Friday, January 2, 2015

Journey to the Blues #2

About six years ago I was in the throes of separation and divorce, and in sore need of distraction, when an old friend winged me a heap of music via the internet.  None of it was familiar, and she explained that she’d recently come to the realization that she’d scarcely listened to anything new since about 1992.  But she’d come across a download site called emusic.com which only made available stuff from independent labels, and these were some of her discoveries.
So over the following weeks I began to acquaint myself with a variety of new names.  These included Crooked Still, who performed what I took to be a beguiling country song called ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ – as I was later to discover, actually a cover of a Robert Johnson song.  There was also Son of Dave, a bloke who mixed blues harp and beatboxing to considerable effect on a set that included ‘Crossroads Blues’, ‘Rollin’ an’ Tumblin’’, and ‘Mannish Boy’.  But the strongest impression was made by The Black Keys, a less than photogenic blues duo from Akron, Ohio - a place that I recalled as the home of a 70s punk/new wave scene made most famous by Pere Ubu.
They’re a big deal now of course, but when I first came across their debut album  The Big Come Up guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney were still largely unknown.  Here were some purveyors of stripped-down, fuzzed-up blues played with passion and feel but also a modern edge. It was like Jack White stopped dicking around with gimmicks, and instead got on with delivering a stream of catchy blues songs.  It didn’t fit into any kind of neat template I recognized, but I recalled the bluesier side of Rory Gallagher, the rumble of early George Thorogood, the raw appeal of early Beatles, and hints of Hendrix. Auerbach had a soulful voice, and coaxed a tuneful storm out of his guitar, while Carney laid down solid foundations and filled the gaps on drums. What's more, the two of them had the kind of tight but loose connection with each other that made the whole thing gel.
It was a potent brew, and in no time I’d got hold of two of their subsequent albums - thickfreakness from 2006, and Attack & Release from 2008, both of which more than lived up to the promise of their debut album. I actually managed to pick up a cd of the latter for three quid somewhere, and was tickled to find that for that derisory price I was also getting a dvd of the duo playing live.
For all that the recipe sounded basic, I realized that Auerbach and Carney weren't without a spirit of adventure. Attack & Release was produced by Danger Mouse, aka half of Gnarls Barkley, who was hardly someone I might have associated with this kind of down and dirty blues. Which just goes to show how much I knew, because he succeeded in adding some more delicate instrumentation and colour to the band's palette without destroying the fundamentals – and subsequently repeated the trick when collaborating with them on the albums that shot them to arena status.

Bemused and enthused by The Black Keys, I began to explore emusic.com myself, and before long found some other artists who turned me in the direction of the blues, such as Ian Siegal and the North Mississipi Allstars.  I was intrigued to discover, over time, that these three had particular connections to some key Mississippi blues figures, and to some extent to each other.
Meantime I was also listening to Planet Rock Radio, where I first came across Joe Bonamassa, who by now had broken through as a mainstream rock artist.  At first I wasn't terribly impressed, regarding his version of 'The Ballad of John Henry' as somewhat redundant in the face of Springsteen's Seeger Sessions recording of the same tale.  But gradually I was won over by songs such as 'Sloe Gin', 'Dust Bowl', and 'The Whale That Swallowed Jonah'.  Here was more evidence of new things happening in the realm of the blues, and it not only sharpened my enjoyment of the blues rock that had stayed with me since the 70s and 80s, it made me keen to explore further.  The journey took another step forward.

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