Don’t let their looks deceive you; Red Butler’s youthfulness is by no means an indication of a lack of experience. The readily apparent air of professionalism translated through the band’s live performances, however, stems not solely from the knowledge of their success in the UK and European Blues Challenges, nor from their having graced the stage at Hyde Park as part of the Olympic celebrations, but the confidence with which they hold themselves on stage and the conviction with which they present their balls-to-the-wall blues rock. Right from the onset of their set at this year’s Cambridge Rock Festival on Sunday the 6th of August, the young breakthrough blues band took to the stage with swagger, before swiftly breaking out into the groovy, bass-driven bravado of their opening track, ‘Calm Before The Storm’ from their latest full-length release, Nothing To Lose. The thunderous imagery of the song’s lyrics acts as a fitting mirror image of the belting roars from newly-found frontman Dan Spellman from behind the mic, which are bolstered further by the band’s punchy, airtight rhythm section. The grooves don’t let up during the second song of the set, ‘Say Hello (To My Little Friend)’, during which the introductory guitar interplay between Spellman and Alex Butler strikes some almost heavy metal-tinged harmonic textures, before breaking out into the song’s straight, stomping shuffle. Butler and Spellman’s fretboard latticework is perhaps most potent on Red Butler’s almost comically slow-paced rendition of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ ’Shakin’ All Over’, with the verse sections seeing Butler lace intermittent trills between Spellman’s meandering vocal melodies, whilst the group’s take on the iconic chorus sees powerful accents frame the frontman’s fiery bellows. This plodding pace continues onto the following song, ‘Black Flies’, whose primary groove carries the lumbering, low-tempo dirge of a stoner rock track, which acts as the perfect pivot point for Butler to launch into one of his rapid-fire solos. Through the band’s ability to rile up the audience during their rendition of Bobby Bland’s ‘Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City’ and their irresistible head-bobs throughout their cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Pride and Joy’, the core appeal of Red Butler’s stage presence relates to just how much fun they clearly seem to be having, which proves to be incredibly contagious, spreading throughout the crowd like wildfire. The group’s lively, light-hearted nature is translated loud and clear as bassist Mike Topp dons a werewolf mask for their live version of ‘Big Bad Wolf’, whilst this ebullience comes to an appropriate apogee as the band performs part of their closing cover of Buddy Guy’s ‘Show Me the Money’ amidst the dancing crowd, before returning to the stage to test how many false finishes they can pull off and still maintain the audience’s excitement upon each reintroduction of the song’s chugging shuffle. It’s this care for sheer entertainment above all else that ensures that Red Butler will always put on a show that is as enjoyable for the people on stage as it is for the people in the crowd, as if sharing a collected spiritual experience of the power of electrified blues.
Following their set, I was fortunate enough to sit down with all four members of Red Butler to discuss their recent growth as a band and how they see this affecting their future endeavours.
Firstly, from what I understand, this isn’t your first time at Cambridge Rock Festival, but it is in this current incarnation, is that correct?
Yeah, that’s right.
So, Dan, you’re the newest addition to the group, so could you just talk a bit about how you initially got involved with Red Butler?
Dan: So, I joined these guys for the tour last year, starting in about August. I’ve known Alex and Charlie for a long, long time. We were probably about 11 or 12 when we formed out first band, which was a little covers band and we played round the South. That went on for a few years. Then, they went off and started Red Butler and I went off to another covers band. Then, coming up to the tour last year, Charlie approached me – because they were recording the new album as well – and I remember him playing me the early recordings and being like, “what’s wrong with playing this live?” At first, I was just like, “what do you mean what’s wrong with playing it live?” and he played me a song and said, “well, we’ve only got one guitarist”. So, I ended up playing second guitar for them. At this point, we still had Jane singing, so we did the whole tour from August to December with me as the second guitarist and with Jane singing, so we were a five-piece. Then, when we got to the end of the year, Jane went off to do her own thing in a different band and I took over singing, seeing as I had sung with these guys before in the old, old band.
Mike: It just seemed like the natural thing to do, didn’t it?
Dan: Yeah, I think we were very focussed initially on getting another female vocalist, but in the meantime, we did a few gigs with me singing and the audience response seemed to be, “well, why would you get anyone else in?” and people seemed to think we were good as we were. Plus, the four of us get on so well together and we have such a laugh that it’s just kind of naturally evolved into what it is now.
So, it looks this current line-up’s here to stay, does it?
Dan: Oh yeah, definitely.
Charlie: Yeah, this is the definitive Red Butler line-up.
So, you were talking about the album that came out last November and, of course, during your set, you were playing both some original stuff and some covers, so what do you see as the direction of the band for the future?
Charlie:Well, that album was obviously with Jane singing and, believe it or not, we still sell it at our shows, even though there’s a different singer on it. When Dan joined the band, though, we wanted to get something with him on out quite quickly, especially because we were in quite a bit of debt after our last album, so we wanted to just do something quite cheap and get something out there. So, we decided to record with a friend of ours who’s a producer, a really nice, young guy, also called Dan, and we recorded an acoustic EP. It’s four tracks, with acoustic versions of a song from our first album, a song from our second album, a new song and then a cover. That’s been out for a few weeks now and it’s selling well, so at the moment, we’re writing for a new, electric release. We’re not sure yet if it’s going to be a long EP of maybe six or so tracks or if it’ll go towards a full album, but we’re writing at the moment and seeing how it goes, and some of the stuff is coming out really nicely.
Dan: Yeah, there’s some really cool stuff we’re working on that we really like.
Charlie: It’s a bit of a new sound, mainly because Dan’s in the band, but also because it’s more similar to what we always play live. For us, when we play live, it’s naturally a bit heavier, especially with Dan’s vocals and the second guitar adding that slight edge to our sound. So, if you’ve seen us live, then it might not be that different, but if you’ve just heard us on our studio material, then it will definitely sound quite different.
Yeah, when I was watching you, I felt that, especially with the twists you were putting on ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and your covers of Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan, you do seem to be moving towards a bit of a heavier sound, to the point of almost striking some stoner rock tones at times, which I appreciated. So, based on this and all the covers that you were picking, where exactly would you pinpoint your roots and where do you see yourselves as branching off from that?
Alex: We all have different music tastes, although they do overlap in a lot of big ways, but then we all bring in fairly extreme influences into that. So, when it comes to looking at something like covers, we look to keep the integrity of the song and its core concept the same, but add our own style to it. We try and do that with writing as well, in that we try and make it so that everyone has something to bring to the table, rather than just having one person decide everything and decide our definitive take on everything.
Another thing I wanted to ask you about, and I know that this doesn’t necessarily concern the band in their current incarnation, but with Red Butler having played Hyde Park as part of Olympic celebrations, as well as having played in both the UK and European blues challenges, is there any one event or experience that you could pinpoint as being fundamental to the band’s progression?
Alex: I think that would have to be our show in Skegness, which is perhaps ironic given all those things that you mentioned. Maybe it was just the timing, but after we played Skegness in 2015, things went mental after that. We booked so many new shows, every promoter wanted us and then all the stuff you mentioned came along and just built on top of it.
Charlie: Yeah, now at nearly every gig we go to, someone will be like, “oh yeah, I saw you at Skegness”. We haven’t even been to Skegness since then, but the buzz has stayed with us and it helped us get a lot of other, new gigs. It wasn’t the biggest gig we’ve done, it wasn’t the most prestigious gig we’ve done, but in terms of what we got out of it, that’s probably our biggest experience.
Dan: I think that essentially sums up what the band is now about in its current incarnation. It doesn’t have to be about playing the biggest shows to the most people. Instead, with our live shows now, we try not to take ourselves too seriously and just really enjoy everything that we do and just have fun, and that feeds off into the crowd and so many people will walk up to us afterwards and say, “it genuinely looked like you were having fun” and that’s just because we are. Now, we’re just four mates up on stage having a good laugh.
Mike: There will be guidelines as to the sort of thing that we’re going to do, but a lot of it is also quite improvised and that really helps the stage show, that off-the-cuff feeling. It just keeps things exciting.