Opening acts are hard. In some ways they are set up to be dissatisfying—the audience is waiting for the main act to begin and are talking and drinking distractedly. The artist knows this and has to make do. More often than not it’s a solo acoustic set, missing the standard array of multiple instruments and harmonies. Sometimes, however, these acts succeed in distracting audiences from their anticipation, entertaining them, complementing the main act and creating hype for the future spectacle while garnering respect and praise. So when I saw Jake La Botz (opening for Pokey Lafarge) walk out with his guitar on the Maroquinerie stage, I thought, “This is either going to be really good, or really bad.” Of course, I shouldn’t have worried. Often heralded as a contemporary Delta blues virtuoso, he blew the entire audience away with a diverse set that showcased his unique blend of blues, rock, country and folk.
La Botz originally started playing guitar on an instrument that only had 4 strings and continued to play until there were only two left before he forked over $10 for a new one. This determined start eventually led to him to study with the last prewar bluesmen left in Chicago, such as “Honeyboy” Edwards and “Maxwell Street” Jimmy Davis and playing across the country on streets and in bars. As a result, his music has a timely authentic flair that is colored with a contemporary edge. And while you can hear the influences of musical giants such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Mance Lipscomb, his raw singing style and extraordinary songwriting carve him a well deserved spot amongst his peers.
In this regard, it was a unique experience seeing him in Paris, so far from his home turf. To the French, he was exotic—offering audiences an aural tapestry of his homeland. Everything from his fingerpicking to his haunting vocals transported his audience, feeding their fantasies of the West as a diverse landscape of longing, love, violence, and (occasionally fulfilled) dreams. La Botz’s playing and musical arrangements evoke a true American spirit, and his lyrics soar with witty and clever wordplay that was not lost on his diverse audience.
He also posseses a remarkable musical range and flowed effortlessly from rock n’roll-influenced numbers such as “How I Wish She Was Mine,” to gentler poetic ballads like “Hard to Love What You Kill”. I particularly recommend checking out his 2010 release, “I’m A Crow,” which features some of my favorites among his compositions and possesses a grainy, retro character. Interestingly enough, a great part of the album was self-produced due to several technical issues and general flakiness on the part of the producer—the piano was so out of tune when they arrived at the studio that they had to tune all their instruments to it. Yet, what could have been a major setback turned into a positive influence, and the homespun acoustic quality is one of its most alluring elements, enhancing the nostalgic grit that it thematically explores.
Like all great art, La Botz’s songs also push his listeners to think. The lyric wit featured on his heavily Dylan-inspired “About Who I Am,” naturally begs questions about the singer’s identity with an ironic twist given La Botz’s (relative) obscurity in the music world. And other, seemingly superficial numbers like “Tattoo Over You,” (which, I must confess, is not at all to my taste) cleverly explore deep wells of American culture that may even be foreign to the average American.
Listening to his work, it is clear that La Botz is smart; clever narratives and harsh truths resound in the acoustic world he creates. His music is rich, dark, and sexy, all with a sense of humor that endears him to any audience. And, when you consider that his road to the stage epitomizes the elusive American dream, I can think of no better artist to introduce the French (or anyone) to American music and culture. This is not a cheap imitation of decades past, but rather a brilliant bid for the future of blues and American music. I look forward to seeing what comes next.
Jake La Botz is an American blues musician based out of New York. You can find updates about his future releases and tour on his website, and his music can be purchased on Amazon and iTunes as well as streamed on Spotify.