Grits Vs. Gravy


Unless you got your mojo workin’, most blues albums today won’t mean squat to you if they’re not by youngbloods biting pop or r&b sensibilities (Keb’ Mo’, Jonny Lang) or rock stars digging into their withered roots (Clapton, Aerosmith). Two new records on the fiercely independent Blind Pig label are instructive in the perils and payoffs of blues style-hopping.

A Bronx white boy, singer-guitarist Popa Chubby became a New York club fixture in the ’90s. A hulking guy who looks ready to wrestle, he’s decked out on Peace, Love & Respect with an Uncle Sam hat and Old Glory behind him. But instead of a Toby Keith flag-waver, he’s a pissed-off liberal whose politics bubble over into his songs, kinda like Lou Reed on New York. Grocery prices, suicide bombers, mad cow, Enron, and his wife leaving are what’s pissing him off in “Top Ten Reasons I Can’t Sleep at Night”—laughable at first, but also poignant to the average voter. Quoting “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on his guitar and giving props to the First Amendment (in “Unamerican Blues”) and turning a war protest into a house party, he’s less about edutainment than using a good groove as an excuse to complain about our collective political mess. Subtly cramming oi! chants, Stones rips, Santana guitar lines, and ho dissin’ into his Stevie Ray grooves, Chubby manages musical and social outreach without being some weak-assed crossover.

Starting out in the late ’60s, Rod Piazza is much more old-school, living on the West Coast but with his heart firmly in Chicago. His real strengths are his hyperventilating harp (better than Magic Dick, if not Little Walter) and his band, who trade off blazing solos like a hot swing combo or glam-era Roxy Music. One thing keeping him from going over the top is his mild voice, more gravy than grits. The first half of Keepin’ It Real has well-worn covers (“Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”), breaking through on a greasy version of Bo Diddley’s “Pretty Thing.” After that, Piazza comes on stronger, mostly keeping his instrument in his mouth. He battles guitarist Henry Carvajal, lets his wife-pianist-longtime collaborator Honey stride some fine boogie-woogie, and finishes off with his own string of frenzied solos. Like Chubby, Piazza might not have any jukebox standards up his sleeve yet, but he earns the cover charge.