Old Soul

Strumming towards ecstasy

A couple years back, singer-songwriter Jake La Botz was spending his Sundays down at the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in south central L.A., and playing in the church's band with his friend Willie Chambers, of the '60s R&B group the Chambers Brothers. La Botz is a Buddhist, but the chance to play with the band and the gospel choir was irresistible to the blues/soul/folk crooner.

Myself, I don't cotton too well to churchgoin' in general. Likely because I was raised in a strict Christian environment with no tolerance for fucking around, I'm more likely to look for truth in the bottom of a pint glass.

I do, however, wish I'd stopped in to Mt. Zion when La Botz was jamming with the Baptists, if only to see how he applied his unique talents in a gospel context.

La Botz doesn't easily fit into any musical category -- his songs veer from old-time country to wailing soul to the Delta blues he was exposed to on the streets of Chicago when he was growing up. That's what makes his artistry so intriguing. His music is simply raw, built on the elements he learned firsthand from bluesmen like David "Honeyboy" Edwards (a protégé of Robert Johnson), street musicians like Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, and what he learned playing at Mt. Zion.

"It was a great way to broaden my horizons musically. It's very similar to the blues and soul," La Botz tells me recently via phone from his Los Angeles home. "I always loved that kind of music."

I assumed that after spending the past 16 years or so of his life playing on the streets and in smoky bars for seedy drunks, La Botz was appreciating the contrast of playing in an African-American church with a gospel choir.

Not quite.

"There's something about the euphoria in drunk people and the euphoria in the holy spirit," he tells me. "There's a reason why they call booze 'spirits.' If you look at religious ceremonies in ancient times, there was a mixture of the two -- the idea of secular drinking and sex and things like that, and the very strict religiosity we see now in the Christian church. But I see it all as one thing; when I see people having ecstatic or euphoric experiences, I like to tap into that energy, whether it's a bar or a church."

That's the sort of epiphany that I can relate to, and La Botz's music is seething with the sort of soul that makes for a religious experience, as you can hear on his album All Soul and No Money, released earlier this year. His story sounds like it's from a different era, when hard luck and adventure were what made men men. It's a Hemingway-ish ideal that's missing from contemporary music.

He spent a good deal of his late teenage years traveling the country before he decided to try out music as a career. "The wanderlust thing sort of came first," he tells me. "I was really into literature, into reading fiction, especially adventure stories -- the beatnik guys in the '50s, Jack London, Nelson Algren -- I just wanted to imitate those guys."

La Botz was working construction and in factories as he traveled. "Jesus Christ, there's got to be an easier way to make a living," he finally decided. He was working in a graphite factory in Rodeo, California, in the Bay Area, and stumbled upon a small country blues scene. "I saw there was a buck to be turned, and started playing on the streets of North Beach and San Francisco once in a while."

Eventually -- and oddly enough -- La Botz ended up in Los Angeles. "I ran out of road," he tells me. "I ran into the ocean. It was an accident, more or less. This would have been the last place on Earth I thought I'd want to end up. I just got to the point where I was too tired to keep moving around the country."

His unique blend of rootsy styles, which he likes to call "soul folk," doesn't seem synergistic with L.A.'s glam confines. "It's not really a place to come to try to set up shop if you're playing that kind of music," he says. "But on the other hand, I'm something of an anomaly here -- in a way, maybe I have my own niche. I'm always thinking, 'I'm gonna move out of here,' but things keep coming together. Then falling apart, coming together, falling apart."

In fact, La Botz made an influential fan from the City of Angels: actor and director Steve Buscemi, who cast him alongside Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke in the 2000 film Animal Factory. La Botz later appeared in Lonesome Jim and Ghost World; his next film role is in an indie called One Night With You, which should be out next year.

Though Los Angeles has been kind enough to La Botz, he's got a special affinity for Phoenix, where he's played sporadically over the past few years. "There seems to be a whole new kind of rootsy music scene, a little like the alt-country thing," he tells me. "Some guys seem to be like heavy metal guys, but they're also into Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and stuff like that.

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