You don’t go to Tucson to eat pizza – Charles Baty blues wisdom
The Charles Baty Traveling Blues Wisdom collection. HI Travel Tales ran regular travel essays from our friend Charles Baty during his Golden State-Lone Star Revue tours in 2016. They were always a treat for us to read — his writing was as full of life as his music. Sadly, Charles passed away at the age of 66 on March 6, 2020. We will deeply miss seeing him at local gigs, but feel so grateful for the time we were able to share with him. We hope you enjoy his writing and observations of life on the road as much as we do.
Traveling blues guitarist Charles Baty (“Little Charlie and the Nightcats”) and his fellow musicians with the Golden State-Lone Star Revue are on the road yet again – now in the Southwest, Northwest and California (wait, where did that one gig in Illinois come from?) This round, he and band members Mark Hummel, R.W. Grigsby, Wes Starr and Anson Funderburgh will be not only turning clubs into hot blues joints, but also get some outdoor festivals jumping.
Aug. 5, 2016. We all made it to Tucson, Ariz., with minutes to spare. Jumped in the bus (Albert King used to call it the “coach”) and headed over to the radio station KXCI and played 3 songs with the whole band live over the air using some lunchbox amps.
Found out that the station has been playing our new CD, “Skronky Tonk and the Golden State – Lone Star Revue.” Six extra large pizzas and a bevy of salads awaited us at the venue, which was a large Mexican dance hall called the El Casino Ballroom. I was expecting Mexican food! Years ago, Little Charlie and the Nightcats played the debut performance around the block at a theater called The Rialto. It had been vacant for years, a former burlesque theater, and ancient dirt, asbestos and rat droppings rained down on us as we blasted the attic and cat walks with our thunderous bass and ear-splitting treble. Jeb promoted that show and he is also promoting tonight’s show.
But I digress. Tonight, under the watchful eye of our own ‘Pup,’ we will move a packed house full of loyal blues supporters. There is a giant disco ball that will be spinning during each harmonica solo by Mark Hummel. There will be drum pyrotechnics provided by Wes Starr. R.W. will sing and play his special skinny bass. And I will stand elbow to elbow with one of the greatest guitarists and all around nice guys out there – Mr. Anson Funderburgh. He skipped the pizza to go eat Mexican. I will probably get a nose-full of it tonight. But I have to think that the Pup is right — you don’t come to Tucson to eat pizza. Tomorrow is Phoenix. Definitely Mexican food.
Aug. 6, 2016. Here I am in the back of the bus wearing some bling bling (see below). It is so disorienting to look out of the windshield of the bus while sitting in the back. Reminds me of carnival rides — the images dance and blur and remind you of a funhouse mirror. We had a great turnout in Tucson with hundreds of people dancing from the get-go. We played in a large ballroom with an interesting past. The El Casino Ballroom was started in 1932 but became a bona fide dance room in 1946 or so. It started out as a Latin social club but eventually became one of the larger venues in town that featured such stars as Hank Ballard and Chubby Checker back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Later, it was a popular blues club and the Paladins were a big favorite. In 1991 or so, the day before a big Johnny Winter concert, a tornado lifted the roof off of the venue.
This tornadic tampering (Ed. note: Tornadic? Great word use, Charlie!) turned the place into a bigger venue. I learned this whole story listening to Jeb (the promoter) and Freddy (a current member of the social club) talk about the old days while downing shots of Hornitos tequila at the ancient bar. Blues wisdom indicates every town had its big time venue at one time or another — the El Casino was the pride of Tucson back in the day. So while we banged out blues in shuffle and swing form, the ghosts of yesteryear did the bop and the jitterbug in the shadows of this ancient battleship of a club, swinging and swaying while notes bounced off every surface and light bounced off the disco ball. This place is a singularity of music, a veritable black hole on Earth, a place where music will always rule as long as civilization holds out. I like playing in singularities. It makes you feel special. And the audience digs it too. A win-win proposition.
Aug. 7, 2016. It is somewhat confusing to wake up in a bus out in the middle of the desert, a lone truck stop visible in the bright morning sun, and to look into the horizon with no idea of what city or state you’re in. Nothing but sandy hills, plenty of cacti, and blue sky. I deduced that it must be Yuma, Ariz. — right on the border with California on our way there — and I confirmed it with the young cashier. I grabbed a quick bite and some ice cold water and returned to the cool confines of the cave-like bus. We were heading towards San Diego on desolate Interstate 8 and the long gradual slope was slowing the bus down to about 15 mph.
We stopped at an Indian casino in the middle of nowhere to eat lunch and let the bus cool down. Then we hit a border patrol stop with agents dressed in green and sniffing dogs giving us the stink eye. All of this happened after our afternoon in Tucson the previous day, where I walked around the blisteringly hot streets looking for cool refreshment and found an old fashioned outdoor cafe replete with plants, umbrellas and Southwest decor. I sipped on a tamarind agua fresca and people-watched. On the day after we had filled the Rhythm Room and played for the dancing and listening pleasure of Phoenix’s elite corps of blues fans. A night where we played Sheik of Araby and a woman excitedly showed me a photo of the sheet music of Sheik hanging on her kitchen wall, a gift from her long-departed grandmother. A night where a burned-out hippie type asked me if I wanted some “medical.”
It really felt like one long day cut into as many segments as a ripe orange. Anson played like a human buzz saw on our rocking version of Kewpie Doll. He screamed like a banshee with one foot inside the doorway to hell. That’s my Pup making the old Cap’n proud. Wes’s hands were sore and swollen from his recent surgery. Bob Corritore played some impressive harp after listening to Mark Hummel set the bar high all night long. I played a Django minor blues, which quickly morphed into a study of the minor mood and mode.
We headed out towards California into the desert air and ended up needing all of those night driving hours. One more gig in Solana Beach, Calif., hosted by the Blues Lovers United of San Diego, and we’re done for this brief round. A three-day period that felt more like one 72-hour day on a hot planet close to the sun. And a 3-day luxury bus stint that will make the return to the van that much harder.
The Charles Baty Traveling Blues Wisdom collection
- April 12: My Traveling Blues: A life on the road
- April 19: My Traveling Blues: Diner tour and driving tips
- April 28: My Traveling Blues: Dirty blues and Italian ice
- June 24: Red Eye to hot blues: Off to Mishawaka and the Midwest
- June 29: Singing the blues: Charles Baty Lone Star Revue tour winds down
- July 5: No polka for Charles Baty and the traveling blues band
- August 10: ‘You don’t go to Tucson to eat pizza’ – Charles Baty blues wisdom
- September 5: Traveling blues on tour: ‘Be the road,’ says Charles Baty
- November 24: Feeling the blues: Thanksgiving tour and Charles Baty’s missing home
Don’t miss Little Charlie’s CD, “Little Charlie and the Organ Grinder Swing: Skronky Tonk”