Monday, January 5, 2015

Old, New, Borrowed, Blues

There was an interesting feature article by Laura Barton in the Guardian the other day, entitled 'The New Blues'.  Acknowledging that the story of the blues is a story of evolution and metamorphosis, she asks: "where does it [the blues] now stand, and where is it headed?"
Her response is that "the blues has begun to twist and turn again, with a raft of new artists embracing and emboldening the form.  Where the blues of the White Stripes was sparse and pared-back, the latest take seems fuller, more elaborate".  As examples she cites Benjamin Booker, Alabama Shakes, Rag'N'Bone Man's "melding of hip-hop and blues", and "the twisted desert blues of DD Dumbo".
Now, I like Laura Barton's writing on music.  I find it thoughtful, wide-ranging, and now and then quite beautiful.  She can invoke the very personal meaning to her of a song or an artist, perhaps at a particular time, to unlock new insights for me as a reader.  I also have to confess that to date the music of Rag'N'Bone Man and DD Dumbo has yet to reach my ears, though I do have Benjamin Booker's album, and I'm passingly familiar with Alabama Shakes.  And with all that in mind I have to say that I don't think Laura is tapping into anything new or distinctive here.
The essential problem with her premise is that in the course of its reinvention of itself over the last century, its encouragement of a thousand flowers to bloom, the blues has already hooked up with some of the forms that her examples quote as elements in their sound.  Maybe their approach offers a different slant, and good on these explorers for their travels, but let's not kid ourselves that they are boldly going where no artist has gone before.  Indeed one of the defining characteristics of the blues is that its connectedness to many forms of popular western music is already wired in - it doesn't take much thought to realise that it sits at the nexus of not just gospel and jazz, or other black genres such as soul and funk, but also rock'n'roll, rockabilly, blues-rock, country, folk, Americana and even bluegrass.
Just have a think about of Robert Plant for a minute.  Zeppelin didn't just plunder R&B standards and turn up the volume.  'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You', 'Gallows Pole' and 'Battle of Evermore' all added a folk dimension, while 'Kashmir' drew on Arabic sounds.  His 80s album Now And Zen played around with hip hop sampling.  When he reunited with Jimmy Page for Unledded, 'Yallah' and 'City Don't Cry' were both North African inspired, and the live performance included an Egyptian Ensemble.  And in recent years he's been exploring a variety of different sounds and directions - including his Grammy-award winning and - to my mind - deadly dull Raising Sand collaboration with Alison Krauss.
Which raises another question.  Just because something is new doesn't necessarily mean it's good.  No harm to Benjamin Booker, but I'm not convinced he's a breakthrough blues performer.  The opening track on his album, 'Violent Shiver', sounds like nothing so much as Stiff Little Fingers.  This may account for the enthusiasm of his label boss Geoff Travis, of Rough Trade, but doesn't necessarily make it original, and if it's any good it's not really much to do with a blues influence.  Have a listen to Tim Timebomb doing 'Sixteen Tons' or 'St James Infirmary' , and you'll hear a good example of punk inflected blues.  Those are covers, rather than original?  Okay, so try out the 2009 album The Disco Outlaw by Jack-O and the Tennessee Tearjerkers (aka Jack Yarber) which strikes me as a much more satisfying example of 'new wave blues'.
Thumbs up to Laura Barton for giving some airtime to contemporary blues.  But let's not try to insist that because something is new - if indeed it is new - it must be good, because it ain't necessarily so.  The blues will progress anyway, it always does.  And by the same token, let's not overlook something great simply because it isn't out of left field.

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