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.
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.
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.
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.”
- 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.