There are only two guys in 20 Miles, but they always manage to create a mini-ruckus. Brothers Donovan and Judah Bauer (the latter of the incomparable Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) dole out simple skronk that, while loud, is also tuneful. Even though the pair's second album, I'm a Lucky Guy, is a couple of years old, the brothers have taken advantage of a Blues X-Man hiatus and their own rejuvenated sense of purpose to launch an extended American tour for the first time.
"It's been a side project over the last couple years, but I'm starting to schedule specific time for it," says vocalist/guitarist Judah, noting that the novelty aspect of the band is starting to wear off. "It's okay in the beginning. It's amusing, and people will be interested, but after a while you've got to spend some time with it, otherwise it just becomes annoying.
"I don't really want to clog the airwaves with more music. The world doesn't really need another band, that's for sure." He laughs. "I figure I should get a little better at it, so I don't go to that special place in hell or wherever mediocrity sits. I'll have to give guitar lessons in hell."
As one of two guitarists in the incredible Blues Explosion, a band that draws from electric blues and eclectic funk, Judah has been able to stay out of the spotlight thanks to the outrageousness of the group's main man and namesake, Jon Spencer. Despite the fact that he's a stunning player, who relies on intuition and a wide knowledge of American music, Judah is worried about being a front man. He originally wanted to present his songs in an even simpler format, just him and his guitar. He thought, however, that the tunes weren't forceful enough for that spare context, so he added drums. Enter Donovan. (Like the Blues Explosion, 20 Miles uses no bass on its records, but when the group performs live, Jili Morsia plays the instrument on a handful of songs.)
"There's a little more anxiety, because when you're singing, you have to relate more," says Judah. "[Just playing] guitar, I could have put my head down and played. It's certainly hard to carry that weight in a live setting when people are used to having a full band. Sonically, you've really got to work hard. You've got to keep going. You can't stop. I'm used to that. I've been doing that for nine years with the Blues Explosion. With no bass you've got to keep moving, because if you stop there's nothing there to back you up. That's how I hear things. That's how I learned music. That's how I learned to write songs. There was never a bass to coast on; there were never any extras."
Formed in 1996, 20 Miles has released some seven-inchers on a few tiny labels, yet more telling is the company for which the duo releases its albums: Mississippi's Fat Possum imprint. The label serves primarily as a way to catalog Delta blues artists, such as Asie Payton, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford and R.L. Burnside, whose brand of raw, electric blues is dying out. Its practitioners are knocking on heaven's door as well: Burnside has had heart problems, and Kimbrough died last year. Judah has recorded with Burnside and Ford, but he knows that the music's time is almost up.
"I knew what raw and sloppy was in the music that I played, but theirs has this looseness and rawness that I can't relate to because of who I am and where I'm from and my upbringing," Judah says. "Maybe some of it has to do with being white and them being black. Everybody's going to call me a racist, but whatever. I'm not. Talking to T-Model and people like that, it's like, 'Can a white person play the blues?' And they'll say no, they've never seen it. R.L.'s a little more diplomatic than that, but I don't believe him. It's a problem: A lot of [white] people out there think they're playing the blues, but it's bad. They just sound like cover bands. We saw a lot of that in Europe. It was depressing."
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Without obvious heirs apparent, the old-school bluesmen are not able to pass on their vast knowledge. Judah has learned some things from them, but there are others that just can't be taught. "They have a way of learning things where they just pick things up," says Judah. "I try and figure stuff out, and T-Model or R.L., they'll just say you gotta take it easy, you gotta take your time. And that's something I can't relate to, because playing punk rock it was just like, 'Get out there and do it.' They're really in the moment, very spontaneous. And that has a certain edge to it because it is what they're feeling. It puts it more in the moment. It's hard playing with those guys, because it's almost like a meditation for me because I have to be in the moment. I don't know what they're going to do."
When it comes to his own songs, Judah admits he usually knows where they're headed, claiming that he has a "very narrow aesthetic." Nonetheless, there's enough variation on Lucky Guy to keep it interesting. From the acoustic, almost ambient, fingerpicking of "Pure As Gold" to the barn-burnin', foot-stompin' "Highwater," the record is a good mix of classic blues and indie-rock songwriting. Judah knows his blues as well as his limitations. He admits that his songwriting is limited to the genre.
"I have to keep it that way, because I don't have huge bucketloads of talent to throw around, so I have to keep it tight," he says with a laugh. "Just playing with a guitar and drums, that was enough to try to write a song with that lineup. I couldn't really add a lot more to it because I thought the songs would lose focus. My singing is pretty limited. I can coast over the note on that. I try to work within a pretty narrow framework. Adding other stuff just throws me, because I can't tell if it's good. It's so easy to go into overkill. It's hardest to make it simple and make it good."
20 Miles performs Thursday, February 17, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh. For more information, call (713)521-0521.