The Fattenin' Frogs on paying tribute to Howlin' Wolf's "evil" music
Photo courtesy of Chess Records
From rock to gospel and folk to country, there are countless roots-appreciating musical souls influenced by Chester Arthur "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett and his mid-20th-century, Delta-to-Chicago take on the blues. It's in this spirit that local traditionalists The Fattenin' Frogs bring together other acts representing the spectrum of American music to pay homage to Howlin' Wolf and what would have been his 103rd birthday this Saturday at Lee's Liquor Lounge.
Though he's been dead now for longer than some of these musicians have been alive, The Fattenin' Frogs will join Sneaky Pete Bauer, Javier and Innocent Sons, and Poverty Hash in toasting Wolf at what's now become an annual tribute show to benefit two important blues organizations. We checked in with the Frogs' Chris Holm for the dirt on how this project started and importantly, how all those involved will represent the weighty Howlin' Wolf legacy.
Gimme Noise: You started this tribute show in 2010, on what would've been Howlin' Wolf's 100th birthday. What inspired that first show, and what has inspired you to make it an annual event since then?
Chris Holm: Mark Larson [The Fattenin' Frogs' drummer] and I had set out on a mission to discover all the music that had inspired the guys we were into like Led Zeppelin, CCR, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. We then formed the Fattenin' Frogs as a means to try and re-create what those guys were doing in the '60s. One of our goals with the Fattenin' Frogs was to pass on some of the new music we were discovering to other people. When I realized Howlin' Wolf's 100th birthday was coming up, I thought it was the perfect way to help new people discover one of my newfound heroes. So I hit up Joe at Lee's Liquor Lounge and he loved the idea. The first one was such a success and such a good time, we decided to make it an annual event.
Howlin' Wolf invested 110% of his heart and soul in his performances -- pure, body-possessing fervor. How do you and Saturday night's other performers plan to command that sort of intensity?
I've consciously tried to use Howlin' Wolf as a model for my stage presence, trying to work myself into a fervor and use my whole body to project my voice and energy. But the point of the tribute is not to try and re-create what Howlin' Wolf was. I try to get artists who play a variety of different styles but that are influenced by Howlin' Wolf's music to show how broad an influence Wolf was and also to show how well those songs play in many different interpretations. We've had bands ranging from funk blues to punk blues to outlaw country to heavy blues to acoustic folk blues over the course of the three years and everyone has done a fantastic job. It's all about the love of the music. When bands are playing songs they LOVE playing, the crowd feels that energy.
In addition to the The Fattenin' Frogs, you'll be joined by Sneaky Pete Bauer, Javier and Innocent Sons, and Poverty Hash. How did this lineup come together, and how do you expect each act will interpret Howlin' Wolf's songs? Do you think the style will stay blues-focused, or explore the other tangents of American roots music - country, folk, rock, and so on?
I try to get acts involved that will stretch the boundaries of blues and put their own flavor into their interpretations. Often you can tell how much a song means to a band by how much thought they put into making it their own while still paying tribute to the original artist. Howlin' Wolf began as an acoustic Delta blues player and Sneaky Pete will represent that side of him. Innocent Sons are a throwback to early days of electric blues and do an amazing job presenting what Howlin' Wolf's band may have sounded like in the early 50's. Poverty Hash will bring a heavy blues edge to the songs but when you hear Joe Roberto's big voice and harmonica chops you'll know that Howlin' Wolf is a hero. In the Fattenin' Frogs, we mash up a lot of different style to form our sound, especially Delta blues, southern gospel, and country. We just blend that all up and then apply that mix to each song as it feels right to us rather than trying to just cover the song.
Among other definitions, Howlin' Wolf once explained the blues as such: "Anytime you thinkin' evil, you thinkin' bout the blues." Say I asked you about the blues -- how would you define it?
In Howlin' Wolf's context as someone who was raised on the Delta blues, the blues was "evil" music as opposed to gospel music. The blues was the secular music of the juke joint and dancing, drinking, gambling and sex, or of the man sitting on his front porch dreaming of worldly desires.
Like any other kind of music, there are many different styles of the blues beyond just the Delta blues and they vary significantly. And despite all the romanticism about what the blues is, in reality there is a very technical definition that ties all the blues genres together uniting a vocal style with the use of blues scales and chord stylings. But that's pretty boring. To me, the real blues fits the technical definition but also is all about feeling. Without emotion, you're missing half the equation.
The show has a suggested donation to benefit the Howlin' Wolf Blues Society of West Point, Mississippi, or the Minnesota Blues Society. Can you tell us a bit about each of these organizations?
The HWBS is a non-profit organization in his hometown that works to keep his memory alive and also the blues in general through a museum, an annual blues festival, and programs to introduce kids to the blues. They've also erected a statue of Howlin' Wolf there. And I really believe Mississippi's current effort to embrace its blues legacy is helping to heal old racial wounds.
The Minnesota Blues Society has many similar goals -- to recognize Minnesota's contributions to the blues, to pass the blues on to new generations, and to keep people informed about blues happenings locally and nationally. I've been a member for three years now and it's an organization worth supporting. The blues is not only one of the cornerstones of much of the music that has been and continues to be made, its historical context is extremely important to remember.
What Howlin' Wolf tunes would you suggest readers brush up on in anticipation of the tribute show?
"Smokestack Lightnin'" would be the obvious answer, though these days most people are probably familiar enough with it from Viagra commercials. What I love the most about Howlin' Wolf is the variety of different styles his blues encompass. Take a listen to "Moanin' at Midnight" (my personal favorite), "Shake For Me," "Spoonful," "The Red Rooster," "Who's Been Talkin'?," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Killing Floor," "Howlin' For My Baby," "No Place to Go," "Oh Red!," and "Three Hundred Pounds of Joy" for a good spectrum view of his career. You might hear songs you never knew were his originally.
Pabst Presents: 4th Annual Howlin' Wolf Tribute show at Lee's Liquor Lounge, featuring The Fattenin' Frogs, Sneaky Pete Bauer, Javier and Innocent Sons, and Poverty Hash. 8 p.m., Saturday, June 15, $6.
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