Lester Butler remembered at Simi Valley Cajun & Blues festival

For one afternoon only, Lester Butler was back on stage.

A portrait of Butler — blowing harp, arms covered in tats — by artist Theo Reijnders rested on an easel stage left May 29 at the 22nd Annual Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival for a performance by Big Pete and his Lester Butler Tribute Band.

It was the American coming out party for Pieter “Big Pete” van der Pluijm, and he was tapped to pay tribute to his primary inspiration, as he has done numerous times in Europe. It was clear there was anticipation to see this big blond kid from Holland everyone had heard so much about — the area in front of the stage was filled with musicians, Lester’s friends and family and serious music lovers.

Big Pete

Alex Schultz

Johnny Morgan

[All photography by Tina Hanagan]

As Delta Groove CEO and Butler friend Randy Chortkoff said when he introduced Big Pete, “When I close my eyes, I hear Lester Butler.”

Pete and his band — 13 veterans Alex Schultz on guitar and Johnny Morgan on drums, along with Willie J. Campbell (replacing Rick Reed) on bass — used Butler’s music as a jump-off point to showcase their own incredible talents, performing a series of songs and grooves unlike anything else heard all weekend. That the music sounded as fresh Sunday as it did 14 years ago is testament to Butler’s foresight.

More photos and video after the jump 

The stomping seven-song set was kicked off by the unreleased live cut “Down in New Orleans,” which saw Pete in his element: a deep groove by Schultz, an in-the-pocket rhythm section and plenty of space for crunchy, distorted harp. That long-form jam paved the way for “Automatic,” with its signature harp intro. This foursome was perfectly designed for an uptempo shuffle like this, and “Automatic” had a bounce once again, unlike so many sluggish versions found on YouTube.

A slow blues shuffle set to the “Poor Boy” theme lead into the Billy Boy Arnold romp “I Wish You Would,” followed by “Way Down South” from the “13” CD.

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Adding to the unique flavor of the afternoon, harp ace Al Blake of the Hollywood Fats Band and, more recently, the Hollywood Blue Flames, sang Smokey Wilson’s Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers’ “I Got My Eyes on You.” Big Pete was like a kid in a candy store, remarking later in the day that the hairs on his arms were standing all weekend, playing with guys such as Blake. The band — at this point including guitarist Mojo Mark and Chortkoff himself on harp — played a perfect behind-the-beat shuffle that would have made avowed Fats and Blake fan Butler scream.

The set ended with the “13” opener “So Low Down,” a rousing, raucous way to wrap up any sort of musical remembrance of Lester Butler.

It was certainly an emotional day for many in attendance; Butler’s sister Ginny Tura and longtime partner Lori Peralta were in attendance, as were other family members. One longtime fan wore a tribute T-shirt; another the “Mojo” shirt famous from Butler’s “legendary last gig.”

“A one and only genius,” Chortkoff said of Butler. “He did something with the blues we’ve all been trying to do.”

POSTSCRIPT

  • Our weekend in California was a lot of fun. Thanks so much to everyone for their kindness and generosity: Pieter van der Pluijm, Johnny Morgan, Alex Schultz, Randy Chortkoff, Ginny Tura and Lori Peralta.
  • Big Pete told us that Sunday was his first official billed gig in the States. Monday, he was going into the studio with Schultz, Campbell and drummer Jimi Bott to record his debut for Delta Groove records. (He can be heard now on the Mannish Boys disc “Shake for Me.”)
  • We had time to do a couple of interviews with Johnny Morgan and Alex Schultz; transcripts will be posted here soon, along with more photos.
  • A review and photos from the rest of the festival — including Elvin Bishop, Los Fabulocos, Buckwheat Zydeco, Kirk Fletcher, John Nemeth and more — are posted at Extra Sauce. If you can’t wait for that, we tweeted all weekend from @nofightin.

5 Responses to “Lester Butler remembered at Simi Valley Cajun & Blues festival”

  1. Johnny Morgan Says:

    Great article J.J and wonderful photos by your wife Tina. I had a sensational time hangin’ with Big Pete, Alex, and Willie J. at the show and seeing a lot of friends I haven’t seen in a real long time. Lester’s music lives on!

  2. alex schultz Says:

    Yes indeed! It’s now thursday, and we’ve been in the studio for three solid days with Big Pete and the sessions were incredible.
    And both saturday and sunday out at Simi Valley were great. My pedalboard died directly in the first solo on the first tune on sunday, Down In New Orleans, so had to yank the plug, go straight into the amp, and turn it up….
    in other words, it was like a true “Lester” gig!. Pete is amazing and a great soul. Great to meet you both, J J & Tina- great to play with you Johnny. Alex

  3. Nice article – I was there, and Big Pete and this great band rocked the joint. One minor correction: the song “Got My Eyes on You” is from the late Chicago blues man Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, not Smokey Wilson. Guitarist Mojo Mark Cihlar was brought up to play with the band because he used to play in Big Smokey’s band.

  4. @Scott: Thanks for the correction (fixed in post) as well as additional info on Mojo Mark.

    We’ve got more festival pics going up, I hope this weekend when Tina has time to go through them. They’ll be over on my other blog, Extra Sauce.

  5. automatic32 Says:

    Man, I miss all the good stuff. The band sounds great in that video, and Pete’s harp tone is kicking ass. He’s got the delay loaded up just as Lester used to have it. I was a bit relieved to hear him singing it an octave lower, simply because I would have been jealous had he been able to hit the upper register! I recall that Lester himself sang it the same way live at Lynagh’s in Lexington, KY when we saw him live there. Can’t wait to here what Pete’s CD sounds like – stellar group of musicians to have on it!

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