Popa Chubby – Stealing the Devil's Guitar (2006)

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by Derrick Lord

It has long been the first trap any musician must jump once they hit it big. A successful record means a lot of people hear your music and from that point on you have a decision to make: Do you stick with the tried and true formula and give the less discerning fans out there what they want (more of the same old thing) or do you scratch the itch most artists have and experiment, expand and attempt to push your talent to new and unexplored levels? The latter while being more emotionally satisfying for the artist can and often does alienate the core who buy your product (and by definition, pays your bills.)

Blues music as a genre faces the same problem. When you have an iconic form of music like the blues, it is just too easy for people to assume what the blues is supposed to sound like even though they hear actual blues fairly infrequently and new blues artists, well … never.

Add the simple fact that the music toils in relative obscurity to start with and receives practically no radio play, then you have a situation where the artist is all but forced into playing straight blues according to the gospel of B.B., Muddy and John Lee Hooker — which is exactly what the public has come to expect. Or you can do your own thing. You already know that will work, assuming you can get people to listen to your interpretation. The latter is a long shot to the extreme, considering the odds are already stacked against you regarding the exposure to your music the public is likely to get.

The final result blues music might face is the possibility of tripping over the same stump as classical apparently has, which is artists sticking with proven standards provided by long dead masters and new work being relatively ignored and unheard.

The toiling in obscurity part of that equation unfortunately applies to New York City’s blues version of King Kong, Popa Chubby. Yet 2006’s underrated Stealing the Devil’s Guitar left no doubt on which direction was chosen when it came the sound and direction of this music. It was packed with enough jazz, soul and R&B-influenced blues numbers that the casual listener may at first not have realized exactly what “type” of music they are listening to. “Buffalo Chips,” for instance, was a Django Reinhardt-style romp complete with mandolin, dobro, and guitar work.

Plenty of nasty blues guitar work was soon to follow, though. There was “Preacher Man,” a tune Leon Redbone would have been perfectly comfortable having a go at, and done well here. “Virgil And Smokey” was a fine example of the typical juke-joint blues, served with enough personal touch to make it the chef’s own. The tune was still rooted in the classic dish, so that it sounds like it actually means something other than an attempt to serve up exactly what the diner expects.

But then you had “Long Deep Hard And Wide,” which was as good as anything AC/DC did back in their heyday. They should cover this one and pretend it belongs to them. Most folks will never notice. “Young Guns” felt like a sneaky little tip of the cap to a certain other blues band’s cover of “Rawhide.” “In the World,” a renamed cover of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy,” remained powerful and heartbreaking, but with a tinge of reggae that brings to mind what Bob Marley could do once he set his mind to it.

Those are six of the thirteen tracks presented and none are weak, retreads or a complete waste of time. It might not have been exactly what a casual blues fan might expect to hear, but it was good music. And that’s the proper measuring stick.

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Derrick Lord

Derrick Lord

An Alabama-based blues- and roots-music lover, Derrick Lord was an original co-founder, with S. Victor Aaron and Nick DeRiso, of the music site that grew into Something Else! Reviews. One of Nick's all-time favorite meals happened with Derrick, at the legendary Dreamland BBQ. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Derrick Lord
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