Every year City Pages, the news and arts weekly of the Twin Cities, devotes an issue to the Best of the Twin Cities. The Butanes have been privileged to win Best Blues Band in 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2002.




This is the fifth consecutive year (and sixth total) that the Butanes have nabbed the title of Best Blues Band, and it's easy to see why: Their blues renditions are as solid as the hardwood floors in front of the stage at the Eagles Club in Minneapolis, where you can catch them live every Wednesday night. As the hipsters and punk-rock kids stream into nearby haunts like the Hexagon Bar and Memory Lanes, blues enthusiasts seek out the Eagles Club to see the Butanes work through a couple of sets of dextrous, gritty blues with special guests like Willie Walker and Jim Greenwell. After touring as the backing band for New Orleans blues giant Earl King in the '80s, gigging regularly at the Cabooze and the 400 Bar throughout the '90s, and earning accolades over the years for their Hammond organ-heavy, workmanlike mastership of the blues genre, the Butanes are the longstanding forerunners of a scene that found its unlikely roots in the West Bank of a river in the upper Midwest and continues to find new followers.





Why do the Butanes consistently rule as the Twin Cities' best blues band, despite plenty of legitimate contenders? Simply because no other band near the northern reaches of the Mississippi has a similarly encyclopedic knowledge of blues, classic R&B, and soul, nor the versatility to play virtually anything in that realm. The Butanes do it so convincingly that even natives of Memphis, New Orleans, or other hardcore bastions of essential roots sounds are incredulous that these guys hail from the land of the wind-chill factor. In fact, the Butanes have played with an incredible array of blues and R&B legends, from John Lee Hooker to Earl King to Bo Diddley, who have universally sung the band's praises. Chief instigator Curt Obeda leads the way on guitar, while bassist John Lindberg and drummer Robb Stupka spark the grooves. Virgil Nelson adds bubbling organ, and assorted punchy horns weigh in with funky brass blasts. Obeda also handles lead vocals when the Butanes aren't backing another singer. Locally, that's often Memphis native and supreme soul man Willie Walker, who has recorded a couple of fine albums with the Butanes, most recently 2006's Memphisapolis. Whether it's some fictional mid-river burg, uptown New Orleans, Beale Street, or their frequent south Minneapolis hangout at the Eagles #34 club, the Butanes are the real deal, igniting their potent brand of the blues like no other around these parts.




Curt Obeda and the Butanes have operated at such a high standard for so long—going on a quarter-century—that it might be about time to name the best blues band category in their honor and have them retire from the competition. Not that retirement of any kind should be uttered in the same breath as the Butanes, who continue to chug along at full throttle. Last year the band issued a splendid new album, Memphisapolis, with singer and frequent co-conspirator Willie Walker. It sports a baker's dozen of sparkling new compositions by Obeda, who also produced, arranged, and mixed it. And the Butanes remain the favorite local collaborators for touring blues, soul and R&B greats, a veritable who's who of musical legends running from King Floyd to Percy Sledge. Then there was the late, great Earl King, who paid the Butanes the ultimate compliment of taking them home to New Orleans as his backup band. What do all these musicians hear in the Butanes? Obeda's rippling guitar and gnarly vocals lead the way, while the intrepid duo of bassist John Lindberg and drummer Robb Stupka provide a slithery, swampy groove. Add Virgil Nelson's keyboards and a visiting horn or three and you've got a gritty blues feast doused in the flavors of Chicago, Memphis, and points south. The band frequently turns up at the usual array of bars blaring the blues. But it has a special affinity for the Eagles #34 club in south Minneapolis, where the group has presided over a regular Wednesday night gig for more than two years.




To understand the refined qualities of the Butanes, all you really have to know is that New Orleans native Earl King, the late singer, guitarist, and eccentric genius who wrote such Crescent City nuggets as "Big Chief" and "Trick Bag," adopted these Minnesotans as his band of choice and took them home to accompany him at such high profile gigs as Jazz Fest. In fact, the Butanes' high regard in elite blues circles is clear from the lengthy list of blues and soul icons they've backed over the years, from Hubert Sumlin to John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley. But even without the big names out front, they ignite a rippling array of blues, R&B, and soul with a distinctly Southern exposure, their gritty passion exuding genuine blues spirit. When Curt Obeda's restless guitar isn't spewing out juicy leads that cry and soar well beyond the standard blues litany, it's spitting a rash of spare rhythms that conspire with the sturdy, just-greasy-enough foundation fashioned by bassist John Lindberg and drummer Robb Stupka. Meanwhile, Virgil Nelson dashes about his piano or draws impressive blues chords from his Hammond B-3 organ. Vocally, Obeda will never be mistaken for Al Green, but he's got his own grainy charm, and he's a fine writer whose tunes easily slide among the classics. Catching the group in action is no problem: The Butanes maintain a busy schedule of live dates, including a regular Wednesday night gig at the Eagles #34 in south Minneapolis that they've played for over a year. Superfine Memphis soul singer Willie Walker is usually on hand for the second set, and there are inevitable surprises too, like an impromptu crawfish boil around Mardi Gras. It's all part of life soaked in the blues.




There's no shortage of bar bands out there sleepwalking through blues changes and soul covers, but a tight band of true believers is increasingly a rarity. The long-lived Butanes play blues and Southern soul for hardcore fans, and tend to convert some dabblers in the process. Leader Curtis Obeda's leads recall Albert King or Otis Rush in terms of improvisation panache and pure volume, while his spare R&B rhythm playing would make Steve Cropper smile. He's got a sideman's singing voice, but he gets the job done, belting out well-chosen tunes with humor and soul. The rest of the band is similarly assured. Virgil Nelson plays slightly conservatory-tinged blues on Hammond B-3 (the real deal, with Leslie speaker oscillating behind him), bassist John Lindberg is always in the pocket and justifies his occasional solos; while insouciant drummer Robb Stupka impresses with subtle flourishes and a smart, no-flash policy. Sometimes the core Butanes quartet is augmented with horns, and things really heat up when Willie Walker, a little-known but grade-A Memphis soul singer and local hero, drops by to sing vintage R&B and Obeda originals. Look for a second Butanes-Walker collaboration in the near future, and check the club listings for the next Butanes gig. They're probably playing tonight.





Over the years, guitarist Curt Obeda has exemplified the axiom that when it comes to the blues, if you can retain your passion and enough of your health, the older you get, the better you play. Reared in Chicago, Obeda started out aping the West Side and South Side styles of Windy City blues cats--not a bad foundation. But he has steadily incorporated Memphis and Chicago soul and the greasy syncopation of New Orleans into his ax attack. More judicious and rhythm-oriented than he used to be, he's arrived at a satisfying balance between tasty licks and pyrotechnical polish. Obeda's Butanes sometimes work as a trio (with drummer Robb Stupka and bassist John Lindberg)or quartet (adding keyboardist Virgil Nelson) or with a horn section. They've backed up vocalist Wee Willie Walker (the original Willie in Willie and the Bees) and have gigged and toured internationally with the great Earl King from New Orleans for the past 12 years. Locally, you can catch them at Neumann's Bar in North St. Paul, or over at Famous Dave's in Uptown. The set list is a delightful mix of Obeda originals and relatively obscure covers by Earl King, Clarence Carter, and Johnny Taylor, along with some Chicago standards. The essence is rich, savory, blackened blues.



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