Sweet little mention in the sunday London Times. Read on:
Blues is the poor relation of roots music. Its brethren, folk and country, are reviving left, right and centre, but blues, if not quite the genre time forgot, is a tradition most of us are forgetting. Why?
One reason is that it’s so fundamental to rock (where would the Rolling Stones be without Muddy Waters?), we no longer hear its echo; another is that even its newest stars are often old-timers. Seasick Steve, a sixty-something, poor-white rambler, has made the most waves lately. Before him, it was T-Model Ford, one of the outlaw OAPs discovered by the enthusiastic Fat Possum label and still doing their thang in rural Mississippi. The original bluesmen are a rich seam of coal; once spent, damn hard to replace.
A lot of modern blues falls down by being too slick. BB King, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray are as guilty as their white imitators of the kind of showy soloing that puts fret-boarding before feeling. For all his pyrotechnics, Jimi Hendrix, a bluesman to his core, never made that mistake. Even in his day, though, the number of young black musicians playing blues was declining, as culture moved on. Today, hip-hop makes the older guys into heritage attractions, and the likes of Keb’ Mo’ seem almost anomalous.
Blues now is in some unexpected places. Like Bridgend, South Wales, home to the genre’s equivalent of Kerrang!, Blues Matters. Alongside trad and neo-blues acts, it features blues-influenced indie bands such as the White Stripes and the Black Keys. The latter’s new album, the superb Attack & Release, finds the Ohio duo anchored in early 1970s British blues-rock. Then there is Lake Elmo, Minnesota, host to the Deep Blues festival, a powwow of America’s punk-blues underground from July 18-20 (its MySpace page has a handy who’s who).
And finally, try Mali, via the Barbican. This month’s Blues: Back to the Source concert explores links between the Deep South and West Africa, with Otis Taylor and ngoni ace Bassekou Kouyate. Taylor’s excellent new album, Recapturing the Banjo, reclaims the instrument’s black, slave-era history but is no museum piece. The music is fresh and compelling, and his own material keenly felt. Add to that his educational work in American schools, and Taylor is the strongest advocate the blues, in its classic form, has.
The mainstream still tips its hat to the genre when seeking credibility, as the blonde soul hopeful Beth Rowley does with Nobody’s Fault but Mine. It will take more than sweet covers of Blind Willie Johnson, however, to keep blues going. Maybe Cadillac Records, the movie now in development about the Chess label, which stars Beyoncé as Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, will inspire someone to shake things up; or maybe we just have to broaden our terms. Arguably, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy was the best blues song in years, so perhaps the blues flame is already being kept alive in different – sometimes radically different – ways in the 21st century. What do some of its proponents think?
Vocalist/guitarist, the Black Keys
“We can’t use the word ‘blues’ any more, it’s too far down the line. It applied to a couple of decades, but styles have branched out, overlapped and intertwined. Even Junior Kimbrough [the late Fat Possum artist] wasn’t really playing blues. Growing up, he listened to Al Green and rockabilly. Today, Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the True Loves are awesome, but theirs is a throwback sound. People should stop worrying about categori-sation and just go with it; that’s what we do.
Blues is my foundation, but as for making the true music, that’s gone.”
“Right now, there’s a revolution going on, but people aren’t walking with signs. It’s not just one person, one label or one promoter; it’s about festivals such as the Chicago, Cisco Ottawa and Telluride, and musicians such as Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris and Chris Thomas King. Some people don’t like it that I push the blues envelope, but Taj Mahal once said to me, ‘Otis, never stop doing what you’re doing!’ ”
Editor-in-chief, Blues Matters
“There’s always a sense of menace with the greatest bluesmen. Ian Siegal has it, and I can’t think of any other British blues artist who’s ever had it. His vocals have an authority and sway that’s lacking in British music generally. His powerful covers are worthy of high praise, but it’s his original material, married to his intimidating persona, that gives me hope he can transcend the blues circuit and make a broader impression. Swagger, his current album, says it all.”
Martin Scorsese has done a great job of archiving the blues and bringing it to a wider audience. For me, it’s about emotion rather than going through the motions. The Blind Boys of Alabama haven’t had to change their music to attract large audiences – it’s so engaging. Tom Waits and Jack White are both steeped in the blues and have brought its emotion to a new audience.”
“A recent convert to long-distance running, I spend a lot of time buried in headphones, racking up the miles. My soundtrack has a healthy dose of dubstep, courtesy of my man Mala, from Digital Mystikz. It’s bass-heavy, future-blues music, with a nice touch of melodic experimentation – constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries, a direct reflection of our environment.”