With the most spice this end of the Mississippi, seasoned soul group the Butanes remain alive and well in the Twin Cities blues scene. Their latest album 12 Favorites from the Upper Bayou was just released in February, and lead guitarist/vocalist Curtis Obeda was recently inducted into the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame for his songwriting.
The band will perform on Wednesday at their most beloved venue—the Cabooze. The band’s gig will be part of the venue’s 40th anniversary celebration. This afternoon I met Obeda right next door to the Cabooze; amidst the cheery day crowd at the Joint, Obeda shared stories of the band’s history between sips of beer and hearty laughs.
Initially a quartet, the ten-piece Butanes Soul Revue formed in 1987 after Obeda attended a performance by soul singer Otis Clay at the Cabooze. “We said we’d really like to be in his band,” Obeda explained. “And since he’s never going to hire us, let’s start a band that’s just like his.”
Hailing mainly from the Midwest, members have shifted slightly over the years, yet regulars include bassist John Lindberg, drummer Robb Stupka, organist Virgil Nelson baritone, saxophonist/vocalist Maurice Jacox and tenor saxophonist Merlin “Bronco” Brunkow. The band also had a three-album stint with former Goldwax/Checker vocalist “Wee” Willie Walker.
Launching their career, the Cabooze soon became the Butanes’ home every Wednesday where the “hip slipped to sip” from 1988 until 1994. “It was hard to draw a crowd on a Wednesday,” recalled Obeda. “It was basically all musicians. It was their off night plus a lot of bartenders. One of my friends was a cab driver and he’d be telling everyone in the cab, so we’d get this weird mix of people—out-of-towners.” These weekly gigs racked up quite the list of regulars. “I bet there was 200 people I had that were there every week. At least 20 of the people who have been following us since ‘88 still come out.”
The band’s collaboration history is extensive and illustrious—including gigs with the likes of Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Al Rapone. In 1990, Earl King invited the Butanes to back him in New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival where they met countless blues prodigies.
“You’d be sitting there talking with [a person] and all of a sudden [King] would say goodbye and mention their name. [You’d realize] that was the engineer who worked on every record from 1957-1965 or something. We’d talked about fishing or baseball. We met all of these important people and we never talked music with one of them. How many people can say they sat in a hotel in St. Louis with Dr. John and didn’t talk one thing about music?”
The Butanes soon became King’s regular band, and he propelled the Butanes to international stardom. Obeda speaks fondly of their adventures with the late and great legend. “Earl was a real artistic guy—he loved painting and just thinking and being creative. We toured Europe in ’93 with him, and it was great because we got to Amsterdam and [the locals were] like, ‘So what do you want first: the hookers or the drugs?’ We’re like, ‘Um, we want to go to the Rembrandt or the Van Gogh museum.’”
Despite the Butanes’ extensive world tours, Minneapolis continues to be their mainstay. “We had more clubs to play in town than so many other cities,” Obeda explained. “In the late ‘80s early ‘90s, I wouldn’t leave the West Bank for weeks on end. We’d play the Cabooze on Wednesday, the 400 on Thursday, two nights at the Five Corners which is now the Nomad, and then we’d play Whiskey Junction. That was our tour. I could take the bus to every gig.”
At the Butanes’ upcoming show, Obeda says to expect material both old and new. They’ll even draw a few tunes from their debut 1990 live album One Night, recorded on cassette at the Cabooze. “I would really just like [the audience] to say they had a good time and a lot of fun,” Obeda said.
“We’re not breaking new ground. We’re not being exciting new artists. Dessa’s never going to call me up to collaborate—even though that would be really cool. We’re just playing the music we like and hopefully find some like-minded people who say, ‘Yeah, those guys do it okay.’ And they dance to it. That’s really it.”
From recording the Butanes’ last four albums in his living room to a former singer dying of a coronary during a standing ovation, Obeda has many memories of his years with the local legends. “I love telling stories,” he said. “It’s that New Orleans tradition. So many of the old blues guys were the same way. And that was sort of a mark: Can you drink a lot? Can you get up on stage without any preparation? And then on break, can you tell stories? If you can do all three of those things, you’re in the band.”
Selena Carlson is currently tackling a double major in journalism and music business at Augsburg College. In addition to writing, she is an avid enthusiast of all things banjo; biking; and breakfast for dinner.