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The first Gun Club LP, Fire of Love (Slash), merges the influence of Robert Johnson, Son House and Charlie Patton with a guitar-as-weapon approach. Gun Club even covers Johnson's "Preaching the Blues," turning it into an ode to the idol of singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The record is pure, messed-up Delta blues, with Ward Dotson's gritty guitar blazing over Pierce's moans. Fire of Love has been recently re-released by Slash, which sees the re-emergence of the blues as a heavy influence on contemporary new music.
Kleber makes the important point that a lot of the noise that gets pegged as blues-influenced is really closer to unstructured experimentation: "I think a lot of these blues-based punk bands came out of the dissonant thing, not with the actual conscious idea of playing the blues. They play along the lines of Beefheart, or even the first Alice Cooper LP."
While the term "alternative blues" does sound like some intern-invented catch phrase, the idea is valid. Fact is, the blues have been encroaching on modern music for a while, and now more than ever, a form of messy, jaded blues expression is making itself known through the work of bands like Royal Trux (Neil Hagerty, ex of Pussy Galore, is the band's guitarist, and Kleber calls Trux the most authentic of the ragged, noisy-style bands), Railroad Jerk, and any project that involves or has involved Jon Spencer, which list includes Pussy Galore, Pontiac Brothers, Boss Hog and his current band, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
The Blues Explosion recently released Extra Width (Matador), a disk with debts to many forms of blues, from the Booker T and the MGs influence to Funkadelic to Sonny Boy Williamson imprecations. Spencer recorded part of the album in Memphis because, he explains, "that's where a lot of our influences have come from -- the Stax sound, Sun Studios stuff."
"Ever since I started listening to rock and roll," Spencer continues, "the kind of stuff I liked best was very, very simple, the crude stuff. And I think the best blues is that way. But when I hear of a band described as a blues band, or a club called a blues club, I think it sounds pretty boring. What most people's idea of a blues band is is pretty lousy music. To me, if you can just set up and play, and make people dance or feel good, you're doing it right."
Mike Bagley, a new music programmer at community station WMNF in Tampa, says there is a resurgence of dirty, simple rock and roll. "A lot of the older New York bands are into the older blues, and bands like Royal Trux are big fans of the bluesier Rolling Stones stuff. Yes, I think there is a big movement towards that form of music, especially in the bigger markets. I think it's a situation where the artists have exhausted themselves with what they've done previously. In the instance of the Blues Explosion, Jon Spencer has always played close to the blues, like with Pussy Galore, but now it's more stripped-down."
It's a grand idea, that a whole wave of musicians is bent on drawing from a tradition that has paved the road for some of the best music ever made. The feeling that there is some gravitation toward the past, without the urge to replicate, is gratifying. And that past is one in which sounds were transposed with the inaugural wave of recording technology. The emotion was what counted when the music was being documented. Not coincidentally, lo-fi recording is a prominent feature of the new blues
Kleber says, "I'd hate to think of anybody fucking up the blues intentionally. I don't believe it is a conscious thing, but more of a blend of punk rock and the blues, because for so many people like myself, punk rock is the first line of musical reference, then comes that secondary influence. Right now, for a lot of people, that influence is the blues."
"Any of the good bands," Spencer concludes, "what they're trying to do with the blues kind of music is to get back to the rawer, pure stuff."
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays at 9 p.m. Thursday, December 2, at the Shimmy Shack, 4216 Washington Ave. $5. Call 863-7383 for more info.
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