I admit that I’ve been a fan of Popa Chubby for a long time, eagerly awaiting each new release from this master of postmodern dangerous blues rock. Popa continually relies on predominantly original material to get his blues message across with hints of wry lyrical humor backed by oodles of extended searing guitar solos. He was born in the Bronx, NY and grew up in Queens back in the sixties and has transcended his early fixation on Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and that vein (surely not a distressing fixation). Popa Chubby has truly become a distinctive guitarist who remains true to the spirit of the rootsy genre while supplying his own uniquely brand of hard hitting, gut bucket, blues rock n’ funky soul. Growing up in the intermittent crucible of NYC allows for Popa soaking up the avant-garde cultural climates of that metropolis like a sponge.
Popa Chubby’s vocals could be considered somewhat of an acquired taste; but he does have a wide and improving vocal range with sufficient gratifying grit and spirit to do the job well. Chubby is profoundly prolific in putting out significant music; spitting out songs and albums much like the rapid interval of baseball manager Dusty Baker disposing of sunflower seeds from his mouth. Since his debut in the early nineties with Gas Money and It’s Chubby Time, Popa has always been a major global touring road warrior stalking stages in the time honored tradition of Howlin’ Wolf and other large proportioned bluesmen. His major label release came in 1995 with Booty And The Beast (OKeh/550 Music). That one was produced by legendary engineer and producer Tom Dowd and turned out to be one of the top selling blues albums of that year.
“I got my chops in the ’70s, but my perceptions were coloured by the ’60s – Sly, Jimi, that whole gang.” ~ Popa Chubby
Popa Chubby placed a frequently recurring bit of advice in the liner notes of his 2017 release, Two Dogs, which I wholeheartedly agree with. He advises to “Play it loud and often!!!!!” I’ve followed his doctrine and found that all of the songs contained on this album resonate deeply in both my head and in my heart. So people…….. CRANK it up.
Popa Chubby (born Theodore Joseph Horowitz) wrote eleven of the thirteen songs on the album, two of which are co-writes with his ex-wife Galea that surfaced on prior albums. The remaining two songs are bonus timeless tracks performed live by this prime interpreter. In point of fact, my favorite Popa Chubby release is Old School – Popa Chubby And Friends Play Muddy, Willie And More (which is just what the title suggests: adept covers of Blues legends Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and John Lee Williamson). One of the “friends” on that release was New York based Dave Keyes on keys (sideman for Tracy Nelson, Gladys Knight, Pam Tillis, Darlene Love, as well as late legends Lou Rawls, Levon Helm and the queen of R&B Ruth Brown). Chubby is perhaps equally as well known for his work as a producer as he is as a performer. So it should come as no surprise that Two Dogs was engineered and produced by Don Chubblione (another pseudonym) in his home studio in the Hudson Valley.
The first song on Two Dogs is entitled “It’s Alright” and it’s good-time rock blues in the party modus of the J. Geils Band. This song sets the stage for all the pedal-to-the-metal exciting music that will follow. The driving beat from the rhythm section of Bryant pummeling his drums and Paladino keeping lockstep on his bass guitar is aptly complimented by a combination of Dave Keyes’s piano and organ, and the punchy blistering guitar leads of Chubby. Popa commandingly rides herd on the group with his soulful rocking vocal. The lyrics are good and the rallying battle cry of “hey baby, it’s alright” is sung over and over again with a hardy passion of purpose that guarantees that phrase will become an earwig that is hard to shake. Popa Chubby and his crew let it all hang out and make Galileo look like a boy scout.
Horowitz was at a 1990 jam session with Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic when he got his Popa Chubby nickname. Here is a direct quote from the big and bad man himself that captures what he and his music have come to embody: “He (Worrell) was singing a song called ‘Popa Chubby’ and he pointed at me. Popa Chubby basically means to get excited. The core of my music is about excitement. I think music should make people feel alive.”
“Rescue Me” is a boogie driven rock blues with driving keyboards and Popa playing some retro Chuck Berry meets Jimmy Rogers guitar flair. The lyrics also have a retro effect “If it tastes like sugar, then it must be sweet. If it tastes like honey, got to come from a bee. If it feels like a tidal wave, gotta come from the sea.” Popa’s pleading vocal is earnest and irresistible. The chorus has a nice hook “If it feels like love, you got to rescue me.”
My favorite song on Two Dogs, and one of my most-beloved tunes from all of Popa Chubby’s extensive catalog is “Preexisting Conditions.” This song is somewhat similar to the dark humorous satire that Randy Newman at times employs (think “Let’s Drop The Big One Now” or “Rednecks”). Popa utilizes some biting caustic sarcastic lyrics that would be funny if they didn’t hit so very close to home. The lyrical imagery is again top-notch as he relates a tale of someone with a shitload of ills and bills trying to survive in this once-great country with “the Donald” in charge. Of course the very sick person has to live with the threat of his life sustaining medical insurance being yanked mercilessly from his ass. A small sample of the genius in the lyrics is impossible to properly provide. In order to appreciate the complete gest you must listen to the song in its entirety and digest Popa’s blow-by-blow account. At the end of the song, Popa executes a spot-on imitation of Pres. Trump with some of Trump’s prototypical dumb-speak. A generous taste of some of Popa’s most electrifyingly scorching guitar exists on this politically topical song. A fantastic horn arrangement is provided by Chubby’s daughter Tipitina, who blows the trumpet alongside the tenor saxophone of Andrew Garrison to grant this one a full-on ensemble treatment that satisfies to the marrow. Paladino and Bryant again are rock solid cementing the rhythm section on this tour de force.
“I came to the blues from the back door. I love it and appreciate it but I don’t make the claim to be a bluesman. There are many people who play the blues way better than I do.” ~ Popa Chubby
To the layman (no pun intended) perhaps Sam Lay may not be well-known. But the Chicago Blues drummer was a shuffle master of the highest regard. Say Lay’s weighty credentials speak for themselves. His drumming can be heard on classic platters by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, the original version of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and oh, so many more. His biggest claim to fame, for those of my generation, could be that he was the drummer for Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric thus raising a stink with the folky purists in attendance. Equally inspirational was Sam Lay’s participation as one the Blues “Founding Fathers” on Muddy Waters’ seminal recording Fathers And Sons. Lay also worked with one of my favorite Chicago groups, the Siegel-Schwall Band. Popa Chubby and Galea pay tribute to Sam Lay with their song “Sam Lay’s Pistol” which previously appeared on their Vicious Country LP. There is irony in the title due to the fact that Sam Lay accidently shot himself and died while touring with Butterfield. “Sam Lay’s Pistol” starts off with some snappy cymbals and a spoken verse as follows: “If Sam Lay, were behind that kit, and the Wolf turned around, and said shoot dat shit, he’d do it.” Chubby then intones a tale filled with richly detailed imagery that any musician playing inside a smoke-filled danger foreboding bar (or patron of said type establishment) will greatly enjoy as he brings some more of his stinging guitar to the table. NYC based Sam “The Freight Train” Bryant (Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band) is behind the drum kit on this song; a spot he maintains on the majority of Two Dogs.
“Since I’d grown up on Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, when I started playing blues in New York clubs I understood that the blues should be dangerous, too. It wasn’t just from playing in punk bands. Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were dangerous men. They’d cut you or shoot you if they thought it was necessary, and Little Walter packed a gun and wouldn’t hesitate to use it. That danger is a real part of the Blues and I keep it alive in my music.” ~ Popa Chubby
Chubby has long been a songwriter who is not afraid to wear his political sentiments on his sleeve. On his debut for Blind Pig Records, The Good, The Bad and the Chubby, he tackled the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy on his track “Somebody Let the Devil Out.” Then back in 2004, Popa Chubby released Peace, Love and Respect which found him perturbed by the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq, and then-President George W. Bush. It contained a song “Young Men” that had lyrics counseling “Young men, stay at home and live your lives.”
The title track “Two Dogs” has some lyrics that are somewhat ambiguous in nature, but one can tell Chubby is none too happy. “Two Dogs” is essential about duality of character, good versus evil; at least that is what I believe. Or maybe the lyrics are a metaphor for the old dog eat dog idiom (sorry, Michael Vick). “Bad dog don’t get no bone, bad don’t get no home, bad dog don’t get no blood, bad dog don’t get no love” is not the advice you would receive from Cesar Millan. Wah-wah pedal laden guitar and heavily miked drums and percussion combine with a very nice horn chart, and just a taste of Hammond B-3 thrown in for good measure. Clocking in at 3 minutes and 45 seconds, this is the shortest song on the album. The press release for Two Dogs quotes Popa Chubby: “We have become polarized as a race. There is a battle inside each of us. Each day we rise and must choose our path calling upon each other and our own spirits for strength and courage. The dog we feed is the one that rules, the dog we starve dies of neglect. It is up to each of us to use our spirit to feed the dog that will enable all of us to thrive.”
“I’m living in a wild time, and that is where the inspiration is drawn from. There are my issues, but the picture is much bigger than me and my situation. Everything is breaking down in the world. The lines are being redefined. We all need something.” ~ Popa Chubby
Another great song follows entitled “Dirty Old Blues.” This one sounds remarkably like a vintage gone solo Alvin Lee song and would fit quite nicely on Lee’s RX-5 album. It’s hard rockin’, head boppin’, toe tappin’, ear meltin’ TNT. The tune contains some truly engaging electric slide mingling with Popa’s usual stirring guitar, while the Freight Train pummels his drum kit like a Tasmanian Devil. Popa’s vocal is right on the mark, and this song really demonstrates how far Popa Chubby’s songwriting chops have progressed to attain this high level.
The second Galea/Chubby composition included on Two Dogs comes with “Shakedown,” a song that opened Popa’s 1999’s Brooklyn Basement Blues. Popa provides one of his finest vocal performances, piquantly plucks the bass guitar, and sharply shakes down some wah-wah pedal driven guitar theatrics. The rhythm of the song revolves around a riff borrowed from Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” who, in a standard practice, most likely scrounged it from some earlier blues hound. The lyrics relate to the age-old Blues theme of suspected infidelity of a lover. Popa sings lines such as “I’ve been reading your letters, checking on your diary” letting his lady know that he’s on to her disloyal activities.
Popa Chubby rears back and throws a slow curve ball with his song “Wound Up Getting High;” a truly lovely number. The piano tinkles coming from the gifted fingers of Dave Keyes are exquisite, while Keyes also produces some calliope pipe sounding qualities on his organ. Popa plays a restrained acoustic guitar and sings the song’s melancholy lyrics lucidly and sweetly. “A thousand teardrops fall down from the sky” is an example of the word pictures he paints as he reminisces about what might have been in bygone days if different paths had been taken.
Some people don’t enjoy instrumentals, but I confess that I’m not among those crazy individuals. I’ve always been a sucker for a great instrumental, and Popa muscularly delivers the goods with “Cayophus Dupree.” The song has a late-night “attitude” that is dominated by his vibrantly crisp and sparkling guitar legerdemain throughout. Dave Keyes (a long-time PC cohort) lordly weaves jazz/blues swirlings into the tune’s fabric from his Hammond B-3 organ played through a Leslie cabinet to provide a masterful counterpoint. Together Popa and Keyes have always been double-eyed dynamite, definitely the case here. Chubby also steps up on this one and provides simple, yet sturdily steadfast, bass and drums to this melodic and most-becoming blend.
“Me Won’t Back Down” contains some sardonically snarling wah-wah laden guitar. The song structure itself, the guitar, and the even the vocals, for some reason all combine to remind me of Frank Zappa when he basically shut up and played his guitar (thinking of “Hot Rats,” “Willie The Pimp.” and “Chunga’s Revenge” era, etc.). Chubby again competently mans the bass guitar and drums in addition to his always stellar axe work.
Tribute is lovingly paid to the memory of John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat with “Chubby’s Boogie.” The Dave Keyes piano pounding is boogie-woogie at its finest, and Popa gets in some first-class boogie on down guitar licks with an updated twist. The rhythm section of Andy Paladino on thumping bass guitar and Sam Bryant on drums set themselves apart on this text-book track that is six minutes of pure undiluted boogie chillen joy. Popa has always firmly in his element on boogie songs. And Popa avoids the misstep that beleaguered Canned Heat, and Chubby himself on occasion; keeping the song at a six minute length in lieu of going overboard and stretching it out to a twenty minute marathon.
The two bonus covers come at the end of the disc with the Rolling Stone immortal “Sympathy for the Devil” up first. It was recorded live at Le Bikini concert venue in Toulouse, France (an intimate music club with seating of 500 to 1,500 and seating in the round capability). The rhythm section of brothers Andrea Beccaro on drums and older brother Francesco Beccaro on bass guitar are on board for this song. Popa is, of course, no match for Mick Jagger on vocals, but he sings the song with a nice feel of honest sincere conviction and Popa’s enunciation of the lyrics is much superior to the knighted Englishman. In the big man’s hands the lyrics come to life. Popa’s guitar play is equally fine when compared to Mick Taylor’s and Keith’s treatment. In my view, the song could jam on for longer than its five plus minutes running length to good advantage.
The other cover is the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed live at The Falcon in Marlboro, New York. The performance itself is quite good, but some of the drunken people in attendance don’t show Popa Chubby any respect and talk loudly throughout the song, making it hard to enjoy. That is a true shame because Chubby sings and plays guitar beautifully, especially in a mid-song lead, and Dave Keyes is superfine on heartfelt piano. Gentle background vocals also come off nicely. The type of rude behavior by the audience would never happen in Europe, where former and current blues masters such as Popa Chubby and Walter Trout are revered and more fully appreciated than they are on their home soil.
Two Dogs doesn’t fall into the trap of adding a song or two of filler material to flesh out an album. Every song has a purpose and contains some of some of Popa Chubby’s best and most deeply felt writing. He continues to be a beacon for “Badass” guitar lovers and blues lovers should rejoice at his persistence and constant tenacity of intensity. Two Dogs provides plenty of Chubby’s trademark fretboard fireworks. Take my advice and grab this album, and remember to play it loud enough to wake up the neighbors.
Popa Chubby gives you your money’s worth.