25 years on, the Devils’ power remains

[words: J.J. Perry; all photographs by Tina Hanagan]

An evening rain Friday cooled and soaked the thousands waiting in line for the Stimmen Festival in Lorrach, Germany. The crowd was patient under ponchos and umbrellas and canopies on Lorrach’s historic streets, waiting in line to get into the marketplace stage area.

But we couldn’t help but wonder, as heavy raindrops rolled down our heads and into our eyes: Did we fly to Germany only to have our first Red Devils concert in 25 years be rained out?

Pushing forward through the crowd in the Lorrach square, we took our spots. As if on cue, the rain trickled to a stop moments before The Red Devils took the stage at 8 p.m. Big Pete stomped his feet and the band launched into a pounding “Mr. Highway Man.” I jumped in my spot yelling, taken back to 1992, when I saw this band for the first time. 

This was exactly where I wanted to be.

I have written before about my memories of seeing The Red Devils at an Indiana club in 1992. So much of that night is a fog, all grayscale and buzzy. There was so much information coming at me — Which one was Lester? Is that the guitar player from the record? I don’t know this song? — that clarity is hard to come by all these years later.

Friday night, the band was in color, freed from a cramped nightclub stage, older but seeming to enjoy each moment of this unexpected lap around the track opening for ZZ Top through Europe this summer.

The band was tight and confident. Every report I had heard is that the Devils were getting better and better with every show, and that much was true. 

Much has changed in 25 years, not least of which is the absence of Lester Butler. The band was clearly more than just a charismatic frontman, but the legend of Lester, especially in Europe, is hard to overcome.

Holland’s Big Pete is a worthy choice to front the band of veterans. Simply put, he is like 13-era Butler playing with the classic Red Devils. Pete brings a different energy: rocking back and forth, blond hair blowing in the warm evening air. He gets up in the faces of his band mates, urging them to play on, grinning and enjoying every moment of his time onstage.

It’s a contrast to Butler from his Red Devils years. Lester was much shorter than his myth would suggest. Videos from the time show him eyes closed, swaying or snapping his fingers, depending on the day, his mood or his state of mind.

While Butler’s presence suggested a world that no audience could visit, Big Pete invites you into The Red Devils party, 2017 style.
Through seven songs (three from “King King,” and four “deep cuts” that made their live rep in Europe in 1993), The Red Devils proved themselves to yet another crowd, just as they did Monday after Monday during their Hollywood heyday.

Highlights in the band’s tight set included a frantic “Goin’ To The Church,” which saw Bill Bateman whipping his head wildly and grinning, pounding the kick drum; the grooving “Blackwater Roll,” taken a couple of beats slower than its first incarnation; and “Devil Woman,” which maintained an urgency in Paul Size’s guitar solo and sympathetic rhythm guitar from Mike Flanigin.

The set ended with “Backstreet Crawler / Your Time to Cry” (yes, the ’17 Devils played as many cuts from the “Blackwater Roll” EP as they did their breakthrough “King King” LP), a Hooker-inspired number that earned them converts in the audience. It was the perfect segue to ZZ Top’s Texas boogie, as fists pumped in the air to the hits on the turnaround.

Jonny Ray Bartel, who worked so hard to behind the scenes to make this tour happen, smiled big, swinging his bass side-to-side as though he was back on the PinkPop stage again.

We can never go back to that moment that music first inspired us. The Red Devils, too, cannot go back to the days when they were young, hungry and ready to fight the world.

But together, the band and its fans can celebrate the brilliant music and memories that were made. The Red Devils, even at this stage of the game, are still a powerful force, and worth another watch.

Stimmen Festival, Lorrach, Germany setlist, July 20, 2017:

  1. Mr. Highway Man
  2. Goin’ To The Church
  3. Blackwater Roll
  4. Just Your Fool
  5. Devil Woman
  6. The Hook
  7. Backstreet Crawler / Your Time to Cry

Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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