Earl (Cate) & Them – Musical Lightning at Tulsa’s Blue Rose Cafe (9/17/11)
Amidst claps of thunder, bursts of lightning and gale force winds, Fayetteville, Arkansas’ Earl & Them rocked the house on a recent Saturday at Tulsa’s Blue Rose Cafe. This ain’t no ragtag group of pickin’ hillbillies out of the Ozarks, but rather an all-star line up of veteran musicians. A blues-funk musical version of fantasy football, if you will.
Let me clarify. The “Earl” in Earl & Them is none other than Earl Cate, one-half of the acclaimed Cate Brothers. With Earl on guitar and twin brother Ernie on piano, the Cate Brothers wrote, played and sang their way to a recording contract with Asylum Records and appearances on American Bandstand and Austin City Limits in the 70s. Their single “Union Man” from the album Fire on the Tracks was a top ten hit in 1976. The brothers’ early association with fellow Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins and his Hawk’s bandmate Levon Helm landed Earl and Ernie in a Robbie Robertson-less revival of The Band in the early 1980s. The Cate Brothers were even part of Bill Clinton’s star studded inaugural celebration.
The “Them” are a core group of three talented musicians. Jason Davis (Baby Jason and the Spankers; The Tablerockers) on vocals and guitar, Terry Cagle (Levon Helm’s nephew and Cate Brothers drummer) on vocals and percussion, and Mike Murray (Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown) on bass. Although not appearing with Them this night, regular band guests include killer blues harmonica player R J Mischo, Cate Brothers saxophonist David Renko, and blues guitar master Jimmy Thackery (The Drivers). All Three guests feature prominently on Earl & Them’s recent release Special Blend.
The Blue Rose Cafe overlooks the Arkansas River’s winding path through Tulsa. This evening, the restaurant was opened up garage door style to the outside deck. The brewing storm and dropping temperatures cooled the inside of the bar through large screens.
Just as the band took up their instruments, the electrical storm broke loose in true Oklahoma fashion, with beautiful bolts of lightning tearing across the sky. Sparks were flying from the band as well, as they tore into the beginning of two generous sets, full of original songs and cleverly chosen covers that they made their own.
Jason Davis’ soulful, blues-infused, honey and gravel vocals lent themselves perfectly to John Hiatt’s “Slow Turning” and “Woman Sawed in Half”. Earl Cate showed us that his own vocals are worthy of his legendary guitar prowess on a cover of a still fresh Cate Brothers’ song. Although comparisons to drummer Terry Cagle’s famous uncle Levon Helm are inevitable, Cagle’s percussive talent and distinctive vocals stand on their own. His lead vocals, harmonies and steady groove shined on covers of The Band’s “Ophelia”, “Remedy”, and “The Shape I’m In”.
Among other notable covers were a sultry Neville Brother’s “Yellow Moon”, a slowed down, funked up version of The Stones’ “Beast of Burden” and Randy Newman’s “Kingfish”. The band also played a selection of original material from their latest release. Their own “Puttin’ Out Fires” was one of the highlights of this already exceptional night of music.
Mike Murray’s bass and Cagle’s drums drove the show with a steady, infectious rhythm throughout the evening. In true guitarslinger fashion, Cate and Davis traded off smokin’ solos. Davis’ were delivered with rockstar sex and swagger; Cate’s with the understated ease of a skill long ago mastered but still very much enjoyed. With music to match the weather, there was no better place to be in Tulsa than listening to Earl & Them at the Blue Rose Cafe on the Arkansas River.