It's official -- the blues is in again, if indeed it ever was out. Following the release of its epic DVD How the West Was Won, blues-rock icon Led Zeppelin is hotter than it's been since the 1980 day that John Bonham swilled enough vodka to poison a platoon of elite Russian commandos. Annie Leibovitz's coffee-table music book, liberally salted with blues pics snapped in and around Mississippi jukes, is due out soon. PBS gave over a whole week to Martin Scorsese and his hand-picked dream team of directors. The White Stripes hobnob with the glitterati in Switzerland. Eighties college rock icon Paul Westerberg has succumbed, too -- he's now recording the stuff under the nom de blues Grandpaboy -- and so has '90s college rock icon Doug Martsch.
And today there's a whole battleship-load of hip and young blues-based bands, two of which -- the excellent Black Keys and the so-so 20 Miles, which is led by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion guitarist Judah Bauer -- will be in town in the next few days. A third -- the blistering Boston-based female guitar/drums duo Mr. Airplane Man -- plays October 22, so if you're getting this early you'll have a chance to see two of the best of these bands inside of a week.
Others of this ilk -- most of whom owe a tremendous debt to Jon Spencer, the father of post-punk blues and a guy whose contribution to the continued survival of the genre as a living, breathing thing is enormous -- include Bob Log III, the Immortal Lee County Killers, Pearlene, Bantam Rooster and many others. Meanwhile, the recordings recently released on the Oxford, Mississippi, label Fat Possum have galvanized musicians such as James Mathus & His Knockdown Society and the North Mississippi All-Stars.
No doubt many blues purists would likely despise the Spencer-spawned, punk-fueled groups. By now, there's a lot of mud for a blues fuddy-duddy to get stuck in; today, a blues purist could be anyone from somebody who believes it's all been downhill since the day Charley Patton died to someone who regards Eric Clapton as a true keeper of the flame. Locally, acoustic guitarist Harlem Slim would fall into the former camp, and KPFT DJs Smokin' Joe Montes and the Blues Hound would be in the latter, with most of the city's legions of blues bar bands falling somewhere in between.
The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, for one, is no purist. "The whole genre has been bastardized," he complained to an Australian paper this summer, "and turned into such a foul thing that I don't want to be part of a blues scene because of the bar-band garbage, all the bad clichés and beer-commercial things."
Mr. Airplane Man drummer Tara McManus agrees. "It's gotten to the same point with us!" she says excitedly over the phone from a tour stop in Los Angeles. "We had to take a break because in Boston we were getting known as like 'the best blues band in Boston' and we were like no, we're not a blues band! Please don't call us that! Then, the only people that wanted to give us gigs were like the House of Blues, and we would be on bills with these really wretched, wretched blues bands that played this generic, corny, uncreative, awful crap. It's so predictable and so standardized and so lame, and everybody just eats it up. They're like, 'Whoo! The blooze! Yeah! Sing the blooze!' We had to lay low for a while to get that stigma off of us."
We get the picture, but to call a band that covers Mississippi Fred McDowell, Howlin' Wolf and "Jesus on the Mainline" anything other than blues would not be right. The genre needs a name -- call it blues explosion or maybe post-punk blues, 'cause it is the blues, but, as Fat Possum label head Matthew Johnson once said of his label's products, it sure "ain't the same ol' blues crap."
What sets the music of the Black Keys and Mr. Airplane Man apart from any given blues band at any given roadhouse on any given Saturday night is the fact that Iggy Pop lurks more prominently in their pedigree than does Eric Clapton, and also, to hear them, you'd think there was no such thing as a "blues guitar slinger." And unlike most of the generic blues bands, these kids have taken the time and trouble to listen to the rootsy stuff on labels like Arhoolie, Yazoo and Folkways -- their chain of influence doesn't begin with Freddy King, Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" or the Allman Brothers' cover of "Stormy Monday." And as for the likes of Mathus and the All-Stars, they're based more on North Mississippi hypno-blues as performed by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside than the same-ol', same-ol' ba-bump ba-shwap from Chicago and the Delta.
As can be seen by their comments, people like Auerbach and McManus bring plenty of piss and vinegar to the table. McManus was a punk, and for her, Morphine was the gateway drug that led her to the blues. No, she didn't stick a needle in her arm -- we're talking about the Boston band, though either route to the music would have sufficed. Morphine's Mark Sandman turned McManus and Mr. Airplane Man singer-guitarist Margaret Garrett on to Howlin' Wolf, and now their band bears the name of one of the giant gravel-voiced Delta bluesman's songs.
Later, McManus heard Jessie Mae Hemphill and R.L. Burnside, both of whom were backed by killer drummers. "After that, a whole world opened up that was amazing," McManus enthuses. "And then I also really loved the old country blues that didn't really have drummers, but what they were doing on guitars was so rhythmic and interesting. A lot of the stuff that I like is so raw and on the edge. It's so expressive -- each of those old guys had their own style that was so unique. But now everyone is just the same old thing, over and over and over."
There's a parallel trend among black musicians, and just as Spencer is the father of post-punk blues, Taj Mahal can be seen as the founder of neotraditionalist blues. Taj pretty much had this genre to himself for a long time, but today, there are several young black musicians to keep him company. Keb' Mo' is most prominent among these postmodern, often acoustic-based players, but Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Otis Taylor are three excellent rivals, and each of them learned less about the blues from picking cotton and growing up listening to them than they did from hearing the music on records or catching shows as adults. They all hail from places like Denver and Oakland -- towns far off the beaten blues path. (A notable exception is Chris Thomas King, who though still in his mid-30s did learn the blues firsthand in his father's Baton Rouge bar.)
In contrast to the post-punk blues bands, who are in thrall to the music's power and naked emotion, the neotrad bluesmen often favor musical subtlety and lyrical wit. None is content to merely mimic people like Son House and Skip James -- each brings something new to the table. King recently made a hip-hop/blues album; Taylor's bleakly minimalist brand of blues features disturbing, bold lyrics about subjects like lynching and rape that the first-generation singers would only touch in code; Hart dabbles in rock, reggae, funk and country and employs neglected instruments such as the mandolin and banjo; and Harris flits from trad New Orleans jazz to ragtime to gutbucket Delta blues with consummate skill.
So the only thing these trends need now is a package tour. Sure, there are blues festivals out there already, but the average age of the attendees is about 45 or 50. What Racket envisions is a Bluesapalooza, if you will, one that will pack in the twentysomethings on up. In addition to the White Stripes and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, you could harvest a few more of the post-punk blues bands, round up some of the older Fat Possum cats, some Chicago legends such as Buddy Guy, perhaps get Robert Randolph to represent the gospel side, and a sprinkling of the neotraditionalists. Take all of this and throw it out there on the road together. Have a few different stages, but vary the lineup on each.
Each city also could have a local stage, with Houston's hosting the likes of Texas Johnny Brown, Gloria Edwards, Trudy Lynn, Little Joe Washington, J.W. Americana, Jimmy "T-99" Nelson, Grady Gaines, the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Calvin Owens, Sherman Robertson, I.J. Gosey, a reconstituted Jug O' Lightnin', the Mighty Orq, Washington Westcott and whatever project Eric Dane is involved in.
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Surely finding a sponsor wouldn't be hard. The breweries would fall over themselves, for one -- for whether you're talking about gutbucket Delta stuff, or the postmodern or neotrad blues, booze is part of the equation.
Hey, the whole thing could flop. But then again, it could help define a decade of American music, too.
It's that time of year again -- South By Southwest application time. To apply to perform, click over to the South By Web site at www.sxsw.com and fill out the application online. Then enclose in one package a CD or cassette of at least three original tunes, a photo, biography and press kit. Mail the packet to SXSW Music Festival, P.O. Box 4999, Austin, TX 78765. Final deadline is November 7, and there's a fee of $20 ($30 for hard-copy mail-in applications). Acts will be notified no later than February 6, 2004.