“When you’re talking about blues, you’re talking
about storytelling. … You have to bring something to the table.
You have to have a story to tell.”
13 years ago tonight, Lester Butler and his gang took the stage at the Bar Deluxe in Hollywood to celebrate the release of the album “13 featuring Lester Butler.” [*]
Fans of The Red Devils’ “King King” were in for a surprise with this new disc: While “King King” was raw, buzzy and live, “13” was sharp and edgy. “King King” was a tight ensemble record; “13” sounded like a blues band riot. “King King” relied on classic blues shuffles; “13” pushed the envelope into punk, rock, boogie, R&B and jam. “King King” celebrated women, cars and booze; “13” was a junkie travelogue, documenting the seedy side of life as seen by Butler in the five years since The Red Devils’ triumphs.
For all their differences, “13” and “King King” still go hand-in-hand; if you love one, you probably love the other.
But 13 was a mission statement by Butler, with one foot firmly in blues and the other somewhere in space. Distribution on the small independent blues and roots label Hightone seemingly gave Butler carte blanche to follow his muse (check out the psychedelic cyber-tarot nightmare album cover and confusing labeling for proof).
The album he crafted is filled with tales of chaos, desperation and regret, the music stripped raw in the studio — simple, pounding drums; barrelhouse piano; snaky, funky guitar; and Butler’s vocals in front, the singer damn near ingesting the mic and screaming in your ear.
Beginning with “So Low Down,” all jumpy and tense, 13 the band (usually Alex Schultz on guitar, Andy Kaulkin on piano, drummer Stephen Hodges, James Moore on bass and Smokey Hormel on guitar) makes the case for a visionary type of modern blues. One chord stomps, dramatic stops and dangerous solos, all played with a level of commitment and teamwork worthy of a daredevil circus family.
Even the slow blues are pulled from cliche. On the standout “Pray For Me,” the band stays in front of the beat, bringing needed tension and drive to the simple blues song; the groove pays off on a magnificent bridge, the band pounding out a mid-section that will have most listeners jumping from their seats.
Throughout the record, Butler nods musically to his mentors, most explicitly Howlin’ Wolf. Butler’s grimy stop-time number “HNC” cribs its groove from Wolf’s “Who Will Be Next,” while “Smoke Stack Lightning” uses Wolf’s similarly named favorite as a jumping point for a car-crashing, bottle-smashing story of addiction. Boogies by Elmore James (“So Mean to Me”) and Dr. Ross (“Boogie Disease”) cement Butler’s blues cred, the lack of bass guitar making them two of the leanest/meanest cuts on the record.
If Butler built a little insurance with blues fans on the shuffles, he cashed it in on the experiments, especially the manic and violent “Plague of Madness.” Taking its groove from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “Frenzy” (did Lester pick this up from idol James Harman’s version on “Thank You Baby”?), the song is so demented you imagine Butler piecing the lyrics together like letter scraps on a ransom note. The insistent groove, straight out of a silent movie cops-and-robbers soundtrack, could have been the Joker’s theme song in “The Dark Knight,” Butler bragging that he’s “into homicide … you better watch your back!,” cackling about killing your family and drinking your blood.
It’s safe to say there’s never been a song like it on a blues album before or since.
The disc ends with the one of the most covered tunes in the blues, “Baby Please Don’t Go,” here given new life as a freight-train boogie that builds and builds and builds until the wah-wah guitars and Butler’s harp have merged into a singular sound, egged on by Hodges’ pounding turnarounds. The band does the impossible — turning the moldy standard into a wide open tour de force worthy of closing out this ambitious, forward-thinking record.
That the record still sounds so fresh today is testament to the players and their vision. It helps that Butler’s West Coast blues-rock style hasn’t really been co-opted and watered down by other bands; instead, around this same time, the Fat Possum Mississippi blues sound became the preferred dangerous folk music for the alt-rock set.
“13” was a time of transition for Butler, and it made a promise that he wouldn’t live long enough to keep. The record gave the harpist a much lower profile than he had had a few years earlier. But Butler and crew seized the opportunity and crafted a second act that cemented their legacy in a very short span of time.
* NOTE: While music.aol.com earlier noted that “13” was released on March 18, 1997, that link has since been removed from their site, and we have no verification of an exact release date for “13 featuring Lester Butler.” If anyone has information about that release date, or any other “13” tour dates or info, please let us know.