Tim Betts Guitar Phenom
Tim Betts, the young white blues guitar phenom who came back to town after an aborted relocation to Phoenix, bestrode the stage of the Blind Tiger with his green Fender electric guitar, smiling at his bandmates.
They tuned their instruments and watched the room fill with boisterous fans on the last Sunday of January, filling the seven o’clock slot in a lineup of local acts to raise money for victims of the tsunami in southern Asia. The pool table was covered with chipboard, and rows of empties on top. The booths were full and the bar almost too thick with patrons to get a drink.
The music starts, but the guitar is too low in the mix at first to discern the traces of Betts’s virtuosity. Yet the groove is right, a mix of swirling Hammond B-3 organ, low-end bass, wailing harp, and right-on-time percussive clatter. By the fourth song, a cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘“Cold Shot,’” they hit their stride. Bass player Chris Carroll belts out the words with plaintive soul, channeling Robert Cray, as Betts ‘— at last in the mix ‘— broadcasts a searing cascade of notes, driving home the pain of the song with controlled fury and crisp efficiency. Dressed in a checked shirt, with neat, short hair, and glasses, Betts’ intent reserve on stage is belied by the drops of sweat breaking out across his forehead.
The Tim Betts band is a crack unit. In addition to Carroll, when he’s playing at home in Greensboro Betts can count on Kelly Pace on drums, Jeff Hitchcock on harmonica and Dave McCracken on Hammond B-3 ‘— who has also played with Betts in zydeco-blues artist CJ Chenier’s band.
The altruism of supporting a good cause certainly accounts for some of why this collection of oldsters, bikers, college students and well-dressed African Americans has turned out for live music on a school night. But mainly, it’s something much more selfish ‘— the earthy, elemental release, the frank sexuality and pain of the blues, that makes you feel real. Even this music, a fairly standardized formalization based on the Stevie Ray-Eric Clapton axis, manages to convey the raw emotion of the whole tradition, from Robert Johnson through BB King.
The true believers on the dance floor are mostly older white couples who have matured enough to lose most of their inhibition and pretense. Some wear long hair and beards. Some are dressed in cowboy hats. They spin each other across the dance floor, grabbing each other by the waists and grinding their heels into the wooden floor.
The racial breakdown of the room is just about in parity with the Gate City’s demographics: two thirds white and a third African American.
Betts is well aware that he plays a mainstream version of the blues popularized by Vaughan and Clapton. He first got interested in the guitar after hearing David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Then his parents took him to see a Clapton concert, and from that point on he had to listen to everything Clapton has ever done, and explore all of Clapton’s influences.
At this stage of his development, he appreciates the music of Clapton forbearers Albert Collins and Freddy King more, but as a 28-year old professional musician with a 15-month old daughter to support, he’s thinking about what will turn out the crowds.
‘“I love the dirtier stuff better,’” he says, winding down after the show on a damp wooden bench behind the club. ‘“It’s tough to say, but you like people to hear what you’re doing. I think it was Sam Cooke who said, ‘People forget about the business in show business.””
Betts’ professional music career is as real as it gets. He’s ***the*** guitar player for CJ Chenier, the presumed heir of zydeco music following the death of his father Clifton. During the warm months of the year, Betts is on the road with the band, going from festival to festival. He still can’t get enough of the excitement.
‘“We have people all over the country who invite us over for picnics,’” he says. ‘“They’ll be roasting pigs. It’s a lotta chaos, a whole lot of drinking. It’s a great time.’”
Still, on the downside, there can be a lot of waiting.
‘“I’ve been in motel rooms where it’s like, ‘Calm down, there’s nothing to do,”” he says. ‘“There’s not even a Burger King or a McDonald’s. You watch TV. Make some phone calls. Sleep. A lot of sleep.’”
While he’s waiting for the festival season to start up again, he’s leading his own band and playing bar gigs, which he describes as ‘“few and far between.’” To supplement his music income, he’s also picked up two day-jobs. He works in the kitchen at Hugo’s on Spring Garden Road prepping salads. He assembles and installs office cubicles at another job.
‘“They needed help; they liked the way I was working,’” he says of the office installation outfit. ‘“I’m behind on too damn many bills. You got to do what you got to do.’”
In describing the work, he punctuates the story with a sarcastic: ‘“Glamorous!’”
This is a weird moment of uncertainty and ambivalence in Betts’ life. At 28, he’s feeling the competing tugs of youthful freedom and adult responsibility. It’s a coming-and-going phase.
He moved back to Greensboro from Phoenix in November, leaving behind a wife and baby daughter.
The story of Betts and his wife is simple, and a little like the song ‘“Cold Shot’”: ‘“It was a good thing that went bad,’” he says. ‘“She wants me to come back, but we’ll have to see. It’s a time issue.’”
He’s committed to his young daughter, Victoria, though.
‘“She’s the light of my life,’” he gushes. Victoria is the reason he still works day jobs, he says. He went to visit her in Phoenix last month. He can’t wait to see her again because she’s growing up so fast.
As he puts his new family on hold, old family ties are being renewed. Some cousins showed up for the gig tonight. Most notably, his father, whom he hadn’t seen in nine years, came to see him.
‘“It was strange,’” he says, shaking his head in wonder. ‘“He said hey, and I turned around and got to talkin’, and then he was gone.’”
This won’t be the end of it.
‘“There will definitely be some phone calls,’” he says. ‘“He told me to come over for dinner.’”
The first call was made by Betts to his father on Christmas Eve.
‘“There’s a brother and sister I haven’t met,’” he says. ‘“The boy picked up the phone and said, ‘We want to meet you, Tim.””
Those relationships will be built, but for now he’s looking forward to seeing his good friend Cyril Lance, a local blues phenomenon in his own right, take the stage at the end of the night here at the Blind Tiger.
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