Reverend Raven at Chain O’ Lakes Blues Fest

The Rev and his Chain O’ Smokin’ Altar Boys Deliver the Blues

Michael: Tell me about the Altar Boys.

Reverend: They’re a talented group of musician friends of mine. The current version of the band includes Westside Andy who is an incredible harmonica player, and I’m honored he’s with us.

M: Danny Moore has been around a awhile.

R: He’s played piano with Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and many others. He’s one of the best. P.T. Pedersen my bass player toured with Charlie Musslewhite, Big Walter Horton, Pinetop Perkins…that’s a great resume right there. In fact P.T. just reconnected with Musslewhite at the Bayfront Blues Festival. They hadn’t seen one another in about 35 years, so that was pretty cool telling stories from back in the day…I always wanted to ask Charlie if P.T. was telling the truth about Charlie hitting a pig and totaling his truck (laugh).

M: There’s a book to be written telling tales of the road. You have a favorite?

R: I remember Danny once eating some magic brownies (laugh). He doesn’t drink…he doesn’t do anything, but he likes food. Somebody offered him a plate of brownies, he says he ate one…I think he ate more than one. In the middle of a set I hear this weird jazz being played. I look behind me at him and he has this giant smile on his face. I leaned over and suggested he take a break. He said very happily ‘Okay’ and off he went.

M: And your rhythm section?

R: Bobby Lee Sellers on drums is a guy who’s always in demand as a session drummer when he’s not gigging with us, and his vocals help make the blues sound we create over the top.

M: You like the ensemble.

R: Love it. Nothing makes me crazier than a three-piece band that lags because of the lead guitar. My all-time favorite three piece is the Bel Airs out of Columbia, Missouri. I’ve always liked the larger ensemble with the piano and harmonica, bands like Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rogers.

M: And Freddie King was who hooked you?

R: My whole childhood I was like the kid in The Wonder Years, I wasn’t born into the blues, whereas my brother who was seven years older was in the middle of the whole hippie-thing, and flower power. He was bringing home the Stones and Yardbirds, we lived on the south side of Chicago on 66th and Winchester. Then he discovered Muddy Waters lived and played right across the expressway, and Howlin’ Wolf was part of the live music scene. Then all of a sudden he and his buddies were going to all the clubs. That was the big hippie invasion of all the black clubs on the south side, and he started bringing all those records home.

M: But you were the youngster.

R: I didn’t see anybody until I was 17 years old. And that was at the Kinetic Playground which was like Bill Graham used to be at the Fillmore, Aaron Russo who went on to become Linda Ronstadt’s manager…he had the Kinetic Playground club, and that was pretty much like the Fillmore, same deal…a blues act, the the Buddy Rich Orchestra, then the Who…something like that. Well, my first night Freddie King was opening for Jeff Beck, and Freddie stole the show. He had the Leon Russell Band backing him up, and he was out there with his red suit, red patten leather shoes, a guitar with a 200-foot cord, and he’s standing in the middle of 2000 hippies just ripping it up!

M: And that was it for you.

R: Stopped playing rock n’ roll right then and there. I wanted to be a blues guy, and started really practicing and woodshedding. Then I went in the Navy (laugh)!

M: What?

R: Yeah. I put the guitar away for 15 years.

M: I can’t believe that.

R: Didn’t start playing again until I was 38. The last two years I was in the Navy I had a guitar, and I sat in on a jam session in St. Paul while I was on a training trip. I caught the bug again. I had a hippie girlfriend from Oshkosh who didn’t like my being in the military, so I got out for a couple years just to try it, fully intending to go back into the Navy.

M: But?

R: I started getting some gigs. And started getting fatter and fatter (laugh). Had a heart attack. Can you imagine the Navy didn’t want me back?

M: Whatever happened to the hippie girlfriend?

R: She’s a psychologist.

M: I checked your schedule, and you’re booked!

R: I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to see what’s on the other side of the hill. I joined the Navy (laugh) to get out of town, grow a beard, get a tattoo, and drink my way through all the ports around the world. I got home and was assigned to shore duty in Chicago, then got orders to Oshkosh. I remember asking my detailer what the hell the Navy was doing in Oshkosh? He told me I was going to train reservists. And this was the late 80’s, and the live music-thing was still going on, Blue Tail Fly was going on, Janet Planet was huge…there was still a great music scene in the Fox Valley. I got out of the Navy, and into the music, moved to Milwaukee and started going on the road. What can I say? I’m a gadfly. It’s terrible (laugh).

M: You still dig the greats?

R: Absolutely. Still love Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells…my go-to album is Hoodoo Man. Contemporary artists I listen to anything Kim Wilson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) does, Barrelhouse Chuck, Billy Flynn. New bands I like the 44’s, Nick Moss out of Chicago, Rockin’ Johnny is cool, Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones.

M: Do you listen back to your own music?

R: At home I’ll record myself, listen to it, pick things out I don’t like and try to change them. That’s why I was happy with the Big Bull CD, it turned out like it sounds in my head on a good night.

M: Big Bull took something like two years to complete?

R: I already had a live CD out, “Live at the Red Rocket” which is a bootleg CD I’ll be putting out every year, but that’s mainly for fans who come see us. It’s mostly covers that I’d never include on a regular album. But, we ended up with these recordings, and Steve Hamilton produced and engineered Big Bull. Steve works with Jackson Browne, and does the Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay, he’s done a lot of work with Jim Liban and Short Stuff. Steve said he had some music of mine he had recorded from 2012 that I’d never heard, and then some more recent recordings, two songs of which from Red Rocket, and that’s the Big Bull album.

M: And the Chain O’ Lakes Blues Festival?

R: Get your tickets early. There’s a great bunch of bands, and it gets packed. We’re looking forward to playing the Indian Crossing Casino again!

Reverend Raven: Smokin' Passion

Bringing crowds to their feet at the hardest to please and sophisticated night clubs in the Midwest, Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Altar Boys play traditional blues, straight up with a big dose of passion. With smoking grooves, served up with hot harmonica and smooth stinging guitar they play original songs peppered with nods to Slim Harpo, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells and the three Kings. Born and raised on south side of Chicago, the Reverend has been playing the blues since 1971 when he first saw Freddy King play at the Kinetic Theatre in Chicago. After 15 year hitch in the Navy he moved to Milwaukee where he began a long friendship and collaboration with Madison Slim, long time harmonica player for Jimmy Rogers.  

Since 1990 he has opened for B.B King, Gatemouth Brown, Pinetop Perkins, Koko Taylor Band, Junior Wells, Billy Branch, Magic Slim, Elvin Bishop, Sugar Blue, Lonnie Brooks, William Clarke, Lefty Dizz, Rod Piazza, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Duke Robillard, Jeff Healy, Trampled Underfoot, Mike Zito, Nick Moss, Tommy Castro and numerous others at festivals and at Buddy Guy’s Legends where he has been on rotation as a headliner for 16 years. The Reverend was the Wisconsin Music Industry (WAMI) award for best blues band in 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2010 and again in 2015. They also received the People's Choice Award in 2006, 2008 and again in 2010 and nominated Artist of the Year and best blues band of the year in 2011 and 2012. They were nominated for a Grammy Award in 2007 for Bamfest 2007. They were nominated by Blues Blast Magazine for best blues band of the year and song of the year in 2011. The band has been voted the Best Blues Band In Milwaukee by The Shepherd Express Reader's Poll in 2013 and 2014.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I’ve learned that the music gives a voice to how I’m feeling about myself or the world around me. The blues gives meaning to my memories and life’s experiences.

How do you describe Rev. Raven & The Smokin’ Altar Boys sound and songbook?

We are a hard driving ensemble that play original blues over traditional grooves played with passion.

What is the story behind the name of the band?

I got the Reverend tag during my stint in the Navy. The sailors came to see one of the early versions of the band and asked for me. The hippies in the band at the time liked it and continued to call me that. We came up with The Chain Smoking Altar Boys one night sitting around the bar and riffing names. A few of us had been altar boys and it morphed into Chain Smoking Altar Boys. Years later I found out James Burton had a side project in Nashville with the same name.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches?

My mother always had music on in the house. A lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn and a Louis Jordan record. My older cousin started bringing home Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf albums and I was fascinated by the lyrics and stories of the songs. They were about adults and adult problems not teenagers in love etc…They were about lust, lol, heartbreak, jail and relationship problems. It all came to a head when I saw Freddie King perform in Chicago in 1971. After that I lost all my interest in rock music.

What characterize your music philosophy?

Play the song, give 110% every night, has to have a groove and take care of your band, they will take care of you.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

Meeting and playing with Madison Slim on and off for 10 + years. He was playing with Jimmy Rogers at the time and we started this band as a side project. He taught me how to present the band and myself and to play what we know. Don’t try and fit into someone’s idea of what we should be doing. After that, opening for and hanging out on the bus with B.B. King. The gracious and humble King of the Blues took the time out to invite us on his bus and just talk. It was great.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Be yourself, don’t sing about mules, roosters etc…if you never lived or worked on a farm. Don’t sing in fake voices and play and sing what you know. Less is more and turn your amp down. (Laughs)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Had two gigs that Jeff Healey showed up at and sat in with us.  Incredible to hear and watch him play guitar from 2 ft away. He pulled off Albert King’s “Personal Manager” out and just nailed it.  

Had a mild case of stage fright at Buddy Guy’s Legends when we opened for Gatemouth Brown. As I was getting ready to play, I look to the left and Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Gatemouth Brown sitting in the VIP section watching us. I guess we were ok cause we still play there 16 yrs later

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

All the blues innovators and icons except for Buddy are gone. Miss going to the local club and seeing Albert Collins or Big Walter Horton or Junior Wells.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hope that a young audience rediscovers the music. I play in Canada frequently and they have a younger crowd but here in the States, I fear we’re becoming the Polka bands of our generation. (Laughs)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Junk all the Karaoke machines in bars (laughs). They keep musicians from having decent gigs on Monday - Wednesdays.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from South to Chicago and from Midwest to beyond?

Highways 61, 66, 90 and 94 are a good start. 

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local blues circuits?

A very impassioned free form dancer (I think it was dancing) at our gig last month. The guy was in his own world, all night (laughs). Doing a benefit for a friend last month. He’s going into hospice and performed at the show. 

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

It is a gift from African Americans and it needs to be handled with care as you would any gift. As to the rest…I think Willie Dixon said it best when he said “blues is the truth"

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day..?

Mister Kelly’s in Chicago in 1955 to see Muddy Waters and his great band with Little Walter please.


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