I wore out my cassette tape of Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon back in high school. To me, guitarist Jake E. Lee had the fire, a hint of the blues, and just the right amount of sinister in his playing. Later on, Jake’s band Badlands released two of the most perfect hard rock albums ever. The debut did well based on the singles “Dreams in the Dark” and “Winter’s Call”. The second record, Voodoo Highway was even bluesier than the first but also a masterpiece. Jake’s status as one of my favorite players was cemented in place. My good friend Andy had the good fortune to see Badlands in concert after that second album. To this day he can affirm to me just how incredible that experience was. Somehow, I never saw Lee play live, in any incarnation. It has always been a missed opportunity on my list of “must see” guitarists.
After several years of sporadic output and side projects, Jake formed Red Dragon Cartel and released their eponymous debut in 2014. It was a good return to form for the guitarist. In 2018 the band released its second album Patina. Hearing songs like “Crooked Man” and “Havana” reminded me just how much I have always liked Lee’s playing, especially his intricate rhythm parts. When I realized they were playing outside of Atlanta in a few weeks time the decision was instantaneous. My friend Andy and I quickly decided we needed to go see them.
Tickets purchased, it was a mild spring day when I headed to Atlanta from Knoxville. With the weather warming it was a good excuse to pull the convertible out for a road trip. I took back roads all the way down. I enjoyed the scenery of farm country and mountains as I ran through my playlist of Red Dragon songs. Driving through back country is always more fun, plus you never fail to see quirky little businesses in tiny towns (shout out to ‘Kathy’s Cownty Kitchen’).
Once in Atlanta, Andy and I caught up for a bit over a meal. The talk between us always steers back to music and we found ourselves dissecting the merits of everything from modern pop to Ace Frehely.
Showtime. We pulled up outside 37 Main in Buford GA. Turns out this is a great bar/rock club complete with memorabilia on the walls and a big open space in front of its stage area. Large screens give patrons in other areas of the bar a view of the stage. The lights go down, and we see Jake E. Lee step up onstage with a friendly wave to the crowd. As singer Darren James Smith and bassist Anthony Esposito take their places, drummer Phil Varone lets one bass drum thud out. The single beat hit me square in the chest. This was going to be loud.
They rip into the first song, and there is the magic. Jake is about 10 feet from us and the swagger I’ve always admired in videos of him is now taking place right in front of me. I’ve always liked Lee’s stage presence. He weaves and shifts his balance in a way that always seemed naturally cool to me. He never comes across as posing or acting. He’s just reacting.
Another treat was seeing him play not only his signature black and white Charvel guitar, but also his blue guitar I associate with his Ultimate Sin-Ozzy days. For one song he broke out a beautiful Gibson ES-355.
The band flawlessly went through the Red Dragon Cartel material. For me, the highlights were their songs “The Luxury of Breathing“, and “Ink and Water”. Both of these gave them a chance to stretch out. Darren James Smith has a casual way of bantering with the audience that doesn’t come across as scripted (that’s a good thing). Anthony Esposito, who has played alongside plenty of amazing guitarists is great because he is just so solid. He doesn’t make mistakes, and he was locked into Varone’s drums like a well-oiled machine.
I couldn’t help but wonder what material they may cover from Jake’s past. I was pleasantly surprised. Besides the perhaps (?) expected “Highwire”, the band covered “3 Day Funk”. This is an all time favorite of mine, a deep-cut from Badlands second album. Jake was so animated during the breakdown/instrumental section it gave me goosebumps! He was on fire. In a nod to his Ozzy days, the band played the seldom heard bonus track “Spiders”. This was a great treat for hard-core fans, and perhaps a bit of a tease to casual fans who expected to hear “Bark at the Moon”.
Red Dragon Cartel in summary, performed flawlessly while at the same time in a casual manner. The kind of “at ease” professionalism only possible after a life time of practice.
The next day there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I dropped the top and raced through the mountain twisties back towards Tennessee. The whole ride I played various Jake E. Lee songs, reliving the great show I had just witnessed. One more artist on my “must see” list checked off.
By Peter Harris