by Kay Corditz
The Felix Cabrera Blues Band – Murray Street Grill – New York City – May 4
Felix Cabrera can shout the blues and blow a mean harp. But the Cuban-born bandleader also has a knack for rolling with the punches. The day before this Friday night gig, Phil Butler, Cabrera’s bass player for the past 11 years, was injured in a car accident. Then Guitar ace Jimmy Vivino, a frequent and popular addition to the band, was called out of town with Conan O’Brien. But Cabrera was undeterred. He contacted bassist Ritt Henn, who played in his band twenty years ago and has filled in before. Fiery blues guitarist Jason Green, one of several local players who have rotated through Cabrera’s band, answered the call too. With longtime drummer Bill Schroeder and keyboardist Eddy Bishai, the subs rocked this small basement club and solidly showcased Cabrera’s Latin blues style.
The self-taught Cabrera, who left Cuba as a child and came to New York by way of Miami and Union City, NJ, calls Paul Butterfield his first influence. He saw the original Butterfield Blues Band at a New York City club in 1966 and almost always starts his show with their songs. “Driftin’ and Driftin’” featured Cabrera’s emotional vocals, crying guitar from Green and jazzy organ from Bishai. The band likes to stretch out and jam, and as they took turns riding the groove, the warm-up caught fire. The intensity on the bandstand continued to build until Cabrera took it down with a small hand gesture. Even with little or no rehearsal, he seemed to be in complete control.
They segued into “Born in Chicago,” which in Cabrera’s hands became “Born in Havana,” taking it fast and furious. They followed the Butterfield numbers with three songs from Cabrera’s 2004 CD For Green. The ballad “Cold Cold,” a fitting farewell to winter on this balmy night, slowed the pace, and led into a catchy and clever Cabrera original, “Self Argument in D Minor,” a tale of lost love to Latin beats with a lilting harp melody picked up by Bishai on the organ. Changing it up again, Cabrera was dancing from the first note of Henn’s funky bass riff announcing “Animalism.” Shouting, gesturing wildly, playing bongos, congas and unusual percussion instruments, he put his heart and soul into every note.
Cabrera kicked off the second set with Butterfield’s “Lovin’ Cup,” followed by Leiber And Stoller’s “I Keep Forgettin’,” pouring on more wrenching harmonica and heartbroken vocals. The whole band really cooked on “Got My Mojo Workin’.” but their leader kept raising the ante displaying his amazing energy and showmanship, screaming, mugging, prancing, only stopping long enough to blow a few hot bars. Let’s face it, Cabrera is a wild man, and it’s an integral part of his appeal.
All of the musicians in the band know a thing or two about showmanship. One of Cabrera’s early bands opened six shows for James Brown back in the 1980s. Green has toured with Big Jack Johnson and Schroeder once backed Louisiana Red. They know how to step up when the front man needs a breather but otherwise, they keep the groove going and just stay out of his way.
Another heartfelt Cabrera original, “She Told Me A Lie” from 2001’s Pressure Cooker, showed off Green’s dazzling guitar prowess, and Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” cooled things down a bit before the big blowout finale. Cabrera said the first R&B record he bought was Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road, Jack.” He ended the show with his own wild rendition featuring Bishai’s funky organ, showing how much excitement can be produced by an enthusiastic leader and a great semi-pickup band.
Felix Cabrera, Cuban born Vocalist, Harmonicist and songwriter/arranger has been part of the NYC blues scene since the mid 1970's, as both leader of his own outfits, as well as working with local r & b, jazz and Cuban groups....over the years Cabrera has shared the stage with such musical luminaries as James Brown, Buddy Guy, Jr Wells, James Cotton, Big Joe Turner, Dr John, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Blue Bland as well as backing up the likes of Victoria Spivey, Hubert Sumlin and Honeyboy Edwards.
Reviews from past c.d's
College Music Journal (CMJ) JACKPOT!! Review 5/19/89
Felix and the Havanas "NEXT!"; "Felix and the Havanas score with a fierce, blistering set of some of the best independent blues-inspired rock we've heard in ages."
College Music Journal (CMJ) Review 1997
Felix Cabrera with Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians
"CU-BOPS, CU-BLUES"; "A raw, street-side vibe pervades this rockin' rootsy, ragtag-but real amalgam of blues, bop, rock and latin sounds."
Blue Suede News Review...Jan 2002
Felix Cabrera "Pressure Cooker"; "Pressure Cooker is an outstanding recording, with a pronounced rock and r & b thread running through it, not to mention a Latin influence
that permeates much of Cabrera's work."
Rockland Journal-News (NY) ...March 17, 1988
"Felix has all the moves, the energy and the pipes to carry both the lead vocal and harmonica chores. Bar (?) Bands need above all a front man with style, who sings like he means it. This band (Felix and the Havanas) has one."