When Catfish Hodge, once a popular fixture on the local club scene, returns to Washington Saturday night for a performance at Saba Club, he'll bring along with him a new band, the Blues Busters. And a new attitude.
"I've never been happier or more at peace with myself," says Hodge, a big and bewhiskered singer, songwriter and guitarist who moved to Los Angeles nearly three years ago and has since married.
"I've always worked to establish myself much like Taj Mahal or Ry Cooder has, where I could play alone or blend in with some other really strong musicians and still keep my own individuality," he says, fairly beaming with enthusiasm. "It's taken some time but I think I've finally reached that point with the Blues Busters, and so has Paul."
Paul is Paul Barrere, Hodge's partner in the Blues Busters and a former guitarist and songwriter with Little Feat. The two first met when Hodge used to open Little Feat's concerts in the late '70s, but it wasn't until later, when Hodge asked Barrere and several other members of Little Feat to join his all-star band, Chicken Legs, that the two really discovered how well they worked together.
"That was really the biggest Chicken Legs ever," recalls Hodge. "We sold five nights out at the Cellar Door and another at the Bayou . . . We were even offered this huge record deal by Atlantic Records , but the timing wasn't right. Paul wanted to go out on his own and I had a lot of learning to do, too."
In the summer of 1984, as the Olympics approached, Hodge suggested to Barrere that the two of them go out on the road as a duo. If nothing else, Hodge reasoned, they'd avoid the horrendous traffic jams that were sure to choke the city. As it turned out, traffic flowed smoothly, but by then Hodge and Barrere were too busy making music to regret their decision.
"That's how the Blues Busters started," says Hodge. "Me and Paul developed a real tight relationship playing together -- as friends and as musicians. I began to realize with Chicken Legs that I could be happy and make a living working with Paul, everything came so naturally. We didn't want to expand the duo until we found the right musicians, and that's what we got."
Although Hodge says the Blues Busters will still operate as a duo occasionally, with Hodge on acoustic guitar and Barrere on electric, the band has grown to include bassist Freebo, best known for his work with Bonnie Raitt, former Dixie Dregs keyboardist T. Lavitz and Larry Zacke, who once played drums for Jackson Browne.
"The funny thing," says Hodge, reflecting on the band's lineup, "is that all these guys played in bands that didn't make them rich, but had real strong regional and even national followings. We want to give all our fans something fresh and a little different."
If the raw rehearsal tape Hodge is making available to the press is any indication, none of the band members is likely to disappoint old fans. Besides leaning heavily on Barrere's gifts as a songwriter -- the Blues Busters will continue to uncork some of the classics he wrote for Little Feat, including "Old Folks Boogie" and "Down on the Farm" -- Hodge has written a number of new tunes. The music ranges from simple country blues to the kind of high-energy rock Little Feat favored to the jazz rock the Dregs helped popularize.
As for playing in Washington, Hodge says he couldn't be happier about it. In a sense, he says, it's still home to him. He lived, played and recorded here for several years, and built up a considerable following. He says he found a feeling of community among the musicians here that was missing in Detroit, where he first started to play professionally, competing for club dates with the MC5, the Stooges, Ted Nugent and Bob Seger.
"I came out of Detroit with a real respect for sheer musical energy," he says, "and how to flow with it. There was this incredible energy level out there. I guess it had to do with it being a blue-collar town and all. Bob Seger and I still talk about it. But eventually some of these Michigan bands became so big in the Midwest that egos got in the way. That's why I came to Washington. It was really an oasis. I know it's having hard times now, but I really believe in the music community back there."
Hodge is quick to admit, though, that living in Los Angeles has its advantages. Since moving there, he signed a song-publishing deal with Brian Ahern, who helped guide Emmylou Harris' career, and Mike Gormley, who also looks after the Bangles and Oingo Boingo, now manages the Blues Busters. "I'm well connected for the first time in my life," says Hodge, "and it all happened because I wasn't concerned with making connections."
With Gormley's encouragement, Hodge says he's also become interested in writing film sound tracks. "In fact, I just bought a synthesizer," he says with a laugh. "And for a blues musician, that's like going back to kindergarten. Imagine me, out here reading all these manuals."