New Blues

When Keith Richards finally got around to starting a band, he was regarded as a blatant and cheap imitator of Chuck Berry. "I used to slavishly copy Chuck Berry," Richards recently admitted. But it was Richards' adoration for the blues/boogie style that set the stage for one of the most influential bands in the history of music and the best for the four years from 1969 to 1972.

In its barest form, the blues is an incredibly boring format, as formulaic as any form of music can be. When the Beatles looked across the water and decided that what Buddy Holly was doing to them was an acceptable, even cool perversion, a patina of credibiltiy was handed to an entire generation of cloying rock-and-roll amateurs. But while America was burning up with package tours of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Roy Orbison, England was listening and digging the true blues hard. The British wave of R&B-influenced music raged at the start of the '60s and affected pop music forever, but the essential precedent of rock and pop lies in the blues. Even today, to listen to an old John Lee Hooker record, all scratch and hiss, evokes the true spirit of rock and roll.

Bo Diddley claims, with some truth, that he was a catalyst for crossover R&B: ÒWhen I made the record Bo Diddley in 1955, it turned the whole music scene around. When I made that record, it got airplay and everybody freaked out. Caucasian kids threw Beethoven in the garbage can. Kids were hollering, 'Hey, I like that. I want to play a guitar.'" That record ended up selling 200,000 and blended the blues with a newer, more accentuated form of music that was to become rock and roll.

Today, as alternative continues to meld with pop music, the rock-and-roll pastiche takes on many forms, often freeing up the more underground sounds to ferment, even bloom. Such is the case with a growing number of blues-based alternative bands. Surgery, Laughing Hyenas and Boss Hog all hold the 12-bar in their breast when they exude their punk noise. All might aptly be called punk bluesmen and blueswomen, deconstructing the sound of traditional blues and coming up with their own expression of the oldest American music. Hyenas singer John Brannon once termed his band's sound the "soul music of the suburbs." The common denominator of the blues/alt meld is a tapping of the primitive spirituality that gives credence to the blues.

Atlantic Records thinks Surgery is an exemplary, marketable alternative blues-based band, and it's easy to see why. Scott Kleber's Mick Taylor-esque leads snake through the pounding, swampy 12-bar of the Surgery sound. Vocalist/rhythm guitarist Sean McDonnell sees a lot more blues sneaking into the popular underground bands.

"I think that it's a valid point," McDonell says. "There has been a line of bands doing the noisier blues, and it's increasing. It gets into our sound heavily. We listen to a lot of blues, we all like Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson. Scott [Kleber, lead guitarist] likes Albert King. Our new album is gonna have a lot of slower blues. It's in us."

Kleber concurs that more bands feel the blues: "Blues was the direction I took when I got better than punk rock on my guitar. When I was able to play it, I wanted to do it, because it was the next step for me.

"I went to high school in New York City, so I could see any band I wanted to. In the early '80s, there was a lot of cool stuff going on, it was the last big blues surge -- Albert King, Lightning Hopkins, just before Muddy Waters died. The music is everywhere, and some punk musicians are bound to pick up on it."

Some of the best purveyors of twisted blues have split up, been rarely documented, or split off into other projects. Pussy Galore played a draining, cheaply sick version of the blues during its contentious existence. The band made a statement of some sort, part simple acknowledgement and part overblown but apt homage to their mentors, when they covered the whole of the Stones' Exile on Main Street. The Gibson Brothers have issued several full-length releases and a smattering of singles blending traditionally influenced originals with a smattering of older blues covers. Short-lived Minneapolis band the Bastards did a nasty, bellicose cover of "Bo Diddley" on its only LP, Monticello (Treehouse).

On the other hand, there are older artists who have relied heavily on the blues for most of their careers. Most of these started messing with the blues about the same time they formed their first band, and a degree of unlearned ineptitude spawned an authentic sound.

Nick Cave has had an ongoing affair with the blues since his days with the Birthday Party, due in no small part to the rollicking sneer of Roland HowardÕs guitar. But Cave went so far as to issue an entire record predicated on the blues in his vision: Kicking Against the Pricks (Homestead). Cave and the Bad Seeds covered Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, and delivered heartfelt versions on most attempts. The second Bad Seeds LP, First Born is Dead (Homestead), features a Blind Lemon Jefferson cover, and the whole project is an ode to the blues of the American South. Other heat-hazed tunes on the record are "Knocking On Joe," a dissipatively delivered blues sung from the view of the incarcerated, and, in homage to Elvis, "Tupelo."

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Steve Miller