AFTER 12 years of swimming against the rock-music mainstream, the Fish is now the one baiting the hook -- and the record industry is biting.
The Fish is Bob "Catfiish" Hodge, a local favorite for his high-energy brand of rhythm-and-blues and boogie. The bait is Chicken Legs, the new group Hodge has fashioned from members of his own band and four of the five remaining members of Little Feat.
Since the Feat were pop demi-gods iin Washington and superheroes to the rest of the country, it's small wonder that the group's current 17-city tour has been selling out and that at least one major record company has made a substantial contract offer.
"It's not a question of being a survivor," says Hodge, 34. "It's more a question of maintaining the energy, keeping a focus, not letting the bad nights get you down. I love Chicken Legs. And if it happens, I still think there's room for everything else," he says, referring to his numerous other projects. This bear of a man -- at six feet and a couple hundred pounds -- has learned to be cautious.
Although he's lived in the Washington area for the last five years, his musical roots go back to Detroit in the mid-'60s when he competed on the hyperactive club scene with other young acts like Ted Nugent, Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder, all of whom used to open for Catfish, the group Hodge led. a(Eventually the moniker stuck -- but he is sometimes called the Red-Haired Strange-man because of his maniac, master-showman antics.)
His band had some good shots, but their record company wouldn't come up with the powder -- they refused to send the band all the way to a little music festival that turned out to be Woodstock. "You think about what happened to each and every one of the bands that appeared at Woodstock," Hodge says with 11-year-old exasperation. A year later, the record company repeated the offense by not sending the band to England's Isle of Wight Festival -- the year Dylan and 300,000 other people showed up. Lack of promotion has killed even better bands.
Eight small-label albums and uncounted miles later, Hodge hasn't run out of patience. "The key," he insists, "is being satisfied with the growth for what you're doing. You can't do it for a monetary thing only. Sure I want to be able to sell out the Capital Centre [Chicken Legs will appear at the Warner Monday and Tuesday nights with another local favorite, The Nighthawks]. I want to make platinum records. It's going to help you to have that success because in your older age, you'll at least be set. It's what any kind of artist works for. But to get to that point, you've got to keep doing it and really get off on it."
For a man whose first band was named Wicked Religion, he has managed to keep the faith -- sometimes as a solo act, but most often with a band that delivers a raucous rock'n'roll. One sogn from an earlier album, "Boogieman Is Gonna Get You," has been a staple of progressive radio stations around the country and has usually been a visual highlight of Hodge's performances in bars and nightclubs up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Boogieman meets Boogeyman when Hodge goes into his wild-man routine, all bug-eyed crazy and carried away by the music.
The Seaboard circuit, running from Portland, Maine, to the tip of Florida, is where the good bands cut their teeth. The Nighthawks did it that way; so did Seger and Nugent. But many acts, including Mitch Ryder, have fallen by the wayside, victimized by 10 hours of driving each day and a $20 split per man when it was all over. "But if there's an audience out there that digs your thing," says Hodge, "you're going to build it up." Many musicians who share Hodge's experience and skill opt for the security of outside jobs or the safety of Top-40 bands who run for covers; and though Hodge does other songwriters' tunes as well as his own, "I'm an artist who does his own music and has his own audience. But it's only in the last couple of years that I've been able to play the higher quality clubs. And I still play some dumps," he adds with a snort.
Chicken Legs was hatched last summer when Hodge put together a summer vacation band with Freebo (Bonnie Raitt's bass player), two members of the Nighthawks and a couple of top Philadelphia studio musicians. This year the Hawks were on the road, so Hodge called up guitarist Paul Barrere of Little Feat, for whom he'd opened on several occasions. Hodge chuckles while trying to get away with a little Fishtalk, a name given to some of the tall tales he puts out. "I told [Barrere] what I wanted to do and I said Richard [Hayward, Little Feat's drummer] was going to do it. Then I called Richie and told him Paul was going to do it. After that, they suggestedd bassist Kenny Gradney."
It's a good story, but what actually happened was that Barrere was the only Feat member scheduled to work with Chicken Legs. When the original drummer dropped out, Hayward happened to be in town with Joan Armatrading. Then the bass player dropped out. Enter Gradney. That group performed in Washington last summer, packing them in for a week at the Cellar Door and at a last-minute Bayou date. When this second helping of Chicken Legs came around, Little Feat percussionist Sam Clayton insisted on a piece of the action. Pianist Mitch Collins and vocalist Dixie D. Balin (Catfish's girlfriend and one of the original reasons he moved to Washington) round out the band.
Reaction to the tour has been encouraging. "They've been there before, obviously," Hodge says of the Feat, "but I'm overwhelmed. People have been calling for interviews. Instead of calls for 'Feat, Feat,' we're hearing 'Legs, Legs.' I'm still trying just to think about the music. And that's what's happening. The music's hot and we're having a great time."
Hodge's new group is getting the first really substantial record offers in his long career -- but Hodge is aware that it's the new group that made the difference. "They'll love a new band that has the same basic individuals as were in the last band," he admits.
"We were just looking for another fat lead singer," jokes Barrere (referring to the late Lowell George). "The music that Catfish plays is in that same funky, rock'n'roll vein that we've always like playing," adds Hayward. "It just clicked."
"The romance of music is fresh," Hodge insists. It goes as deep as blood, in a way. His parents were both musicians in Kentucky before they moved to Detroit in the '40s. Ma Hodge has been known, on more than one occasion, to stomp out on the stage to share the microphone -- and the spotlight -- with the bigger of her two boys. Bob's younger brother, Dallas, is also a veteran rock'n'roller from the Catfish days and one of Bob's pet projects is a "Hodge Brothers" album, for which he has already done some work in Los Angeles.
Recording on one coast and touring on another will not make Hodge move from Washington, he says. "Hey, if you want to give your music to the world, it doesn't matter where you live, 'cause you've got to go to the world to give it to 'em." Early next month his second album for the Local Adelphi label will be released. It's called "Bout With the Blues," and is a followup to last year's "Eyewitness Blues" which sold 12,000 copies, quite respectable for a small label offering. A local investment firm, Fanpower, has been sponsoring the Fish's recording at Los Angeles' Clover Studios (where Bruce Springsteen recorded "The River").
In the meantime, Chicken Legs are cooking. And the question soon to be faced is: Will the original Little Feat members make the commitment to Chicken Legs when no one would blame them for choosing to concentrate on studio and touring work -- as Little Feat and as individuals -- that might pay more in the short run? The consensus at a pre-tour rehearsal session was that everyone would wait to see what happened on the road.
Those results are in and now it's a question of how much a record company is willing to offer and how much contractual freedom for outside projects can be arranged. In the meantime, Chicken Legs will disband in two weeks, while the Catfish Hodge Band has already lined up dates for December; in January, Dixie Balin, who has been singing almost as long as Hodge and used to be part of his backup Vienna (Va.) Girls Choir before moving to a front spot, will be working with a special R&B outfit. Whatever, it's doubtful that Catfish Hodge sees Chicken Legs as his big -- or last -- shot at the Golden Rock Ring. "It's just another step. Through a total accident [musicians dropping out] this vehicle's worked out."
That may be an apt image for a man whose last job was a Detroit finance company. But he obviously likes the idea of Chicken Legs. "Dixie and Mitch and Fish have made up their minds," he chortles. "Now we're just waiting for everybody else." The head says yes, but the Feat are not quite certain.