Nine Shots with the Ten Foot Pole Cats
By Georgetown Fats
Whether at a martini bar or a gutbucket saloon, the right bribes and name-drops never fail to help one gain access. That is how I wound up in the back room of this local blues joint. It shall remain nameless, but it’s the type of hangout where several different smokes fill the air, fire codes are laughed at and ambiance is provided by bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
What sounded like a good idea at the time—challenging Jim Chilson of the Ten Foot Pole Cats to their version of beer pong—quickly became a regret. When I asked how they played, drummer Dave Darling offered only a maniacal laugh while filling cups with what seemed to be white lightning. Vocalist and harp player Jay Scheffler grabbed the house mic, assumed the role of color commentator and let the assembled miscreants know what was at stake. If I won the match I would be given an advance listen to the Pole Cat’s follow-up to their Sterno Soup EP, which is as-of-yet untitled and scheduled for release sometime this fall. If I lost Chilson would be claiming my soul, which on that day meant my ’59 Fender Bassman reissue.
When he opened the match by sinking his first three ping-pong balls into my cups I knew I was in a lot of trouble. There would be no joy in Georgetown. As my mouth dried out and consciousness drifted, I said my peace and wished "Blondie" the best with her new owner.
When I woke the next day, my bloodshot eyes focused on "Blondie" and a blank disk labeled "Raw Tracks - Ten Foot Pole Cats - Scheduled Release - Fall of 2009." Due to the liquor I can’t be sure if I beat the champ or not, or if the showdown even happened at all. All I’m sure of is that I have a copy of the tracks for their new release and it is good. It is damn good.
Sterno Soup garnered the Ten Foot Pole Cats bookings nationwide, opening for “Steady Rollin'” Bob Margolin and deep blues artist Scott Biram. It also helped expose them to new audiences with invitations to the Deep Blues Festival in Minneapolis and punkabilly shows in Boston and Worcester; shows where most blues bands will not ask—nor be asked—to play. From the initial listen of this new release, I expect even bigger and better things in the near future.
The album starts with a string of original tunes. On "So Good To Me, Baby," Chilson lays down a churning mid-tempo groove, Darling pounds on his traps kit and Sheffler howls out lyrics loaded with double entendres. "Tears On My Windshield” epitomizes the Pole Cats sound, where musical lines and solos are only added if they help propel the groove. On "Squeeze" the pretense of double entendres is dropped entirely, leaving just the raunchy musical fun. This music is not for the faint of heart.
"Bar Hopping" picks up the pace considerably and the topic is clearly one close to their blackened hearts. Chilson and Darling lock into an up-tempo deep blues/punk groove while Sheffler rips through a debauched tale worthy of any juke joint.
The album then shifts gears to classic covers. Paying homage to Jessie Mae Hemphill, the Pole Cats offer up "Broken Hearted." In another nod to one of the greats they cover R.L. Burnside's "See What My Buddy Done." Chilson's polyrhythmic work is reminiscent of a time when a bluesman would hop a train with acoustic in hand in search of the next gig, paycheck, woman and bottle. This cover is as appropriate for the punkabilly crowd as it would be if the trio caught a steam train headed north.
I was concerned that a recorded version of Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road” would lose the magic that whups a lifeless crowd into a sweaty dancing throng, but my concern was unfounded. Short of including a stale-beer-and-whiskey-scented Yankee candle with the track, all of the charm is on the album. On T-Model Ford's “Chickenhead” Chilson's opening guitar salvo mimics a train whistle while Darling offers subtle accents on drums. As the tempo picks up Sheffler professes his love for all parts of the chicken.
The final track is Charley Patton's "Peavine." Patton is considered by many to be the "father of delta blues" and the Pole Cats have both the musical chops and the knowledge to pull off his music. "Peavine" is an ode to longing for a lost loved one and their rendition is a fitting tribute to the man who inspired both John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf.
If these first nine tracks are any hint as to what will be available on their full-length release then the delta blues are not dead; they have just plugged in and relocated to Allston. The Ten Foot Pole Cats have ignored the general consensus on the blues scene by stripping down their sound and offering deeper blues covers. This makes them likeable to the diehard blues fans for their discerning taste and to fans of other forms of roots and punk music for their aggressive, unyielding style.