Blues big enough to embrace rock and jazz
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., Oct. 18, 2002) – Popa Chubby makes a statement just by appearing on stage. The super-plus size singer-guitarist boasts a big bald head that tapers to a tiny, goateed chin. His enormous arms seem even larger, as they function as canvases for outrageous tattoos. His appearance suggests more roadie or bouncer than musician.

That Chubby turned out to be a dynamically eloquent performer on Thursday night at Club Helsinki just made the disparity between his looks and his disposition all the more striking. Performing in a power trio backed by a young bassist and drummer, Chubby rocked hard one moment and tenderly the next, his music spanning heavy metal, funk, jazz, swing and primarily the blues, sometimes all within one song, sometimes hopping from one genre to another from phrase to phrase.

Handling both lead and rhythm guitar duties, plus vocals, Chubby was masterfully in control. He also was right on top of his musicians, conducting and directing them in when to lighten up and when to let it rip. The Bronx, N.Y., native, who now lives in the Catskills, was a consummate professional, working the room with as much grace as his acrobatic guitar playing.

Chubby kicked off his set with his new song, “If the Diesel Don’t Get You, the Jet Fuel Will,” from his great new album, “The Good, the Bad and the Chubby” (Blind Pig). The song was a fast rocker that connected the dots between Chuck Berry and Ted Nugent.

Like everything he played, the song had its foundation in the blues. But Chubby doesn’t allow himself to be chained to blues tradition. “I Can’t See the Light of Day” was a soul-blues ballad on which Chubby acquitted himself vocally with some very Otis Redding-like cries, which he answered on guitar with birdlike trills followed by hard-crunching riffs. His playing was expressive and articulate, with staccato arpeggios and manic ostinatoes bouncing off each other as delicate latticework one moment and heavy-metal thunder the next.

Jazz kept creeping in, too. “I’ll Be There for You” was a clever, mostly successful attempt to build a blues dirge on the rhythmic and harmonic pattern of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” The song “Caffeine and Nicotine Running Around My Brain” was a giddy, delightful bit of hypercaffeinated jump blues, with Chubby’s swinging guitar served on a bed of equal parts Chet Atkins and B.B. King.

Many blues performers approach the style with kid gloves, afraid to personalize it for fear of offending purists. Chubby is obviously deeply grounded in the blues, but he’s not afraid to take it wherever the song requires – even into rap or hip-hop territory, as he did on “Daddy Played Guitar, Mama Was a Disco Queen.”

“That’s how the white boy got the blues,” explained Chubby, who was born Ted Horowitz. And in that fusion, Chubby is carving out a new legacy. Call it Chubby music.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 19, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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