Popa Chubby

Popa Chubby
The Essential Popa Chubby

Blind Pig Records

By Tony Del Rey
March 2011

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Well, Magnus, let me tell you about the state of things as they pertain to this blues artist goes by the handle, Popa Chubby. While I don't profess to know a great deal about the man, it appears that Big Popa's been at this game awhile, amassing enough material to garner his very own compilation album entitled, The Essential Popa Chubby, released on Blind Pig Records. Sixteen tracks’ worth of get-it-on, slap-leather blues - the kind we all ought to sing sometime.

Popa's in the “feel good” business and he knows it. That is to say, he's an entertainer who knows the value of a song and how to sell it to a paying audience. And there are some good ones here, most of them self-penned, that contain discernible melodies built in and around tasty chord patterns that go beyond your standard I-IV-V blues arrangement.

The majority of the material is a well-thought-out mix of majors, minors and 7th chords that allow each track to simmer and build, arcing their way toward satisfying conclusions. And while Popa's prowess with the axe is front and foremost, he doesn't beat you over the head with the fact that the he's one very accomplished player. From all the sniper-fire soloing and churning chord work that punctuates his oeuvre, emanates a palpable gratitude toward the guitar, the only thing Popa can rely on this God-forsaken world to express the full gamut of his emotions. And it’s worth brawling for.

Maybe it's the shaved head and hulking frame (dude looks like he weighs close to three bills on the jacket photo) that conjures the image I have of Popa as this huge Olympic weightlifter about to heft a 500-pound bar bell over his head. It's only when he slams that enormous weight down onto the floor and follows the feat by lifting something delicate like a vase or a small child in his arms that one can appreciate the sheer size, strength and scope of the man as a working musician. Listen to him cover a barn-burner like “Hey Joe,” then follow it immediately with something as stately as Leonard Cohen's, “Hallelujah;” a version every bit as lush as the late Jeff Buckley's masterful cover a few years back. Popa goes from raw power to refined beauty in the span of mere seconds.

You know me, Magnus, my taste leans more toward commercial-sounding fare than maybe the average blues honk might go in for. I get a sense that Popa's of a like mind 'cause he's included a generous handful of up-tempo numbers that even the world's biggest stick-in-the-mud couldn't help but tap a toe to.

My favorite of these is, “Sweet Goddess of Love and Beer,” a catchy little piece of shop reminiscent of J.Geils' brand of good-time rock 'n' roll, complete with call-and-response vocal ad-libs. It's a live cut but the recording manages to preserve the integrity of the song while capturing the expanse of a big room. The band sounds funky and loose, feeding off the energy of an enthusiastic audience, over which Popa seems to hold sway. His playing on this track is cocky and strident, fortified by that big crunching sound he gets out of his amp. The song moves like a Buick with a cinderblock laid across the accelerator, dragging everything and everybody in its ineluctable wake.

Now don't go getting the impression I've pronounced Popa Chubby some kind of leather-jacketed genius just because the guy can keep a hot fire going with his sulfuric licks. Lots of players can do that. Hell, first thing I wanted to do was crack on the guy 'cause I didn't care for his look or his stage name. Then I heard him squeeze sparks out of his guitar. I had to reach for higher ground by looking beyond the prison attitude attached to his appearance and instead seek to appreciate the essence of the man, this person who resides beyond the tats and wrap-around shades.

And Popa very much wants his listeners to meet the young, impressionable child inside - the kid who picked up a guitar instead of a baseball bat or a tire iron simply because the blues exemplars that he'd cottoned onto in those formative years made such an impression on him. You hear tell of his roots in songs like, “Daddy Played the Guitar and Mama Was a Disco Queen,” “How Did A White Boy Get the Blues” and “Life Is A Beatdown,” all of which celebrate Popa's mean streets upbringing and subsequent hard-traveling ways as a result of it.

The first two tracks are acoustic-based, which often times results in a dry-as-dust rendition of some other blues tune. Popa's competent song writing and sprightly arrangements manage to avoid the trap, however. His slide playing on these numbers serves to invigorate the material, working through the grooves like a wet saw. He does have a tendency to lapse into a Beck-style vocal delivery a la Loser, but I can deal with that; Popa's just trying to stay au courant.

As I listened to The Essential Popa Chubby a couple of times through, one pervading thought kept circling my cranium like a motorist trying to park curbside at LAX: “The blues needs a cross-over artist ... The blues needs a cross-over artist.” So I had to ask aloud, is there anyone out there on the horizon with enough showmanship, talent and conviction to carry the fire to an unenlightened public and not sell out (totally, anyway)? ‘Cause it's been awhile.

You have to reach as far back as 1986 to Robert Cray hitting with Strong Persuader or possibly Bonnie Raitt striking radio gold with Luck of the Draw to remember the blues getting a real payday, 'stead of livin' off loose change like it has for so long. Okay, so neither of those was a blues album in the strict sense, but the majority of the songs managed to hold true to themes inherent in the genre, understated as they were.

There was Stevie Ray, of course, whose rise to prominence only served to open the flood gates for every player this side of Berkeley to start wiring his pickups ass-backwards and buying 12-guage guitar strings by the case. Seems the only blues that managed to make bank post-Stevie was the watered down kind produced by the likes of The Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler, both of whose careers turned out have the shelf life of broccoli, if not shorter.

Let me not tramp the dirt down on their graves with too much glee, however, Magnus. Songs like, “Two Princes,” “Little Miss Can't Be Wrong,” and “Run-Around,” are still in rotation on mainstream and classic rock stations across America, which means a lot of people still like it. Point I'm trying to make is some of the material residing here on The Essential Popa Chubby is possibly one uplifted chorus, one ticklish keyboard flourish, one honey-voiced exclamation of love away from hitting with something that sticks in the brain pan of the American consciousness. So will you please get up off your prodigious backside, Big Popa, and get busy writing your next Blind Pig release? We need a new song we can all sing sometime.

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