Guitarist Popa Chubby has just released a new album, Live at G. Bluey's Juke Joint NYC, which was recorded live with no overdubs or audio fixes after the fact. In addition to Chubby originals, the album includes covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Tom Waits.Photo by Nelson Onofre
Guitarist Popa Chubby (aka “The Beast from the East”) is, as they say, size large, both in terms of personality and somatotype. New York though and through, Chubby is the kind of guy who has been known to use a guitar strap emblazoned with an upraised middle finger as he lays out a buffet of licks influenced by Cream, Led Zeppelin, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix.
Speaking late at night from Bordeaux, France, Chubby is recovering from jet lag as he prepares for a series of European dates, though as a road warrior who logs over 200 gigs a year, the circumstances probably don’t faze him much. “I’ve been playing over here for 30 years,” he notes.
Aside from the tour, the big news in Electric Chubbyland (see Hendrix reference above) involves the release of his new double CD package, Live at G. Bluey’s Juke Joint NYC on Gulf Coast records, a label operated by Texas blues guitarist Mike Zito in Nederland.
In point of fact, the performances were recorded live in the studio before a small, select audience, allowing Chubby to have the best of both worlds: quality studio sound with the organic vibe of an actual gig. Unlike many (if not most) live (sic) albums (e.g. Alive! from Kiss and the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72), Live at G. Bluey’s contains no fixes or after the fact audio trickery. Really, no overdubs? ““Nooooo, man,” Chubby says with some emphasis, as he warms to the conversation.
“It’s warts and all,” he continues, “because that’s what you do when you play live. There’s no overdubs when you play live. You get up there, and you make it work. And if you do it long enough, you become performance-based, in the sense that you’re going to hit it most of the time. There will be times that you won’t. Everybody has off notes and off nights. But the more you do it, the better you get at it. And we do it a lot!
“Once we hit it and the tape rolled, it was like doing a gig,” Chubby says. “And when you do a gig, you do it like the last gig you’re ever going to play.”
In addition to live versions of previously recorded Papa Chubby songs, the new album contains a curated selection of cover tunes, among them “Hey Joe” (Jimi Hendrix), “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen), “Motorcycle Mama” (Neil Young) and “Sympathy for the Devil” (Rolling Stones).
It is significant that these songs are not mere carbon copies of the originals. In the case of “Sympathy,” Chubby incorporates elements from the Stones’ recordings of the song on Beggars Banquet and the live Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, taking things further with a rap-ish interlude (“Chubby’s Story”) which relates a somewhat romanticized version of his early years in the music business. What factors affect Chubby’s decisions regarding covers?
“I’ll hear a song, and it will move me to the point that I have to play it,” he replies, citing Tom Waits’ “Heart Attack and Vine,” which appears on Live at G. Bluey’s, as an example. “I recorded that on a live record 25 years ago. And that was a time in my life when I was influenced by Tom Waits and everything he was doing.”
Even a cursory listen to Chubby’s live performances demonstrates his impressive facility in the world of musical improvisation. This certainly comes as no surprise to those who remember the days when Chubby led a weekly Sunday night jam at Manny’s Car Wash, a club in New York City. Guest performers over the years included members of the Allman Brothers Band, Stephen Stills, Joe Sample and Odetta, a group of musicians that Chubby characterizes as “heavyweights.”
With all of that experience, what does Chubby believe makes for an enjoyable jam? “It has to do with communication,” he says. “You have to be respectful. Some guys get up there and spew all over everything. But sometimes,” he says, after a pause, “the audience likes that.”
Chubby is New York to the core. Early in his career, he spent time playing at the legendary punk club CBGB (which is now a John Varvatos designer clothing store), backing everyone from performance artist Screaming Mad George to Richard Hell (Television, the Heartbreakers, the Voidoids). Does Chubby’s experience as a punk rocker bring its influence to bear on the blues-rock he plays today? He answers in the affirmative. “It brings a focus and an energy that you don’t see in the average blues band. It taught me that you have to be hard.”
And back to the upcoming shows in France, is there much difference between touring across the pond and touring in the States? “The wine and beer are better here,” he replies, before focusing on universals. “Wherever you go, people are awesome. Music transforms and transcends all of the cultural differences.”
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