There are prolific musicians, and there are ridiculously prolific musicians. Popa Chubby released his first album back in 1994, and since then has churned out more than 20, making it a pretty sure bet that only a small percentage of his fans have heard his entire oeuvre. So, like the blind men feeling the elephant and imagining the creature to be like a snake or a giant leaf, we’ve all got our image of this bluesman’s abilities based on what we’ve heard from him in our own experience.
Chubby, born Ted Horowitz, cut his musical teeth playing in the New York City punk scene of the late 1970s. After a harrowing period of heroin abuse, he went back to music full-time, and picked up the name Popa Chubby from none other than Parliament/Funkadelic/Talking Head Bernie Worrell. When he decided to fully invest himself in the blues, Chubby took the sense of danger he picked up from punk, and made sure he would never simply be a lackadaisical revivalist.
Popa Chubby's Back To New York City
Popa Chubby’s blues live on the edge of experience, tradition, and an unusual willingness to meld rock stylings to his music. Unlike other blues rockers, who simply turn up their amps and pedals, playing the music faster and louder and with more emphasis on showmanship, Popa Chubby’s rock influences have been organically fused to his presentation of the song at hand.
For Back To New York City, rock is the name of the game, with blues being relegated to an influence rather than a predominant style. His repertoire of blues guitar licks and emotional resonance is always at hand, but the songs are rarely snugly fitting in blues forms this time around. To play music for his home town of New York City, he had to use a wider variety of stylistic approaches than he’s perhaps done on any one album before.
Tribute To Stevie Ray
The title track, though, is a twelve-bar blues, albeit one with a slight hint of Hendrixian flair applied to it. Once the album starts playing, we are immediately inside the wailing powerhouse roar of Chubby’s guitar, setting us on edge before he drops back the sonic overdrive and begins ranting about his troubles and the changes which have made New York City unrecognizable. “No more pimps, no more whores / Just wax museums and retail stores,” Chubby cries, and while this may not be everyone’s opinion of a letdown, we do at least understand the lament for nonconformity which fuels the song.
Paying a sly tribute to the guitar approach of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, but with perhaps a more rhythmically-precise attention to the Texas shuffle form, Chubby gives us “She Loves Everybody But Me,” a perhaps light-hearted sigh of difficulties with a woman of obvious external delights. This is followed by the slow, moody organ and stuttering guitar intro to “Pound Of Flesh,” which then explodes into a full-throttle heavy rock riff which gives way to the raw gasp of Chubby’s love problems as painful to him as the crucifixion of Christ. Did I forget to mention the acoustic flamenco-inspired and downright lovely guitar solo? “Warrior God” follows, a hybrid of classic boogie and the style of Judas Priest, though, alas, Chubby can’t begin to sing in the upper register of Rob Halford, who could really have sent this song into the stratosphere it deserves to inhabit.
Leonard Cohen's The Future
By this point in the album, we are fully expecting each song to be a surprise, but our jaw drops to the floor the first time we realize he follows with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “The Future.” It’s a reasonably faithful take on Cohen’s masterful and complex tale of apocalyptic nostalgia, with Chubby providing bluesier guitar licks than the original. He has a blast working through the constantly shifting images and emotional expressions of the lyrics, too, capturing each nuance of the banality of evils being described.
“It’s About You” reminds us of AC/DC, though the rhythm section doesn’t have the punch-to-the-gut power of the model. Chubby does a nice little tribute to Angus Young on the guitar solo, though. Better is “A Love That Will Not Die,” which apes the neo-classical melodic touches of Procol Harum. “Keep Your Wood Pile Dry” is a mid-tempo rocker with some delicious slide guitar. It’s bluesier than many of the other songs, but the form comes from other folk styles, as he adds to his list of suggestions with each verse making the chorus longer and longer as the song goes on. For the record, it’s good to keep an eagle eye, your dagger sharp, and your woodpile dry, if you want to survive.
Stand Before The Sun
Popa Chubby isn’t through messing with our minds, nosirree. “Stand Before the Sun,” with lyrics that sound like a psychedelic Hallmark card audition, sonically and melodically could have been a nice fit for the likes of the Walker Brothers or Tom Jones back in the mid-1960s. It’s fun to hear Chubby squeeze all those syllables into small spaces, and then open up with a gorgeous and rich guitar solo.
“She Made Me Beg For It” is also fun, though Chubby’s attempt to capture the spirit of a naughty Joe Tex number doesn’t quite go far enough down in the gutter. Still, the double-tracked guitar intro is a pleasure, and the groove is tight and deep. The album ends with a rocked-up version of Bach’s “Jesus Joy Of Man’s Desire,” which ain’t as deliriously weird as the Apollo 100 “Joy” back in 1971, but melds Chubby’s improvisational skills with Bach’s melodically accessible and mathematically rigorous tune.
Steve's Bottom Line
To say Back to New York City isn’t a typical Popa Chubby album would be to imply that there is such an animal. But the blues is kept to the background more than usual, without ever going so far away as to allow us to forget where Chubby’s heart and soul are situated. Rock fans may find this record a little less loose than they might like, but it is a charmer, once the element of surprise is taken away. Wonder what this guy is gonna do next? (Provogue Records, released October 24, 2011)
Guide Disclosure: A review copy of this CD, DVD, or book was provided by the record label, publisher, or publicist. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.