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.
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.