Archive for james harman

From Screamin’ Jay to Icepick James to 13 … the birth of a ‘Plague’

Posted in 13 with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2021 by J.J.

The recent health news of James Harman has reminded me, again, of the cyclical nature of the blues, and the passing down of music from one to another.

Lester Butler was (in)famous for partaking in this tradition. What many probably don’t know is that the most notorious song on “13 Featuring Lester Butler” is not exactly an LB original.

The roots of “Plague of Madness” date back to a 1957 single from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “Frenzy” (written by David Hess and Augustus Stevenson). A speeding, twanging getaway chase of a song, the accomplished music is the perfect launching pad for the wild notions that come bling!-ing out of Screamin’ Jay’s head (more on that in a bit).

Walk your fingers up the H racks in the Blues/R&B section to come upon Harman, James and his take on “Frenzy” 26 years later, on 1983’s “Thank You Baby” with the devastating Kid/Fats lineup of the James Harman Band. Again, this song suits James Harman and Co. at just the right time: A jumping, rip-roaring R&B rave-up that wouldn’t necessarily upset punks or rockabillys.

And it comes with its own art project music video that, if it didn’t make MTV, surely was a hit on local cable access. Where Screamin’ Jay had a macabre personality and stage coffins, the Harman band had a straitjacket, foam in the mouth and silent film star Michael Mann as … Hollywood Fats.

So where does Lester come in?

We’ve not heard any version of “Frenzy” by the Blue Shadows or Red Devils, nothing on “King King” tapes. But it is not hard to imagine that both Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and James Harman records were being spun at house parties, at set breaks and on boom boxes. And, it’s kind of an unforgettable cut.

In a 2011 interview with NoFightin.com, 13 guitarist Alex Schultz talked about how the songs were crafted for the “13” record. The vocals were overdubbed, which gave the band the musical license to do whatever was called for at the moment, and let Lester find his vocal themes later. Schultz even said he didn’t know what the songs were about until he finally heard them with Butler’s lyrics.

For instance: Here is an alternate take of the song that would become “Plague of Madness” — what sounds like the same backing track, a different guitar track or mix, and extemporaneous “Frenzy” lyrics:

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James Harman needs our help. (Icepick’s Story 2021)

Posted in related music with tags , , , , , , , on January 4, 2021 by J.J.

In a parallel universe, James Harman is a superstar.

An in-demand artiste who plays command performances for kings and queens. A poet laureate whose lyrics are studied in college courses. A giving mentor and bandleader whose roots have grown the fruits of generations of musicians. A vocalist whose records stop all diner conversation when the needle hits his latest song.

But in this here-and-now, James Harman — blues raconteur extraordinaire — is 74, without the means to earn a living, and beginning chemotherapy for Stage 4 cancer.

Harman is not a household name — unless your household is real hip. Those who know, know.

To the true believers of “The Red Devils, Lester Butler and California’s (and beyond’s) blues, rock and roots music,” James Harman is the Godfather.

Some of this is by talent, and some of it is by proximity. Harman is one of those threads of connective cool from his native Alabama, to the post-Woodstock Canned Heat California scene, to Big Joe Turner, Hollywood Fats, MTV, ZZ Top and a touring schedule in the 1990s that rivaled any act on the planet (“She wrapped my sandwich, boy, in an old road map”).

Harman has always surrounded himself with whipcrack musicians, and entire James Harman Band lineups have gone on to form or evolve into other killer bands, from The Blasters (Phil Alvin and Bill Bateman were early bandmates, as was Gene Taylor), to The Fabulous Thunderbirds (whose early ‘90s incarnation was a literal James Harman Band with Kim Wilson) to Lester Butler’s various 13s.

His most well-known ensemble was the early 1980s version of the James Harman Band … Those Dangerous Gentlemens: Hollywood Fats, Kid Ramos, Willie J. Campbell and the incomparable Stephen Hodges on drums (you might know Hodges from the Tom Waits band). Yes, Hollywood Fats and Kid Ramos in one lineup, under the direction of one James Harman.

Recommended: Extra Napkins, Strictly Live … in ’85!, Thank You Baby, Those Dangerous Gentlemens

James Harman, The Blasters, X, The (original) Red Devils, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, Canned Heat, Dwight Yoakam, Tom Waits, Los Lobos and many others shared common DNA, even if each leaned on nurture more than nature (punk rockabilly, experimental roots … or “American music”).

Harman would tell you (and has told me and my pals) that he is not a harmonica player. He is a singer and a songwriter who uses the harmonica when needed to tell his stories. And those stories are clever and compact in a way that demonstrates the craft and care he puts into his art. His musical ethos align more closely with artists and outsiders such as Waits and Los Lobos than the average “Tuesday bluesday” crowd — even though he gets the job done down behind that city dump, presiding over a real blues party.

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13 years later: Another look at “13 featuring Lester Butler”

Posted in 13 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by J.J.

“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.
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The nofightin.com store is now open

Posted in red devils, related music with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2010 by J.J.

Looking for some of the great music we’ve been talking about here? We’ve made it easy for you to get some great tunes with the nofightin.com store on Amazon.com.

Though there are really only two CDs between The Red Devils and 13, there are dozens of other associated records we’d like to turn you on to. We’re going to curate the store to be the best from each member of The Red Devils, their influences and their contemporaries, hopefully giving you a little more of an idea of who’s who on these records.

Heard Lester Butler talk about James Harman, but you don’t know where to start? We’ve got those records, so we can help ya out.

And if you were thinking of scoring a Harman disc, by getting it from the nofightin.com store, we get a little taste and can help keep the site running.

We promise not to burn you with “sounds like The Red Devils” when it doesn’t. Now, not too many bands do sound like the Devils, but if you like them, you might be ready for some of these other artists.

DVD review: Lester Butler at his best

Posted in 13 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2009 by J.J.

It’s very easy in hindsight to project added significance to the DVD “Live at Moulin Blues Ospel 1998 — Lester’s Legendary Last Gig.” Every song choice, every note, every glance can take on a different meaning knowing that Butler would be dead just a week later.

The reality is he probably considered it just another gig. A great gig, a lot of fun, but a gig nonetheless.

On any level you choose to watch it, this DVD is required viewing for Lester Butler and Red Devils fans.

Long available on bootleg video, this new official version actually enhances both Butler’s myth and his reality. It shows him to be an outstanding frontman and bandleader and also, for the first time, gives a glimpse at the offstage Lester his family and close friends knew.

While the opening graphic demures, “These recordings were never meant to be published. Therefore we apologize for the poor video and sound quality,” this DVD of the May 2, 1998, concert is a significant step up from the VHS version circulating among tape-traders. The sound and picture quality is very good most times; some mixing problems mar a few otherwise fine performances.
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Lester Butler — 13 with a bullet!

Posted in lester butler with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by J.J.

One of the best interviews with Lester Butler floating on the Internet is a 1997 Q&A with New Zealand music magazine The Real Groove called “13 with a bullet!” It touches on blues, drugs, religion and spirituality, tattoos, death, rehab and more. The interview is getting harder to find on the web, so here it is once again:

LESTER BUTLER — 13 with a bullet!
By Arsenio Orteza, The Real Groove

lester_13

Were truth serum forced down the throats of blues aficionados, many of them might confess to admiring or respecting the importance of the blues a lot more than they actually enjoy the music. And who could blame them? The blues is, after all, the most repetitious music in the Western world, and let him who has never trumpeted music for ulterior motives cast the first rolling stone.

Lester Butler, the 37-year-old, harp-playing force of nature who first came to notoriety as the front man for the late and much-lamented Red Devils, plays a different kind of blues altogether. In fact, he and his new band 13 don’t so much play the blues as allow it to inhabit them and throttle them within an inch of their professional viability. (“We broke mics, and it was fun,” laughs Butler in reference to the recording of 13 Featuring Lester Butler, their new Hightone album. “But we’ll never record in that studio again because they’re totally pissed at how many mics I broke. That wasn’t ‘respectful.’”) As a result, the 13 songs on 13 Featuring Lester Butler — especially the homicidally maniacal “Plague of Madness” – don’t sound performed so much as possessed.

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