The King King nightclub has seen a lot of blues/rock/pop history pass through on Monday nights. That’s because the Red Devils have spent much of the last three years playing their rock ‘n’ blues hybrid in a weekly gig that’s moved some famous fans to join them onstage.
At some point, the local quartet might have grown used to these sudden, unannounced jam sessions with an unlikely lineup of celebrities from Junior Watson to Bruce Willis, Peter Wolf to members of Motorhead, Queen, Dokken and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But that would have been before this past June, when Mick Jagger joined them for a raw reading of a pair of blues classics.
“That was a surprise,” says Devils rhythm guitarist Dave Lee Bartel. And later that month, the band would be in a local studio with producer Rick Rubin and the Rolling Stones singer for “a one-day marathon, 14-hour thing. We cut 13 tunes, all old blues songs with Mick singing live.”
Some of those tracks may appear on an upcoming solo record from Jagger. But the Red Devils are focused on their own plans, particularly since the recent release of the band’s debut album on Rubin’s Def American Records. “King King” is a 12-song live recording that captures the band in fine, aggressive form at the La Brea Avenue club.
The material was culled from three live performances over the summer and fall of 1991, after Rubin became a Monday-night regular to see the band fronted by singer-harmonica player Lester Butler. (But with the Devils about to embark on a national tour, their gigs at King King have been postponed for the near future.)
“We’re aggressive with the music that we play,” says drummer Bill Bateman, also a veteran of the Blasters. “We don’t lay back and play it like the other white blues bands of our era, who play it with a smooth, jazzy swing feel. The black men of yesteryear were very aggressive and on it. There was no laying back.
“Elmore James screamed his guts out. Now Lester Butler screams his guts out. We play it tough. Rick Rubin liked that, saw some potential there,” Bateman says.
The Red Devils, who at one time performed as the Blue Shadows, came together in 1988. Bateman had grown restless when the Blasters stopped recording and were performing less and less. “I had a lot of time on my hands and the opportunity was there,” Bateman says. He was looking to make “a rowdy presentation” of the blues.
Bateman began working with bassist Jonny Ray Bartel--a veteran of the D.I.'s, Jimmy and the Mustangs, the Knitters and an earlier act called the Red Devils--and Butler, who was a regular in blues-rock circles but had rarely mounted the stage himself.
“I always loved music,” Butler says. “And ever since I was a 6-year-old kid, I used to play harmonica. I heard blues one night, like everybody does, late in the evening on the radio, and I loved it. I played a lot in high school, but I quit for a while.”
Butler decided to attempt a serious musical career--after some lost years during the 1980s that were complicated by the death of his friend, guitarist Hollywood Fats, who had been Dave Alvin’s first replacement in the Blasters. Besides, he adds, most of the people he spent time with were working musicians. “If you don’t do it, it’s kind of strange in my circle of friends. . . . Now I have to play music every day. It’s part of my brain that needs to be exercised.”
Sitting on either side of Butler are brothers Dave Lee and Jonny Ray Bartel, whose broken leg is encased in a cast covered in mock leopard skin. Years before, both Bartels were members of that earlier band called the Red Devils, which played in more of a driving rockabilly style.
The new band’s sound is rooted deeply in American folk blues, but Butler insists that he isn’t a purist. And it’s those other sounds, specifically the powerful rock elements, that distinguishes the Red Devils’ music.
“People look at blues as history, but if you’re just going to copy them you’re really not doing anything,” he says.
“I like Jimi Hendrix as much as I like any blues,” Butler adds. “He did what I think we’re doing with his Band of Gypsies. But he was a step even further away from the blues.”
That was a revelation that has only come to Red Devils lead guitarist Paul Size in the last two years. Before trekking to Los Angeles from his home in Texas to audition for this band, Size had little interest in anything beyond the blues.
“For the last five years I was a blues nerd, man,” Size says. “I didn’t play nothing but blues, didn’t listen to any other kind of music. I came out here and started playing with these guys, and now I’m into all of these other kinds of music.”
Now, he says, he understands that “you’ve got to move on. I just opened my mind one day, and started hearing soul and punk. There’s just too much music out there to close your mind off on one particular thing.”