Jake La Botz – Sweet Home Chicago
It’s been nine years since Jake La Botz, having followed the highway west until it ran out at the Pacific Ocean, decided that was as good a reason as any to settle in Los Angeles. But his music doesn’t have much to do with sun or surf. Just listen to All Soul And No Money, his new album on Joseph Street Records, and visions of someplace far away take shape: down-and-out men, older than their years, hunched over a fire in the winter slush, passing a bottle in a paper sack; storefront tabernacles, lit by bare bulbs and the promise of salvation…
No matter how long he’s away from Chicago, these pictures keep coming up whenever La Botz starts to play. His father, a truck driver turned radical agitator, raised him there, in Uptown, a multiracial neighborhood that might be described as permanently transitional. As a kid, Jake cut school to ride the El train down to Randolph and Michigan, where he’d pass the day at the main library, reading whatever caught his eye while listening to old-time rock or blues LPs through headphones.
He was around 14 when it sank in that some of the singers on those albums were still around — in fact, he’d seen them at the Maxwell Street Market. “The main guy was Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis,” he remembers. “When I figured out who he was, it blew my mind — I’d actually heard him play on this compilation album, and he was right there in front of me.”
By 1992 or ’93, Davis and La Botz were tight enough to drive together to the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Mississippi — a visit that ended abruptly when Jimmy ran into the brother of a girl he had once romanced. “They’d gotten into a knife fight over her 40 years before, and when Jimmy figured out who he was talking to, we got out fast and headed back to Chicago.”
After dropping out in ninth grade, La Botz continued his education with Davis, picking up guitar licks and vocal techniques and learning how to work a crowd. “Jimmy had been a clown in the late 1930s, with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels,” La Botz explains. “He wasn’t even a musician then; he did clown stuff, wearing a grass skirt and dancing on broken glass. Even when I knew him, he would play the fool but it would bring people in. He was also an incredible drunk. But his voice was amazing. I’ve probably imitated him more than anybody else I spent time with.”
Working construction at 15, stealing cars and driving across the country with no destination in mind, then coming home to share some Wild Irish Rose with the juicers huddled near his old school, La Botz eventually went through enough crap to feel OK about playing Hank Williams songs.
“It was as soulful as the blues but a lot easier to play,” he says. “I was totally happy to play other people’s songs. But then I started to hit these upheavals in my mid-20s. A lot of people who were close to me were dying. Some of them were old, like Jimmy and my grandpa Jinx. A lot were friends who died from drugs or booze. The pain and suffering I started to feel are what sparked my songwriting.”
Since he cut his first homebrew CD, The Original Soundtrack To My Nightmare, in 1999 and followed it with Used To Be in 2001, La Botz’s writing has been changing. His stories are still gritty, the poetry grimy and sublime. “But it’s coming less from any conscious decision on my part,” he says. “It seems to come more now from some unknown, down-in-the-ground place. To be honest with you, I think I’m just taking notes for somebody else. My job just seems to be to help with the order of the chaos as it enters me.”