I first met Karl Cabbage the founder, singer and harp player for the band Red Lotus Revue at an event last October called, “The Road to the Battle of the Blues Harps.” Red Lotus Revue was “competing” with other bands for a cash prize and an opening slot at the prestigious event called The Battle of the Blues Harps held in Long Beach, California, the following month. Red Lotus Revue opened the show and I knew right then and there, this band was something special. They were allowed to play for twenty minutes while the other bands played for at least an hour. They didn’t “win” as it seemed that the sole criteria that impressed the judges was which bands spent the most money advertising in the magazine that put on this event.
Since Cabbage had driven over a hundred miles to be used as a prop in a promotional stunt, he hung around the Orange County Fairgrounds for a while and soaked in the scene. I introduced myself to the man who is several years my junior and we began a conversation that afternoon that is not threatening to end anytime soon. I immediately knew Karl Cabbage and his band Red Lotus Revue would be featured some day in BLUES JUNCTION. That day has come as Red Lotus Revue just released their first full length CD entitled Fourteen Stories.
Karl Cabbage, as it turns out, is an interesting, articulate and engaging man. Our discussions have touched on a variety of topics and I am sure no one would be surprised that one of these areas of discussion centered around blues music and the career of Karl Cabbage and Red Lotus Revue.
David Mac (DM): Was there a specific event, a song perhaps a musical performance that you can point to in your life that sent you hurdling down this blues highway?
Karl Cabbage (KC): Yes there was. I was at a record store in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego. I was 17 and was looking at the blues bin. I saw an LP that had a picture of a gentleman with a large chromatic harmonica. I didn’t even know what a chromatic harmonica was at the time. The album was called “The Best of Little Walter”. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to buy the album. They let you go to a listening station and spin it before you purchased the record. I listened and bought the record and that was it.
DM: Had you been playing any music before then?
KC: I had been playing harmonica for about a year or so at the time. I wasn’t really doing blues. I was playing country, gospel hymns and I would try and mimic stuff I heard on the radio. When I heard that Little Walter record I had no idea a harmonica could sound like that. It is not a sound you hear very often. I became really enamored with that sound.
DM: Where did Little Walter's music lead you?
KC: It led directly to Muddy Waters of course and from there to James Cotton and Junior Wells. By this time I was going to college and was running out of money, so I joined the Navy to get money to finish school.
DM: Did you end up graduating?
KC: I graduated from The University of California at San Diego.
DM: Congratulations Karl. There is another kind of education though that I am sure you received with your travels in the Navy.
KC: The Navy ended up sending me to Memphis to electronic school. While I was there on a liberty I would head down to Beale Street. I was with a buddy in this little joint on Beale and we were having this discussion as to who the best harmonica player in the world was. I said “ It’s probably Little Walter” and my buddy said, “What about James Cotton?” and out of the corner this guy who was playing chess, walks up and said, “Little Walter’s the best and people tell me I play like Little Walter.” I am thinking “Yea right.” He said, “I’ll show you. My car’s right around the corner” All three of us walked around the corner. The dude pops in a Little Walter tape. The tune was the instrumental Fast Boogie and he played it note for note on a B-flat harmonica. I said to him, “Teach me what you know”
The guy’s name is Geoff Starin but I call him the Guru. He pretty much sat me down and talked to me about how to approach the music and how to play. He took me backstage at The King Biscuit Blues festival in Helena, Arkansas. I got to meet David “Honeyboy” Edwards. That’s what really set me off on the curse of being a blues practitioner. He then introduced me to R.J. Mischo. He’s an incredible cat, I spent that six months in Memphis, every time I got liberty I'd find Geoff and we would go listen to many blues greats and I would try to pick up what he was putting down.
DM: After Memphis where did your travels take you?
KC: The navy sent me to another school in Florida. Geoff came out to visit me in Florida and told me I had to check out the Springing in the Blues Festival in Jacksonville. I got to see Gary Primich there and I got to see Charlie Musselwhite for the first time. I was playing by myself the whole time, I never played with a band, I was just soaking it all in.
Then I was stationed in Lemoore, California which is in the central valley. Lemoore must be Latin for hell because it was. I didn’t have a car and, my girl friend was still in San Diego at the time. I did however get a chance to play for two bands in nearby Hanford. The Bottom Line Blues Band and a band called the Mackers, in Lemoore. They were good guys who gave me lots of encouragement.
DM: It sounded like for a Navy man you were pretty much landlocked.
KC: I eventually got to see the world. I played on the ship every chance I got. I’ve played in Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and all over. After I got back to San Diego and finished school I went to work for a music company called MP3.com. It is there I met a guitar player and we started a band called the Malt Liquor Blues Band. It was a duo act that morphed into a band called West of Memphis. We started playing regularly and we learned a lot. We put out two albums. One was a local release, the other one we had Bharath Rajakumar produce for us up in Montreal.
DM: Bharath is one hell of a player.
KC: He is a monster, a great man and one of my best friends. He was one of the biggest influences post Geoff Starin. We would talk for three, maybe four of five hours a night for almost three years. One night he said, “Come up and make a record.” We used his people and made the album called Honeypie that was pretty well received. He played on it as well. It was my real introduction into record making and being a serious blues musician.
DM: Where was your band, West of Memphis playing in those days?
KC: We had a four year, Friday night residency at the House of Blues in downtown San Diego.
DM: How did you go from West of Memphis to Red Lotus Revue?
KC: In 2009 we were competing in the International Blues Competition (IBC). My regular guitar player, and partner, could not make the gig so I got Pete Fazzini to sit in. We couldn’t go to the competition as West of Memphis because my partner couldn’t make it so we renamed the combo, Smoking Knights and we won the regional IBC down here.
DM: What were some of the highlights of that experience?
KC: Bharath met us there and we all got to play with Bob Margolin. It was great to see real blues in action. Pete got to see Bharath for the first time.
DM: Let’s talk about Red Lotus Revue. How did this band come about?
KC: When we got back we wanted to do a Sonny Boy Williamson tribute project. We knew a guitar player named Jimmy Zollo who also wanted to do a more traditional thing. We picked up a drummer and got a gig at the Red Lotus Society. It was our first gig together and we said, what are we going to call ourselves, and I said, what about Red Lotus Revue. This was in March of 2010.
DM: When did things really take off for Red Lotus Revue?
KC: In October of 2010, we met Art Martel who got a hold of our EP album. He started spinning it on his weekly radio show. He also started booking us for shows up north in your part of the state. Art is one of those good people that is truly a lover of the music. He introduced us to a bass player named Norm Gonzalez. Norm plays with Rod Piazza. He told Rod “You’ve got to listen to these guys”. Rod hired us to play for his birthday party two years in a row based solely on Norm’s recommendation.
DM: I’ll bet you get asked this all the time...
KC: Why don’t we have bass player?
DM: I know the answer but our readers might be interested in hearing it from you.
KC: Because Little Walter never used a bass. Plus we didn’t want to split the money with a bass player. Kidding.... No it’s just a choice we made. We wanted to produce a different sound.
DM: Let’s talk about your new album.
KC: It is our first full length CD it is called Fourteen Stories. The album features my fellow RLR band mates Pete Fazzini and Jimmy Zollo on guitars. It was recorded in the studio that was built by the drummer on the record, Kurt Kaulker. The record features seven songs co-written by myself and Jimmy. The others are carefully selected covers from Johnny Shines, Sonny Boy of course, Smokey Smothers, Jimmy Reed and others. The CD was recorded live in the studio and is a good representation of what folks will hear if they come out to one of our live shows.
DM: Where can people go to get the new CD?
KB: They can pick a copy up at our shows of course. It’s going to be on CDBaby.com as well.
DM: So what are some of the pitfalls of being a serious blues musician in this time and place?
KC: One of the biggest problems was that in the San Diego blues scene nobody would help us. There were people on the scene but we had no real unmitigated bluesmen. It was like being in a barrel of crabs. If somebody tried to crawl out, the others would try and cut them down. In Los Angeles you have these no bullshit bluesmen. They are confident enough and established enough to be supportive to the younger players who are serious about their music. There’s no elbowing, everybody knows who the main guys are. Everybody can relax underneath them. It was never like that down here; it was all very vicious because there was no clear cut help. However, recently, there are some pretty hip people out there like Michael Kinsman and others who get what we're trying to do and have been supportive.
It can be kind of frustrating. For instance we were playing in a bar recently, and I’m trying to tell my story while standing with a 42 inch plasma TV above my head. There are as you know fewer and fewer venues who present the kind of music we play.
DM: What has been the general response to your music out there in the marketplace?
KC: They either love it, love it, love it or it’s, “Next...” Playing post war late 40’s, early 50’s blues in a way that is true to the form and yet is presented in a way that we hope is fresh and spontaneous is not something people get to hear very often. Listen, we can go around town and hear bands that call themselves blues, yet it has nothing to do with the music we love. Real blues bands are few and far between. When they hear it from us, it sometimes takes the audience a few minutes to figure out what we are all about.
DM: What would you like people to know about Red Lotus Revue?
KC: We would like folks to know that we are just very dedicated musicians playing the music we love. We sometimes feel like we are one of the few guardians out there of this special sound. I think the word guardian might sound a little pretentious and that is not the impression I want to give people because nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s face it our heroes who first made this music are all dead. Very few bands are doing this brand of blues. We are just really doing what we love and we hope others will dig our sound.
DM: What are your interests and activities outside of music?
KC: As you know Dave, I share your love of history, politics and public policy but my main focus in life is my family. I am a single parent with two of the most beautiful kids on the planet. Maybe I am a bit biased but that’s how I feel. My daughter has severe autism. She is such a joy to be with. I am active with the Autism Board here I San Diego and am involved in Autism awareness programs.
DM: What is the one question I should have asked you?
KC: (in a mock top 40 / AM radio DJ voice) What’s next for Karl Cabbage and Red Lotus Revue?
DM: (Laughing) Oh Yea... What’s next for Karl Cabbage and Red Lotus Revue?
KC: What’s next is something we talked about a few months ago, Dave. I would like to change the paradigm a little. I would like to maybe put out small EPs with three songs a piece, about four times a year. That way we are engaging our fans more frequently. All the way through the 1950’s people bought 78’s and 45’s. Maybe that approach will resonate with folks again in these times. Rather than give them 12-14 songs all at once every year or every other year, they could get two or three songs at a time. They don’t have to shell out $20 bucks all at once. We always have the option of batching them all together for a long playing CD as well. I would also like to make our music available in vinyl.
DM: What’s old is new again.