One of the most memorable and surprising local shows I've seen this year had to be the short, contest-winning set the Detroit blues band Chef Chris & His Nairobi Trio delivered in February at the New Daisy Theatre during the finals of the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge. Surrounded by five other finalists who (outside of the local entry, the Handy Three) were accomplished but dull representations of different contemporary blues styles, this motley bunch from the Motor City flaunted convention by their mere presence.
Eschewing flashy solos and show-off indulgences, this lean, mean four-piece offered lovingly deconstructionist takes on classics like Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" alongside highly original originals. The band its name taken from a skit by anarchic early television icon Ernie Kovacs also demonstrated a singular sense of style to go with their endearingly oddball music. Drummer Vinnie D'Cobra looked like heavy-metal wildman Tommy Lee's little brother; bass player "Brother" Bill Lewis sat down the whole time and barely moved; guitarist Sir Tim DuValier was decked out in a leopard-print fezz and a red feather boa; and leading the way was the gargantuan Chef Chris in a shiny brown suit, shinier red boots, yellow polka-dot tie, cowboy hat, and massive goatee.
The band ended its set with a drawn-out story song in which Chef Chris detailed the herculean task of making crawfish gumbo for his sweetie ("I get all kinds of cayenne pepper/I like to see my baby sweat when she eats the gumbo"). The song culminated in the double (though "double" seems too restricting) entendre chant of "Eat the tail/Suck the head," which could have been an obnoxiously winking punchline in other hands but was transformed into something like awe or bewilderment or mysticism by Chef Chris. It even drew a standing ovation from much of the crowd. The whole thing was sublimely weird. With the David Thomas/Crocus Behemoth-like frontman leading the way, this band must be what Pere Ubu would have sounded like as a bar-blues band.
Speaking by phone from Michigan, Chef Chris reveals that the band had been just a part-time gig for the last four years, becoming a more serious pursuit only in the past year.
"I live in this little farm community called Manchester," Chef Chris says. "There's this little dive bar by the lake, and there's a real Harley biker culture there. Well, you combine that with all the farmers around and it's an interesting mix. On Sundays, people are really looking to let loose, and we've been playing what we call 'the matinee' every Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. That gig has really given us an opportunity to experiment. We take all the different ideas and influences that each member brings to the band and let it rip on Sundays."
Chris says he was raised with blues and jazz in his house but that his interest in the music was cemented when, as a teenager, he saw B.B. King perform, an experience that he calls "life-changing." The other members of the band unsurprisingly, given the extremely eclectic and idiosyncratic flavor of the band's music bring decidedly different influences into the mix. Chris says that guitarist DuValier is a metal and punk fan equally enamored with the Stooges and Howlin' Wolf. Drummer D'Cobra was actually the frontman for mid-'90s modern rockers Sponge, who had a couple of massive alt-radio hits. And bassist Lewis is an ex-Nashville cat who used to play for Pam Tillis.
And the Chef really is one a 20-year vet of the culinary trade who achieved minor celebrity in the Detroit area for the gumbo he prepared for a restaurant in the upscale suburb of Birmingham. It was this experience that led to "Crawfish Gumbo," the band's epic signature tune, which Chris says will occupy their entire 10-minute Handy Awards slot. During a practice, Chris recalls, Lewis was fiddling with a bass line and Chris began reciting his gumbo recipe over the music, eventually added the narrative about a lady friend, and turned it into a full-fledged song.
The band ended up in Memphis after entering and winning a Detroit blues battle and being approached by the Canada South Blues Society, which was looking for an area band to represent at the International Blues Challenge. Chris says that the band has already felt the impact of winning the Blues Foundation's contest: an upswing in bookings and much more attention from club owners and festival organizers, attention that is sure to increase from the exposure the band will get on the Handys. The experience has certainly been a catalyst for some of the competition's past winners, including Sean Costello, Susan Tedeschi, and last year's winner, Memphian Richard Johnston.
The band may have seemed unlikely contenders, but Chef Chris insists he had a pretty good feeling about it the whole time. "After reading the instructions, what the judges were looking for, I felt pretty confident that we would do well," he says. "They were looking for originality. They said that doing covers was fine, but they didn't want you to do covers note for note. Well, original music is our thing, and whenever we do covers, we twist it around quite a bit. When we do 'Folsom Prison Blues,' it's not anything like how Johnny Cash did it. My goal was just to get to the finals, but once we did, I told the guys, 'It's just us and five other bands, so I don't see any reason why we can't win.'"
After being announced the winner, Chef Chris says that D'Cobra expressed the thoughts of the rest of the band and, incidentally, this writer as well: "Vinnie commented after the contest that he thought it was brave of the judges to vote the way they did, because we are not your typical blues band."
The Handy Awards
Thursday, May 23rd
Friday, May 24th, through
Sunday, May 26th
Sunday, May 26th, 4 p.m.