The best-kept secret in town
If you’re a blues fan, and you’re open to going out that night, there’s a fine destination on the outskirts of Rancho Cordova on Sunday from 8 p.m. till midnight, when Big John & the Chosen Few hold court at Betty’s Kitchen and Bar, located at 9777 Lincoln Village Drive, which is just east of Bradshaw Road and south of Highway 50. Most of the time, the strip-mall sports bar is a restaurant that specializes in the more soulful side of Southern cuisine, and you can still get a good meal—smothered chicken, links, pork, sweet-potato pie and much more—when the band is playing.
Last Sunday, the setup was this: Slightly after 8 p.m., drummer Big John Evans and his band—guitarist Terry “B.T.” Jones, bassist Fred Collins and keyboard player Kevin Burton—along with conga player Robert Williams and tenor saxophonist Ben Lugo, both of whom play with the band occasionally, began playing at the far end of the bar.
Kicking off with a trademark shuffle, the band’s sound was tight but fluid, touching on Meters-like syncopated funk, 1960s organ-combo jazz and R&B instrumental music along the lines of Booker T. and the MG’s, in addition to the type of jazz-tinged blues that once emanated from South Texas. The band’s sound was enhanced greatly by its rhythm section of Evans, whose drumming at times had a Bernard Purdie-like fatback vibe, and bassist Collins, whose facility on his five-string instrument was astonishing at times. Customarily, the Chosen Few play the first set and then open a jam session up for the second and third sets.
Usually, that’s when people start taking turns onstage. On this Sunday, however, a touring band from Merced, led by a blues harpist named Cookie Jackson, took over, and its harder-edged Stevie Ray Vaughan style stood in contrast with the more liquid groove the Chosen Few were laying down. The guitarist, in particular, seemed to feel the need to punctuate any quiet space with Stevie-isms from his red Stratocaster; the band started out energetic but quickly became annoying. Just as in other genres, the art of playing good blues is as much about shaping the space between the notes as it is about making the notes themselves. After Jackson finished, the Chosen Few began their second set, and other guests—saxophonists, guitarists and singers—began sitting in.
Evans has been playing Betty’s Kitchen for about two years now, beginning with a trio. He moved to town from the Bay Area more than a decade ago to play drums with the late Johnny Heartsman, after Heartsman’s drummer, Rex Kline, died, and he has played with a number of other blues players. As Big John puts it cryptically when you call his band’s hotline, “You’ve found the best-kept secret in town.” He ain’t lying.