Friday, November 30, 2012

The King of New York

When your boss comes storming into the office one morning, breathless and late by even his usual standards, and barks at you to stop immediately what you're doing your attention will be captured.

When the urgency to immediately watch a video tape, recorded the night before on a German satellite TV channel and featuring someone called "Popa Chubby", you begin to splutter nervously, it being 10 in the morning and you're in an open-plan, mixed-gender office, and all.

However, this is the Tuesday morning in 1997 when I was introduced - somewhat forcibly and via a hastily taped recording - of perhaps the most exciting blues guitarist either of us had ever encountered. Then or since.

Popa Chubby (as in "pop a..." - work it out for yourself) is, by his given name, Bronx, New York-born Ted Horovitz. A colossal individual with a talent to match, and an early history that walked the sort of path from which blues music is traditionally spawned.

The blues have a long reach: in the early 1960s they arrived in the London suburbs, other English cities like Newcastle, Birmingham and Manchester, and to northern Germany, where a visiting bunch of Liverpool lads added it to their canon of influences. The blues spread from the American Deep South up the Mississippi to Chicago. They even found their way to New York City, where they ran into the teenage Horovitz.

Apparently self-raised from the age of seven, when his candy store-owning father passed away, in his teens Horovitz took, initiatlly, to the drums and then guitar, embracing the blues and classic rock of Led Zeppellin (and, I suspect, Humble Pie), the Rolling Stones, Cream and Jimi Hendrix, of whom he retains a particular passion for today. In his late teens, New York City became the fulcrum of Horovitz's life, the mid-70s punk scene in particular providing a life and even a living, and, eventually, the dependency of a lengthy heroin addiction.

"Right from the start I was taught about rock'n'roll as theatre," Horovitz says, citing a performance artist called Screaming Mad George as a heavy influence, along with the other bands appearing at legendary club CBGBs at the time, such as The Ramones, the Cramps and Richard Hell, whose band, the Voidoids, Horovitz even joined. The spirit, he says, was that "...rock'n'roll should be dangerous. Musicians like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols weren't just bands. They were a threat to society!".

Like so many of his blues heroes, however, Horovitz channelled life's very real experiences through the six strings of his guitar, emerging in 1990 as Popa Chubby, an utterly unique performer, but one who also captured the creative expression of Jimi Hendrix, the explosive chops of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the down-home raw honesty of Rory Gallagher in his prime.

By the time I came across Chubby in 1997, he already had a prolific catalogue of albums under his belt, including his debut, It's Chubby Time, which featured early favourites in the Chubby band's stage set like Sweet Goddess Of Love And Beer and Stoop Down Baby. By the time of my Tuesday morning epiphany, Popa Chubby was already established name as a purveyor of, as a Dutch magazine recently put it, "aggressive, sweaty and filthy blues".

It has taken me 15 years to finally catch up with Popa Chubby in the flesh, so to speak. For a decade and a half, fate conspired to ensure that whenever a Chubby gig was taking place somewhere I should be able to get to, something ensured I was somewhere else entirely.

So, with purpose, I made a point of being in Hamburg last Saturday night for a show that met with a Saxon welcome as enthusiastic as that which I saw on that video tape a decade and a half earlier.

Having learned his chops in the pubs of New York City, places with names like Manny's Car Wash, as well as at blues bars and festivals across the US, Fabrik in Hamburg is a comfortable fit.

A former factory, it now resembles one of those wooden-framed rural country and western dives you find throughout the American Mid-West.

Which made Saturday's audience - a mix of jet black BMW-driving corporate affluence and beer-chugging biker boys - all the more amusing to observe. The clipped, older punters nodded their heads conservatively to the raw and raucous blues the Popa Chubby Band powered through, while the biker boys merrily quaffed more brew and got on with enjoying themselves as if Oktoberfest had moved north after leaving Munich in its wake.

Looking at the 52-year-old, 300-pound, shaven-headed and ultra-tattooed Horovitz today, you could say that he still conveys the threat to society of his punk influences. But this is, still, rock'n'roll theatre. You get the sense that, just as Hulk Hogan in person will disarmingly say, "Brother, call me Terry"), there is a careful balance going on between Popa Chubby the character and Ted Horovitz the artist.

Somewhere near the surface resides a very earnest blues performer, with a repertoire spanning the blues genres - bar-room, Delta, Chicago, Texan - and throwing into the mix Bach and stunningly different version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow (covered by many as a saccharine ballad, performed here as a demonstration of fretboard virtuosity, subtlety and shade).

To demonstrate further the blues' geographic spread, from the dusty Clarksdale drawl of Robert Johnson to the Texan swing of ZZ Top, Popa Chubby's own repertoire covers much the same ground. An innovative, wah-wah-heavy take on BB King's Rock Me Baby encountered a more traditional approach to Muddy Waters' Hoochie Coochie Man.

That said, you still have to remember that this is a Bronx native playing his blues through the filter of a punk upbringing. But like Fun Loving Criminal and fellow New Yorker, Huey Morgan, there's more going on with Popa Chubby than just theatricality. His stage presence offers light and shade: one minute, a snarling Bronxite, the next a broad entertainer, dueting with guest vocalist Sari Schorr on an enjoyably chugging version of Etta James' I Just Want To Make Love To You.

With a clear love of Jimi Hendrix (what started as a set at a tribute show turned into a set of Electric Chubbyland CDs featuring the most definitive Hendrix covers I've ever heard), the Fabrik audience were treated to blistering versions of Hey Joe, Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary and, later into the set, a stunning version of Voodoo Chile.

The fact that the Popa Chubby Band - comprising Erik Boyd on bass and former Rollins Band drummer Simeon Cain, together with Horovitz - perfectly resembles the Jimi Hendrix Experience didn't get lost on me.

Eric Clapton, in his carefully constructed late-middle age Armani chic, Chubby is not. Nor does this man mountain, with a preposterously good gift for making a battered '66 Stratocaster sing and dance, conform to your expectations of a Bronx-raised, Jewish New Yorker. In his hands, the Strat can be either a weapon, the most delicate of instruments, or an expansive, room filling, polyphony.

15 years ago in in London I seem to recall using the word "extraordinary" an awful lot as we sat through that video tape. In my head, I kept hearing those same words all through Saturday night. And you will, too. So, if the chance comes your way, if Popa Chubby comes your way, or if you can come Popa Chubby's way, don't leave it as long as I did. Go and see the man, and enjoy a remarkable live experience.

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