Preamble Not surprisingly there has been a lot of lively blah blah about the British Blues Awards (BBA) lately. In some categories I made up my mind very quickly; but in others its been a lot harder to decide. So at the time of writing I still haven’t voted. (31st August 2015 is the deadline BTW). Recently I interviewed Malaya Blue and Dudley Ross at a gig (see entry #64), but I thought that a little more BBA research wouldn’t hurt at all!
I was pleased, then, to find that another band nominated for two awards (Young Artist; and Emerging Artist), was to play near me at The New Crawdaddy Blues Club in Billericay, Essex. This was of course, the young Sussex-based Blues-Rock outfit Red Butler. I’d heard a lot about this band from friends and acquaintances over the last 18 months or so, but I’d never seen them live. I’d heard the impressive debut EP and their excellent album Freedom Bound; and I’d seen the vids; but it was high time I decided for myself. So after a couple of messages between yours truly and the band’s founder member Alex Butler; and a phone call to Paul Dean of the club, an interview with the band was soon arranged.
The New Crawdaddy Blues Club is in Blunts Wall Road, Billericay; and uses the Function Room of ‘New Lodge’, Billericay Town FC’s ground. (A team appropriately nick-named ‘The Blues’). The New Crawdaddy has had a couple of previous homes in Essex over the last 15 years or so, but has been at this venue for 18 months or more, and seems settled there. Its a good sized Function Room, with a capacity of 200-odd, and is nicely done up. The large brick pillar to the left of the stage obscures the view a little if you are over that side; but its holding up the roof so we shouldn’t complain!
The club is run on a non-profit making basis by guv’nor Paul Dean; ably assisted by a crew of volunteers: Chris the Soundman; Chris the Stage Manager; Graham the Lights; Mike the DJ; and the two lovely ladies on the merch desk: Lesley and Karen. They were all very friendly and welcoming. In fact, the club has a motto that sums up their ethos: ‘Customer and band-friendly’ – and there is no doubting that!
Almost every Friday night you’ll find a well known Blues band headlining at the club. The original intention was to promote local bands; but the club soon attracted international names who made a point of including the club in their UK tour. In the past they’ve hosted the mighty Buddy Whittington Band; and Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack among many others. And recently, the four times BBA nominated Malaya Blue performed there. There is also normally a House Band, The Heaters, acting as a support; but this particular week they weren’t due to play, so the headliner would do a two-part set in stead. In fact Paul Dean (who plays keys in the Heaters), was off playing a gig in Kent as part of a duet – The M25s – with guitarist Jeff Chapman, so he wasn’t there this particular evening anyway.
The Red Butler Interview: Although Paul had said we would be welcome at the club at anytime during the afternoon, my son James and I couldn’t get there till 7pm; just as the sound check was being completed. We had a chat with the Crawdaddy staff; and met some of the band individually at the bar. They went off for a bite to eat, leaving James and I to admire Alex’s axe-rack; and read the set list conveniently left on the stage. When they were ready, Alex came and found us and led us outside to where the band were having a pre-show chill-out, sitting on the terraces of ‘The Blues’ East Stand; overlooking the football pitch in the Essex sunset!
Red Butler currently consist of founder member Alex Butler (Guitars); Jane Pearce (Vocals); Charlie Simpson (Drums); and Mikey Topp (Bass). This line-up has been together now for a 18 months or so. I began by congratulating them on their BBA nominations: the whole band for ‘Emerging Artist’; and Alex himself for ‘Young Artist’. It is of course a great achievement just to be nominated, but the band are well aware that they’re up against some of the biggest names on the British Blues scene.
James asked ‘How did you first start the band?’
Alex: ‘I met this guy a long time ago called Will Johns. He basically said to me “You should start a band”. Me and Charlie played in bands since we were about eleven, but we decided we wanted to take it more seriously and have a bit more of a career out of it. So we started this [Red Butler] about three years ago’.
So how did Jane get involved with the boys, I wondered?
Jane: ‘I’m not the original singer. I saw an advert in the music press. I remember having a really Hellish journey to Eastbourne for the audition. There was something wrong with the trains and I almost didn’t get there’. ‘Did the lads give you a hard time?’ I asked. ‘They probably did – nothing’s changed!’ she laughed.
Only Alex is an original member. Charlie: ‘It was only going about two months before Jane came in, and then I came in about a week after that’. Mikey isn’t the original bassist, and not on any of the band’s recordings as yet. Alex: ‘We have yet to unleash his full potential!’ ‘Mike came along when all the hard work had been done!’ added Jane laughing. But he is often mistaken for the band’s original Bassist because he joined just as the album was released.
James and I had noticed the great variety of Bluesy styles within the first album; so wondered in what direction they’d take their second? Were they in fact working on it currently?
Alex: ‘Oh yes. Its very much a similar kind of thing that we’ve done. Its going to be trying to stay within the fan-base that we have at the moment, but then trying to bring in young people as well; because if no one does that, in ten or fifteen years time there isn’t going to be a Blues scene! Its quite a difficult one because one of the things we really want to do is get young people involved, because at gigs there aren’t ever any there. That’s a big problem. We’re trying to find a way of enhancing our sound; because all of our friends like our music, but its the brand “Blues” that kills it for them’.
Charlie: ‘If you were a young person and you didn’t know beforehand that we were classed as a Blues band, and you came along and saw us; there are a few numbers that you could say were definitely Blues, but a lot of it is quite a grey area’.
This is a problem that I’m well aware of. James and I had a similar conversation with Virgil And The Accelerators when we interviewed them last year (see entry #26). And I think Laurence Jones and Oli Brown are experiencing the same thing too. As James pointed out ‘There are a lot of young Blues artists out there’. So the next obvious question was: how did this young band get into Blues in the first place then?
Jane: ‘Just being brought up with it, I suppose: Ten Years After and Free. The music that you grew up listening to and love; and you have a passion for; you want to carry on the legacy of it. And its a goal of yours to not let it die and keep it going’.
Alex: ‘The Blues has become such a big thing again now. And its a funny thing because Charlie’s cousin is in a band, and they are at a fairly similar level to us….’ Charlie: ‘Yeah. They’re a kind of Indi-Rock band called Black Honey and they’re rising up at the moment. In terms of the work they’ve put in, and how long they’ve been going, and social [media] stuff; they’re pretty much level. But they’ll play to huge audiences. When we do a Blues festival, it’ll pull in a good few hundred people, but their equivalent is that they’ll play a small stage at Reading to 5,000 people. Its just a different scene’.
All this is very disappointing for the band. They want to play Blues, but its so frustrating for them (and all Blues fans) that they don’t get the more widespread recognition that they deserve. Yet they all obviously love the genre and are determined to stick to their guns, and continue playing their music. Hopefully if they win an award or two at the BBA this year, they’ll get a lot more attention. But even Blues Awards are not that high profile, unfortunately…
Alex: ‘Its funny how you get the Country Awards, that are massive. Its a big deal – almost like a red carpet do. Everyone knows who is nominated. Its funny because [Blues] is a niche market in the name, but style-wise its not at all! You can go and watch one guy with an acoustic; or you can be on tour with a six-piece band with a brass section like Billy Walton’.
Charlie: ‘Its very closed in to the circuit. Everyone on the circuit knows everyone. So you get the big artists in UK Blues – everyone knows them. But then if you took the biggest artist on the UK Blues scene and took that to a household, and said “Do you know this person?”; nine times out of ten they won’t’.
This is true enough. Recently I interviewed Larry Miller (see entry #61), a phenomenal guitarist with nine albums to his name; but is virtually unheard of outside the UK Blues scene. Mikey: ‘Well, when we played with Larry a few months ago in Durham; the crowd loved him. He’s got a big audience, but its very niche. It was a really good show and the crowd were loving it’. [Incidentally, whilst writing this article, I heard that Larry had just suffered a stroke. I’m sure all music fans would join me in hoping that it is not too severe; and wish him well].
Speaking personally, I’m really glad to see these young Blues / Blues-Rock bands emerging again. And I too wish they’d get the kudos that they deserve. The popularity of Blues comes and goes of course, but at the moment its resurging again, I’m glad to say. Alex: Well here’s a question for you – What’s it like seeing it come back?’
PTMQ: ‘Brilliant! I’ve seen it come and go a few times. But its been around since before I can remember. Hendrix died when I was ten; and Cream split when I was eight – and it wasn’t new then! No doubt there’ll be blokes here tonight who can remember its first appearance over here in the early ’60s. I remember a great resurgence about 1990 with Gary Moore famously going back to the Blues; Walter Trout came over for the first time; and Jeff Healey emerged due to the film Roadhouse‘. It died down a bit, but now its getting popular again; and its great to see all these young bands’.
Alex: ‘I think people are getting into live music again, too. I heard on the radio that there was a poll done on why people are travelling around the country this summer. And quite a high percentage was to go to a festival. Whether its Glastonbury, Reading, or a little Blues festival, its the same thing – people going out to see music’.
A good point was brought up by Jane: ‘I think a lot of it is also due to really good marketing’… Alex: ‘Yeah. We have other people we work with who help us with tours and booking; and we’re trying to get better at social media. Jane does a lot of it. I think maybe the next thing we’ll look at is doing a social marketing course to gain an insight into how it all works. Especially if we want young people involved, because they don’t read flyers – they’re always on the phone.’
One of the things that I noticed about this band is that they are really committed to gaining success, and are full of ideas about how to achieve it. Apart from being very talented musically, they are really on the ball in terms of promoting themselves. Its great to see.
Axe Chat: Earlier I’d noticed that Alex had three geetars in the rack: a Gibson Les Paul; a Hofner semi-acoustic; and one unknown to me. Alex: ‘Its a called a Feline. A custom thing made in East Croydon. They’re great guitars. I had that made when I had an inheritance from a member of my family that passed away; so I thought I’d rather spend it on something that’s going to last. Its a beautiful guitar – one of those guitars that’s almost too nice! I get it out, and I think “Oh, I don’t want to chip it or anything!” I’m lucky to have a choice of guitars. I used to play a Strat a lot but the Hofner’s taken over. The Hofner cost me £300 – new they’re only about £450. Not that expensive! Its by far the nicest guitar for me – one of the best that I’ve ever played. When you consider that the guitar I had made for me cost well into four figures; but I far prefer the Hofner’. Jane joked: ‘You’d better get a refund – and buy loads of Hofners!’ Alex: ‘I love that red guitar [the Feline], but I find the Hofner ideal for the particular thing that we’re doing – suits it down to a tee. Whereas if I was in a heavier Rock band, I’d use the Feline all the time’.
Amp Talk: Alex: I’ve actually got an endorsement with a company called Jack The Hat Amps; custom made in Alderney in the Channel Islands. Its made out of an old Marshall with 60s parts in it. I used to use Black Star. The thing that threw people for a long time was the head that I played with didn’t have a cab; so I was playing an unmarked head through a Black Star cab’.
Bass Blah Blah: Mikey uses a Fender Jazz Bass. Mikey: ‘I went to buy a Fender Precision because I was convinced I wanted it. I picked the one I wanted and was playing it in the shop, and I was just not feeling it. So my friend who was with me at the time said “Why don’t you try the Jazz?” I said “I don’t want a Jazz, I want a Precision!” and he said “Well just try it!” Then I had like an epiphany! I think the main thing was the neck – a bit slimmer. I was moving about more comfortably. Its reliable; comfortable; not too heavy’.
We had a few more questions for the band; but at this point they were called in to go and get changed; so we had to terminate the interview. We did have time for a few photos though. James and I enjoyed talking to Red Butler. Like most musos they were friendly and keen to chat about their music etc. I found them all to be determined, knowledgeable, and optimistic. With young bands like these, the future of Blues is in safe hands indeed – as long as they can start pulling in a younger audience. All that was necessary then, was for us to see them in action – and we didn’t have to wait long…
The Red Butler Set (First Half): At about 8.45, Chris the Stage Manager announced the band. It was their eagerly awaited debut at this club (in fact they’ve rarely played Essex so far), and they climbed on stage to great applause. Alex armed himself with his Les Paul, and the band opened with Gary Moore’s ‘Movin’ On’. Immediately they impressed – nice slide work from Alex; and the whole band musically tight. Very animated they were too; entertaining to see. Pausing only while Alex changed to the Hofner, they then gave us ‘On The Road’. I thought Jane’s vocals particularly impressed on this number.
From their album, they then gave us the rockin’ Blues of ‘Young And Free’; with Jane demanding audience participation! A great solo from Alex too. This went down very well indeed. Also from the album they played their unique take on the classic ‘Shakin’ All Over’; with everyone singing along. The lively vibe continued with ‘The Blues Is My Business’ – and the Red Butler business was certainly sounding and looking good! Again Jane included the punters in the song.
The pace was slowed then for ‘Last Page Of The Blues’. ‘This song is very special to us’ explained Jane. Its a moody number that’s a great vehicle for Alex’s axemanship, with the Feline. Its also a good demonstration of Charlie’s drumming and Mikey’s bass working smoothly together as a rhythm unit. ‘Have we got any Gary Moore fans in here?’ asked Alex. After affirmative shouts from the crowd he added ‘…that makes me nervous!’ Then the band launched into a cover of ‘Oh Pretty Woman’. This cover obviously owed more to GM’s famous version rather than the Albert King original; but it was a fine and interesting take on the old classic; and there was no need to worry Alex! ‘We’re gonna do what we call a “Scottish Blues” now’ said Alex ‘… that means a Sandi Thom song – let’s do “The Belly Of The Blues”. Again, an interesting cover. Its a brooding song in which Jane squeezed out every drop of emotion; and Alex played from the heart.
Next came the old Percy Mayfield song ‘Hit The Road Jack’, made famous by Ray Charles. It was another song that demanded audience participation; and went down well. Alex and Jane did a little guitar / scat-vocal duelling during this one. Then to finish the first half, they played the Eric Clapton / Robert Cray song ‘Old Love’. Again this was a chance for the whole band to shine: beautifully subtle chops from Alex; intensely emotional vocals from Jane; and very fine and reliable bass and drums from Mikey and Charlie. It was a good twelve minutes long; slowly but inexorably moving to its climactic end.
Half Time: As soon as the first half was over, Alex came over to us and asked what we thought of it so far. I was of course very impressed and told him so; particularly congratulating him on his performance of ‘Belly Of The Blues’ and ‘Old Love’. Guitarist Russ Cottee of The Blues Spiders also introduced himself during half time, and we had a brief chat. I also spoke to Harp player Nick Garner of The Roots Collective who was knocking about too. (More on Nick in a minute).
The Red Butler Set (Second Half): This began with a cover of Nina Simone’s classic ‘Feeling Good’ – Red Butler style! It was an inventive cover of a old staple. They gave us the opener from their album ‘Jaywalker’ next. Its got a bit of an SRV vibe to it. I like it a lot; and it was played well. The funky groove of ‘Give Me My Blues’ rang out next. Alex got a great sound from his Feline on the solo for this one. ‘Pension Blues’ off the album, followed. Its a great Blues song with stomping vibe and an amusing lyric. Great slide again from Alex on his Les Paul. Again from their album, they played ‘River Of Smoke’ – another good slow one, where Alex displayed his subtlety of style once again, that rendered his solo delicate; almost inaudible at times, but always tasteful.
Tempo was upped then, for ‘Bringing Out The Devil’ from their debut EP. This was the first song they ever wrote together. Its a lively rocker – full of raw energy. Next the band performed a medley of classic Blues-Rock served in a musical sandwich which consisted of a good helping of ‘Purple Haze’; and ‘Cocaine’ between two slices of ‘Goin’ Down’ – very palatable, I must say! ‘Danger Zone’ quickly followed. Its another good rocker from the album; and demonstrated once more, the song-writing skills of this great young band. The last offering in this second half was ‘Show Me The Money’; which was a good lively number to finish on; and during which Alex and Jane got down off the stage and danced around the auditorium.
Extra Time: Chris returned to the mic to raise some more applause for an encore. The band returned to stage then, for one more number; and this time they were joined by the renown Essex Blues-Harp player, Nick Garner. The song chosen to finish with was the SRV classic ‘Pride And Joy’. And a rousing cover it was too. I don’t think I’ve heard it sung with a female vocal before; and Jane did a fantastic job with it, changing the lyric as necessary.
Show over, it was time to have a quick chat with a few people and congratulate the band on their performance and say our goodbyes. It had been a great gig and I’d gathered a lot of info for this article. Red Butler showed themselves to be a great live act; perfectly capable of handling several of the sub-genres of Blues / Blues-Rock with ease; and very satisfying to see and hear. I’m guessing that they’ll start to play more of their own material and drop some of the covers as time goes by. Finally, I’d just like to wish them the best of luck for the BBA. PTMQ.
Red Butlers website… http://www.redbutlermusic.co.uk/
British Blues Awards website… http://www.britishbluesawards.com/home/4581355856
New Crawdaddy Blues Club… http://www.heaters.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/default.htm