About My Girl
- So Low Down
- Anytime Baby
- Pray for Me
- Checkin’ Up On My Baby
- One Mo’ Peep
- Mr. Highway Man