A new album with the “Lester Butler” name on the cover is a rare thing, but “Live at Tamines 1997” misses the mark for both hardcore fans and newcomers.
From the song selections, to the notes, to the packaging, so little care seems to have been put into this release. While a new disc could both satisfy and fuel Butler fandom, the release by RockBeat Records likely won’t find the audience to justify any more reissues.
IT’S OLD: The Tamines festival gig has been floating around bootleg circles for years. Most Lester Butler fans — this online and on early tape-swapping lists — have had this recording in their collections for years.
For them, there is nothing new here. Even a bonus track, “Automatic,” from the 1998 Moulin Blues Festival in Ospel, has been widely circulated and seems to be here just to fill out disc two.
IT’S DAUNTING: A double-album like this naturally costs more. That’s a barrier for new fans, who aren’t going to spend more for an artist they aren’t familiar with, and won’t commit to two discs of unheard live material from nearly 20 years ago.
The run times for this live show, helpfully listed on the CD’s back cover, would scare off even the most sturdy blues fan: 9:57, 8:47, 8:30, 6:17, 12:59, 10:39 …
IT’S LAZY: Though there are production and mastering credits, the disc is clearly bootleg-rific. The drums — especially the kick — are too high in the mix. The entire sound is trebly, with very little bass. The crowd participation, which usually helps justify a live release, is inaudible. Clearly, the recording was from a soundboard mix and was not meant to be heard in recorded format.
The laziness extends to the packaging.
Nowhere on the CD or the sleeve is the exact date of “Tamines 1997” ever mentioned. (To do RockBeat’s job for them, this show is from the 7th South Blues Festival at Tamines, Belgium, on Aug. 29, 1997.)
How can a live show be issued without this information?
The weak liner notes are recycled word-for-word and from RockBeat’s “13 featuring Lester Butler” reissue from 2011. That includes typos and includes silly, incomplete statements such as “Lester was born In Virginia”; “Very few white blue bands have been able to take the blues to a new level without sounding well … ‘white’.”
In the first set of notes, musicians in Butler’s bands were described as “top notch.” Not this time.
“In both bands (Red Devils and 13), Lester was clearly the star but he had yeoman support with a back beat that propelled his sound to a fever pitch intensity.”
“Yeoman” doesn’t mean what producer James Austin thinks it does.
The cover photo isn’t even from this gig, or this era. It is Butler playing at the Paradiso in Amsterdam with the Red Devils, wearing his trademark headband and without tattoos on his arms.
But, the photo comes up at the top on a Google Image Search, so it’s understandable why RockBeat felt it was the right picture to use. (Though no credit was given to the photographer, who, from our experience, has been difficult to contact over the years.)
IT’S JUST NOT A GREAT SHOW: There are several Lester Butler and 13 live recordings that showcase the band at greater strength. This one does no favors for guitarist Alex Schultz, bassist Mike Hightower or drummer Eddie Clarke in its warts-and-all approach.
Coming from the band’s first European tour, you can hear some of their nascent chemistry. Disc 2, in particular, jumps with rollicking takes on “Boogie Disease” and “So Mean to Me.” The soul-vamp of “Sweet Tooth” starts out tentatively but takes on a wild hypnotic quality as it extends past the 10-minute mark.
But so much of “Tamines” suffers by comparison to better recordings out there.
A tightly focused single disc of the best six or seven songs, with care in the production, would have gone a long way to being respectful to Butler’s legacy and these songs.
As it is, “Live at Tamines 1997” is skippable — until a more thorough company sees the potential in this catalog and offers a proper reissue.