Café R&B: red hot blues
After an introduction by John Miles—host of KZFR’s Basically the Blues (Thursday nights at 10) and the sparkplug behind the station’s new Blues Bash live-music series—a full house at the ARC Pavilion enjoyed a terrific performance by Café R&B this past Saturday night. This was the second show in the series, which kicked off with a performance by Terry Hanck and The Soulrockers last month at The Palms.
The Southern California-based quintet spotlights the sensational vocalizing of Roach, backed by a hot band that includes her husband, Byl Carruthers, the guitarist and songwriter/arranger of the group.
Café R&B’s three CDs (on their own It Works Music label) all feature a Hammond B3, and they’ve been hauling that physically cumbersome—but oh so sweet-sounding and musically potent—instrument up and down the state to their gigs for the past 16 years. Stevie Utstein currently occupies that chair and with considerable skill layered some serious B3 grooves behind both Roach’s singing and Carruthers’ impassioned playing during their hour-and-42-minute, 12-song set. Rounding out the group were bassist Bobby Pickett and drummer Don Swanson.
Mixing their original songs with various blues standards, they packed the dance floor from the get-go with everybody vibrating in place to the infectiously rhythmic “I Get Higher.” The song began with Carruthers picking out the theme followed by some simmering B3 and, finally, Roach singing about getting higher just by being with her man: “We don’t gotta go to all the right places/ Don’t gotta get next to all the right faces,” all set to an insistent beat ably provided by Pickett and Swanson.
A menacingly sung “Born Under a Bad Sign” and a bouncy version of Muddy Waters’ “Walking Through the Park,” on which Roach “personalized” the lyrics in a lengthy rap about “walking down Main Street in Chico at 2 a.m. I’m a black blonde so I might be in trouble” led into a 12-minute up-tempo rendition of “Snatch and Grab It,” the Jr. Wells/Buddy Guy classic. It was a powerhouse demonstration of her vocal and physical powers as she roared and snarled her way through the lyrics while engaged in a maelstrom of activity on the cramped stage.
Café R&B doesn’t just play the blues; it reinvents them, automatically going to the heart of each number to mine its treasures. Using a variety of effects (no wah-wah, I’m pleased to say) Carruthers shifted his attack several times during each song, thus giving each a new life. Roach, too, can croon or roar, with the roaring usually confined toward the end as the music builds in intensity. However, it wasn’t all a high-powered, pedal-to-the-metal night; they slowed down a couple of times for some belly-rubbing music, most notably on their reworking of Waters’ “Gypsy Woman” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket,” which they revamped so drastically I barely recognized it.
Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” received a sensuously hypnotic interpretation, with Roach sliding into the lyrics then stepping aside so Utstein could really get to work on his B3. Ah, but the encore really capped the night, as well it should. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” is the band’s pièce de résistance—which found Roach writhing on the floor—and they certainly delivered the goods!
Opening for Café R&B was Chico’s own Second Hand Smoke with Mike and Kathy Williams (on guitar and bass) now fronting a quartet that threw a few of their own curves into a few blues and R&B songs—including “Neighbor, Neighbor,” and a lilting “Just Dropped In,” featuring Mike’s vocals (“Just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in”). Nice work!
The third concert in the Blues Bash series will be on Saturday, March 5, at The Palms (2947 Nord Ave.) and features Maria Muldaur and her Red Hot Bluesiana Band.
KZFR General Manager Rick Anderson added, “We do anticipate resuming the series in the fall. KZFR is committed to bringing great blues music to Chico.”
That’s good news for all of us.