Living in Southern California has its advantages. One of the most important—at least for music fans—is the incredible assortment of bars, clubs, and concert venues spread throughout San Diego County. From the desert to the coastal climes, the Inland Empire to border towns, you can find musical options of literally anything your heart desires. If you’re persistent and look long enough, you’ll discover everything from boot-scootin’ country and hip-hop, to rock ‘n’ roll and techno spilling out into the streets at all hours of the day and night.
If you’re a blues lover with time constraints, let me narrow it down for you. If you like your blues a little greased-up and buttery, one of the best bar bands playing around town currently is Chickenbone Slim and the Biscuits. Chickenbone, whose real name is Larry Teves, has been a constant in our blues community for almost 40 years. During that time, you may have seen him playing with the Mississippi Mudsharks or possibly the West Coast version of the Boogiemen. But more than likely you caught him, much like I did, in performance as the ever-present and steadfast sideman for blues elder Tomcat Courtney.
In little more than a decade since the formation of the Biscuits, ‘Bone has given new meaning to the phrase “amped-up” productivity. The man has written and recorded four critically-acclaimed and award-winning albums of all original material and says that his fifth and latest will drop this spring. The band is playing constantly and anticipates touring behind the new release, including national and international dates. And, just as we go to press, Chickenbone received word he’s been nominated in the Best Blues Artist category at this year’s San Diego Music Awards.
The music he makes has been described as roots rock for the 21st century and blues boogie with an Americana overdrive. So, naturally, we started our conversation there.
San Diego Troubadour: How do you describe the music you play?
Chickenbone Slim: You start with the easy ones first? [he laughs] Well, at heart I’m a bluesman. I started playing blues music a long time ago because I liked roots rock. The era that first really intrigued me was the time around Chuck Berry, and a lot of people got into ’50s music because they were raised on Happy Days and sock hops… that style. And once I started listening to the hard rock of the ’70s in my high school years, I started seeing a correlation there. When I heard real Chicago blues after not playing music for very long in my early 20s…that hooked me; that ’50s through the early ’60s was the heyday of Chicago blues. I got into it kind of late, but once it gets you… [laughing] I’ve had a huge amount of other influences as time goes on, just like blues was influenced by other styles of music. I have my own vision of what Americana or roots rock should be…I moved here [Southern California] because of the Beat Farmers, the Paladins, Candye Kane, and a lot of the L.A. influences, like the Blasters and Los Lobos… that West Coast vibe. That’s where I got the vision, I think, what roots rock should be. I can’t really say it’s fully blues because I wasn’t raised on the plantation or in the Deep South.
Was there music in your home growing up?
Yes, sporadically, until we were teenagers. My parents listened to Johnny Horton, the Kingston Trio, the Ink Spots, and just random, odd albums from the late ’50s. They might have had Fats Domino, but they didn’t have Chuck Berry.
Did anyone in the family play music?
No, weirdly, my grandfather on my mom’s side was a square-dance caller, and I actually have some recordings of him calling a square dance. They said he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, at least that’s how my aunt described it. It’s pretty melodic when you hear it because he was actually calling the dance. And my other grandfather played the ukulele and that was their music every Saturday night, but I had no idea of this growing up, really. I just found out about all this later. I’m kind of the black sheep in a sense because I pursued music. I’m not a natural musician; I was thinking that the first instrument I got in the third grade was a recorder, that flute-kinda thing and I failed miserably and hated it. I had no real desire to play any wind instruments or any real instruments until after hearing and becoming a music fan, and I thought bass would be easy. So, I took up bass and played bass for a long time. I took some lessons on guitar but mostly to write songs. But I’ve been focused on and playing guitar now for about 12 years.
What are your family roots?
Grandfather on my father’s side is Portuguese; he emigrated from the Azores to Hawaii. He was a steam tractor mechanic. He got head-hunted by the Spreckels Company, and he came to the states to work on tractors in the Salinas Valley, pre-WWII.
What year did you get to San Diego?
In 1986. I’d gone to college, dropped-out, gone to college, dropped-out, worked, and then finished my bachelor’s degree at San Diego State. I was in no hurry. [laughing] Trust me, no hurry!
Other than the influences you’ve already mentioned, I know Jimmy Reed and Johnny “Guitar” Watson were also on your radar, right?
Well, especially when I started on guitar; when you say blues, the first person you think about is Muddy Waters and I kind of knew what I wanted to do at that point. But Jimmy Reed! When I was first starting out I had his 20 Greatest Hits on cassette and I literally wore it out listening to it. It gave me an understanding of the subtleties of blues. A lot of people think he just writes a song with a million verses, but there are subtle differences and there are songs that he wrote that are not standard blues. While everyone thinks it sounds the same and you start realizing…noooooo, there are differences, and he wrote some really amazing two-chord songs that are not in the standard blues idiom. It was really people’s music because he played music and tempos that people wanted to dance to.
Johnny “Guitar” Watson was a true innovator.
There’s a guy who took the T-Bone Walker style to the next level and all those Texas guys, a real Texas influence, that third Ward Houston sound, and he was really willing to take risks on the guitar.
I read somewhere that Frank Zappa decided to take up guitar after he heard Watson’s “Three Hours Past Midnight.”
We play guitar and are sometimes afraid to expand or try things out, and it seemed like he was just… wild. He was willing to push the limits. He started on piano, then he became Johnny “Guitar” Watson, then he became a funk guy in the ’70s. The tricky part is balancing the traditional with the exploration.
Did you ever play in garage bands?
You could kind of say so, I guess. When I first started playing bass, a drummer and I would just get together and jam. No songs… he would start a beat and I would start a groove and we would just play. It’s funny how rewarding that was in its own way. You come up with cool ideas and that’s how I realized how I like playing live music so much. There’s just no substitute for that, for live performance.
How many CDs have you recorded now?
Before Chickenbone, I was in the Boogiemen, and our first record was called Under Your Bed, and a second was called A Little Trim. That band included John Flynn, Richard “Richie Blue” Evans, Nico Gutierrez, and me on bass. And, actually, we had Mark Cavanaugh on that, too. That was 20 years ago. After the Boogiemen, I wish I had started focusing on guitar sooner ,but the reality is it’s worked out pretty well. And I’m lucky, because I’ve been playing with bass players that are better than I am.
After the Boogiemen, you established Chickenbone Slim and the Biscuits. In 2015, you released Gone.
Yeah, that was my first album and I recorded that with Big Jon Atkinson, which took around nine months. It was like having a baby…to finish because it was all analog, analog tape.
In 2017, you released your second Biscuit album, The Big Beat.
Here’s what happened: I had arranged a tour up in Northern California, but I had about four days in the middle of it that I couldn’t fill with gigs. So, I reached out to Kid Andersen and said, “Hey, how do you feel about recording?” And he said, “Sounds good,” because he knew Marty Dodson and Scot Smart. So, we went up and made it happen and it came out really good. For one thing, it was a wonderful experience. Kid is a genius and I had better players than I’d ever had before and I brought Big Jon in to blow harp. I was using more harp on the first two albums.
Then the next album Sleeper came out just prior to Covid. I had recorded it just a few months before, gotten it all done, and had it printed, and then the pandemic hit. Two months into Covid, the albums out, I’m not touring, it’s over.
What did you do during Covid?
After about three months we got bored! Laura [Chavez] and Marty [Dodson] were, too, so I talked to them about getting together. We live real close to each other, so I told them to come on over and we’d wear masks and we’d practice. We just started doing the next album, doing porch concerts, busking outdoors, and other things. But, it all really started after we got into the rehearsal studio and began working on the new songs with really talented people. Every time I’ve gone into the studio, it’s more efficient, we’re more prepared, and now it’s two in a row with the same personnel.
The end result was the 2021 critically acclaimed Serve It to Me, Hot.
We hooked up with VizzTone for a distribution deal and that turned out pretty well. It won the Best Jazz/Blues Album at the San Diego Music Awards last year.
Way too modest, nationally Serve It to Me Hot climbed to Number 4 on the Living Blues Radio Charts and Number 2 on the Roots Music Contemporary Blues Charts in 2022.
Tell me about working with Laura Chavez.
My standard thing to say is that I get a guitar lesson every night. She’s all that and more. You know, a lot of people try to compare her to other guitar players or other women guitar players when there is no comparison. She really gets a song; that’s her superpower. Play any song and she’ll hear it in ways you don’t and then interpret it. She has the combined skills and technique of Michael “Hollywood Fats” Mann and Junior Watson but with a tastiness factor that a lot of guys don’t have. You almost go, I’ve heard that before but it’s in the context of… no, that’s not what I’ve heard. It’s like taking familiar vocabulary and inventing new words! It’s really kind of an amazing thing. I would never cut heads with her. I’m serious! I play with her every night, and I would never go toe to toe with her!
Chickenbone Slim and the Biscuits: “Queen of the Wires”
Biscuit guitarist Laura Chavez, just back from the Rhythm and Blues Cruise, received her fifth nomination for Best Instrumentalist—Guitar at this year’s Blues Music Awards. Having known her for awhile and being a huge fan, I wanted to know how she felt about playing with ‘Bone and the Biscuits? “Larry is incredibly prolific,” Laura says. “One of the most prolific artists I’ve ever met. Practically, every time I see him he tells me he has a new song. But, as someone who loves coming up with arrangements and building songs it’s a dream and he’s been incredibly generous with me and the rest of the Biscuits in allowing us to insert our arrangement ideas to build the songs into something that leaves a stamp for us all.
When I first started listening to John Lee Hooker, I wore those records out! He was just so bittersweet.
When you pick up a Chickenbone record, it consists of all original music, but you also incorporate some pretty awesome covers in your live shows. How do you decide which tracks to cover?
For many years I’ve played lots and lots of covers and, really, with the band now, we’ve picked out the ones we think work, but usually it’s how people respond to them. A good example is “Kiddio” by Brook Benton, which we do similar to the Paladins, because Laura excels at that style. I’ve been doing “Diving Duck Blues” [Sleepy John Estes] since I played that on bass for 20 years or so. Another classic is “Scratch My Back” by Slim Harpo; the groove is not a song most people have heard, but when they hear the groove, there’s just something primal about it, the tremolo on it really appeals to the dancers.
That was on the Excello label, right? Our local friends, the Fremonts, are amazing at that style of playing.
Excello was a huge influence and, yeah, the Fremonts are very good at doing that in the traditional way; they totally influenced me… I try to take the vibe of what it is—swamp pop—and we’re playing blues pop. Not blues rock, not blues… but really trying to appeal to people who are trying to dance to it, can relate to it, and understand what you’re saying.
You’re talking about musical styles that incorporate different techniques or rhythms or are influenced from different regions of the country, like Piedmont or Delta blues, the gritty Chicago style or West Coast feel?
Well, you can pull all those together and create your own or what I do. I may write something very country for me and you have to be respectful of that style. But it’s still gonna say things that I want to say. I think it’s very traditional for blues musicians, in particular, to play other styles of music.
Let’s talk about your writing process. You mentioned earlier using a guitar?
It can start in a variety of ways; the spark could be lyrical or musical. It’s going to be one or the other. But it could be from walking and listening to music and you get an idea, you turn off the phone, still walking and you get an idea, maybe about another riff or the last song that’s not quite finished, and it may never be a song, for example, “Tell Me a Beautiful Lie.” So, that opens up a lot of ideas, and I wrote a bunch of lines based on that. Usually, for me, a song has got to have its own story. I guess that’s what an opera is, right? [laughing] …if you connect a bunch of them. It’s really about what you’re trying to say…if anything. You don’t have to be serious or philosophical; it doesn’t have to be complicated or simple. For instance, I have a song on the new album and it’s very country; I had the idea and it started with a repetitive two chords. From a one-chord to a two-chord is an unusual chord progression for blues, but I hear soul songs with that. I’m going to try to do this and it turns itself into a song. I learned a lot writing the song and I got a lot out of it from a musical standpoint.
“Wild-Eyed Woman” is one of my favorites.
It’s a boogie and Laura always tells me that we gotta end the set with that. Just the other night at Patrick’s somebody came up to me and said, “Dude, you could play that all night!” [laughing] That’s the way boogies are—you feel they could go on forever. It’s a good way to end the set, because it leaves you feeling good with that great groove, you know?
The gospel according to John Lee Hooker!
When I first started listening to John Lee Hooker, I wore those records out! I will tell all you lovers out there…John Lee Hooker is the music to put on before you go to bed, I’m just saying. He was just so bittersweet; not sad, more like confusion and loneliness. That feel and that boogie drive, if you’ve tried Led Zeppelin, if you’ve tried Pink Floyd” (laughing) “if you’ve tried Taylor Swift…try John Lee Hooker!” (laughing)
Chickenbone Slim and the Biscuits: “Wild-Eyed Woman”
One of the first times I saw you playing live was with the late Tomcat Courtney.
When I started playing guitar as a performer and singing—a good ten years now—I happened upon him at DeMille’s Pizza and he was playing Happy Hour gigs there. I missed him a couple of times, but I made an effort to go see him. I caught the end of his show, and he was playing with another young kid, playing slide. At the time, he was already in his 80s and he would wheel his stuff out to his SUV. One time I went out and was talking to him and he said, “I did this recording and I thought it came out pretty good,” but there were all these problems and stuff. He said, “They keep telling me I gotta sound like Muddy Waters or someone else. Man, I can’t sound like anyone but myself!” He was really emphatic about it, and I really took that to heart because at the time, here I am trying to do the same thing. If Tomcat can stand up to what people say and, at his age, he shouldn’t have to explain himse. That insight, for me, was it; that made it all right to be Chickenbone. Not only was he fun to play with he was such a great singer, he had his own interpretation, his own style… very much like Lightnin’ Hopkins, but he had his own style. And he would always encourage me, respond in the positive, and say, “Oh, you got a tough band!” [laughing] That’s what I loved about Tom and it wasn’t just me. I mean I felt special but you could make a list of the players in this town who’ve played with him and enjoyed playing with him.
As San Diego’s blues elder, Tomcat was our direct connection to some of the originators. When he was just a child, Tomcat saw Robert Johnson (King of the Delta Blues Singers) play. He was a first-person link for us.
How many people did Tom touch? He took it and spread it as far as he could…he shared it! [Sigh] It’s a tough conversation…we were lucky. You know, I played bass with him after the Mudsharks; that guy could stand for two hours straight and play, and none of us young guys could! He grew up hard and he was a tap dancer in his youth…yeah, in the circus! He was an amazing guy, an amazing man.
Editor’s note: Read the Troubadour’s cover story on Tomcat Courtney from February 2021.
You’ve toured overseas.
Yeah, with the last album, we went to Belgium and did festival and club dates there. They treated us so well; it was a two-day festival and we had a great crowd the day we played; the second day it rained but they’re used to it…they drank in the rain! It was really a wonderful experience and we’re working on another trip.
Will you follow up a little and talk about working with Kid Andersen and Greaseland Studio’s?
He’s a good example of why America’s great and why we need immigrants. He’s Norwegian and was a child prodigy; Charlie Musselwhite brought him over and he’s been here ever since. The reason he got into recording was because a lot of people didn’t like the experiences they were having. So, he created his studio to get the sounds he wanted. His ears are amazing and he’s kind of a gear head. Greaseland is famous… you go down the hall and you see a wall of amplifiers. Any combination of amplifiers you want, any sound you want, or vintage style—he’ll get it for you. He plays virtually any instrument: keyboard, piano, sitar, guitar, bass or drums, you name it. He knows who plays well and who excels at each instrument. He brought in Eric Spaulding (Roomful of Blues, Duke Robillard) to play sax on my new album. The stuff that comes out of there has got the vintage feel but the modern fidelity. Yeah, that’s in San Jose; he’s been there a long time now. I cannot conceive of recording anywhere else.
So, let’s talk about the new project!
Well, I’ve just completed it, and it’s called Damn Good and Ready. It’ll be released on VizzTone this spring. So, when I was driving home from recording this last one, I had this overwhelming feel of how gratifying it is to write songs for this band, and it’s because of Laura Chavez, Marty Dodson, Justice Guevera, and, of course, Kid. They help me feel like I know what I’m doing. [laughing] After the first album, I know what the capabilities are—it’s like having a car and it’s running on all cylinders and you learn how to drive it. They inspire me. When you use good people you can trust…they’re real pros and that’s what it comes down to. You can tell it’s them when they’re playing.
Other than the new record, what’s next for you and the Biscuits?
I’m going to be hosting a blues jam starting this month on March 16. It’s called Chickenbone’s Pro-Am Blues Jam on Thursdays at Prohibition in the Gaslamp. We’ll have a special guest artist every week. It’ll start a 9:30pm and go until 1:30am. It’s for real blues people. It’ll be a pro-blues jam and we’ll get some good players—not just the “Mustang Sally” and “Stormy Monday” retreads—and try to keep it more in the blues vein. And when the new CD drops, we’ll plan a CD release party, and we’ll still be playing locally at Tio Leo’s, Patrick’s, and House of Blues.”
For the latest and greatest on where to see and hear Chickenbone Slim and the Biscuits, visit https://chickenboneslim.com/shows. You can thank me later.