Ted Horowitz, better known as blues-rock guitar wiz “Popa Chubby,” dominates any stage he is on, and not just because he’s very tall and very wide. Chubby is often called a “postmodern” blues artist, and if that means he doesn’t limit himself to just playing 12-bar recitations of blues standards, the tag fits. As Chubby showed in a recent blazing show at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill in Manhattan, it’s all about the song—and the intensity he can bring to the song—not about playing well-worn chord progressions over and over again. To quote Graham Parker, “passion is no ordinary word” for Popa Chubby.
Chubby was at the Times Square club to plug his ace new album, Back to New York City, so he couldn’t have been in a better situation. After starting out with the fairly standard blues vamp “She Loves Everybody But Me,” which served to warm up the band for what was to follow, Chubby really got down to business. In an energized rendition of the stellar, bittersweet title track of his new disc, Chubby reaffirmed his love for this city that has changed so much—“no more pimps / no more whores / wax museums / retail stores”—and perhaps lost a bit of its soul, since the days when he toiled in the Voidoids, Richard Hell’s seminal punk band. Perhaps appropriately, a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic “Manic Depression” followed, featuring some especially fiery fretwork from the big fella.
The genius of Popa Chubby, as he exhibited on this night, is how he can move from Hendrix straight into an instrumental version—delicate at first, then artfully raucous–of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and make it seem like a perfectly natural development. Chubby then offered up an emotionally compelling rendition of Leonard Cohen’s dystopian “The Future,” showing that while he is known for his guitar playing, he’s no slouch in the vocal department either. He bellowed the line, “When they said repent / I wonder what they meant?” with particular ferocity. “Hey Joe,” which followed, was funky and Stevie Ray Vaughan-like, with some nifty wah-wah guitar spicing up this well-worn rock classic.
After slyly requesting a hand for the man who “took the biggest dose of LSD in history,” Chubby and his band kicked into perhaps the highlight of the set, the new “Pound of Flesh,” a simmering, dark rocker about the emotional desperation of a man who is losing the love of his life. The dramatic intensity conjured up here was reminiscent of greats like the aforementioned Cohen but also Townes Van Zandt, with Popa Chubby proving to be a very talented lyricist as well as a gifted guitar slinger and singer. “Pound of Flesh” is an instant classic, and would be a hit single in a better world than this one. Providing a lyrical contrast from those explored in “Pound of Flesh,” a new blues ballad called “A Love That Will Not Die” allowed more room for Chubby to stretch out with some searing guitar solos. So did “She Made Me Beg For It,” the funky instrumental workout that followed.
In a change of pace, Chubby brought his wife, singer-bassist Galea, onstage for a sassy and rousing rockabilly-flavored cover of “Jackson” (first made famous by Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter), featuring a rollicking solo turn by Dave Keyes on the electric piano. On Freddie King’s “Same Old Blues,” Chubby proved that he can tear it up on a straight blues classic on a par with Lance Lopez or any of the other current blues-rock guitar hotshots. As demonstrated on this song, in particular, Chubby’s guitar work never substitutes speed for emotion; he makes every note count.
Much like Leonard Cohen himself has said of his song, I too had thought I’d heard enough covers of “Hallelujah” to last me a lifetime. Yet by reinvigorating this modern classic with passionate intensity and sizzling blues fretwork, Chubby changed my mind. The audience agreed as well, roaring its approval as Chubby and company left the stage.
So don’t be fooled by the big man’s playful image or mirthful banter: Popa Chubby is one deadly serious artist. This was my first exposure to Chubby’s onstage magic, but it sure as hell won’t be the last.
1. She Loves Everybody But Me
2. Back To New York City
3 Manic Depression
4. Somewhere Over The Rainbow
5. The Future
6. Hey Joe
7. Pound of Flesh
8. A Love That Will Not Die
9. She Made Me Beg For It
11.Same Old Blues
–Johnny “Gutter” Walker
–photos by “Candy Gutter” aka Stephanie Walker