Digging the Delta

The Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the blues -- the trunk from which most worth-a-damn American popular music branched -- has been out of the mainstream spotlight for years. It's been out of the spotlight since the Depression, in fact, when second- and third-generation players began to migrate to the urban blues hotbeds of Chicago, Detroit and other points north, carrying with them the legacies of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and an endless array of Mississippi blues kings.

But just because Muddy, B.B. and company took the spotlight with them doesn't mean the music in the Delta died. A few of the acoustic greats from the early days, including Bukka White, Son House and Skip James, were "rediscovered" there by '60s folk revivalists, who spread the music they found across the country. More recently, a new batch of players has emerged from the region, toting electric guitars, drums and basses and playing insistent, throbby rural rhythms. It's that country flavor that still dominates the Delta sound, as three of its most noteworthy practitioners will demonstrate at Billy Blues Saturday night.

Topping the bill is R.L. Burnside, who's just hitting his stride at age 69 in the wake of a starring role in writer Robert Palmer's 1992 documentary, Deep Blues. A student of Mississippi Fred McDowell's, Burnside tends toward the darker shades of blues, his thumb strumming as relentless and pounding a beat as John Lee Hooker (another Delta emigre) at his baddest. After a few hundred bars, his licks run together like primal ooze, especially when he's working a slide up and down his guitar's neck. After a few hundred bars more, subtleties emerge, accentuated by the timely whacks of son-in-law Calvin Jackson on drums and son Dwayne on bass. If the music's finer points are obscured in a smoke and whiskey haze, that won't trouble Burnside; he's too busy growling about bad luck and trouble to notice.

Corey Harris, however, hardly fits the Delta mold. He's from Denver, for one thing, and his lengthy stay in Cameroon forever bent his playing toward even rootier roots than are found in the Mississippi mud. But as a young interpreter of the original acoustic tradition (he's in his mid-twenties), Harris has few peers. He plays Patton, Johnson and the others on a vintage National steel not as a mimic but as an interpreter, adding inventions of his own that are somehow truer to the originals than the versions of the many pretenders who copy the transcriptions note for note.

When he's not playing the blues, Paul "Wine" Jones welds for a living, which is perhaps the reason his music has an electric spark atop its cotton-field foundation. Like Burnside, Jones hammers his songs into submission, but he adds a progressive touch, using a wah-wah pedal and other relatively low-tech means for extra thrust. Out of his way, or he'll kill you.

-- Bob Burtman
R.L. Burnside, Corey Harris and Paul "Wine" Jones perform at 9 p.m. Saturday, December 7, at Billy Blues Bar & Grill, 6025 Richmond Avenue. Tickets are $12. For info, call 266-9294.

Gerhard Stabler -- German composer Gerhard Stabler's work isn't so much about music as it is about sound and sensation, and his performances couldn't be farther afield from what most would consider the traditional concert experience. You could call what he does avant-garde, with its various references to high-modernist European composers such as Karl Stockhausen and a nod here and there to John Cage and other American minimalists. But dropping names fails to capture Stabler's contrasting essence. A product of Germany's radical street theater movement of the '70s -- during which time he created music for several plays -- Stabler combines bar codes, animal sounds, Morse code, bits of poetry and sound bites from various mainstream media for an end-of-the-century soundtrack that pits culture against culture, nature against technology, noise against silence. Among the works Stabler will perform in Houston are Karas.Krahen, a piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima; Hart auf Hart, a collection of bar codes translated into sound; and a collaborative piece that will enlist the talents of a number of local artists. At DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, at 8 p.m. Sunday, December 8. Tickets are $10; $7 for gallery members, students and seniors. 223-8346. (Hobart Rowland)

David Sanborn -- For someone who took up saxophone to deal with the effects of a childhood bout with polio, David Sanborn has certainly made the most of his medicinal muse. His balancing of sophistication, phrasing and passion enables him to draw from a wellspring of jazz, R&B and funk influences, infusing the results with a wit and precision all his own. Starting in the '70s with standout performances on Stevie Wonder's Talking Book and David Bowie's Young Americans, Sanborn has gone on to record 15 releases of his own, host a TV show (Night Music) and travel the globe on countless tours. Reluctant to rest on his laurels, Sanborn has taken his signature alto sax from the Booker T.-meets-hip-hop edge of 1991's Upfront to the smooth contemporary jazz of this year's Songs from the Night Before. And given Sanborn's fondness for hard work, there's no reason not to expect more where that came from. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, December 9 and 10. Tickets are $30 to $65. For info, call 869-TICS. (Brendan Doherty


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Bob Burtman
Brendan Doherty
Hobart Rowland