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Back when the Beatles jetted to India to grovel at the Maharishi’s feet, slews of other bands were making pilgrimages to gurus who had nothing but empty wallets and bad vibes: the American blues masters to whom they owed their careers. Bearing record contracts instead of beads, the rockers came not just to pay homage but to jam. The resulting summit meetings offered the earnest longhairs a stamp of authenticity, while the bluesmen—along with the record companies—were interested in the cash.
Alienating blues and rock fans alike, these mostly mediocre records haunted cutout bins for years: Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, Hooker ’n’ Heat, Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons, among too many. Inevitably, an air of civility neuters the music, as if the young guitar heroes were nervous schoolboys performing at a recital, and the elders simply showed up to render polite judgment. (Still, bands like Canned Heat hold up well, if only as dedicated revivalists. After all, who then could have predicted Blues Traveler and the other horrors to come?) The worst were nothing more than vanity productions, such as Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker’s turgid 10-minute-11-second duet, “No One Gets Out of These Blues Alive,” made worse by Van the Man’s snoring moans.
After years of merciful silence, the blues-rock bed-in fad enjoyed a one-shot revival in 1988 when U2 and B.B. King collaborated on a celebrity sing-along called “When Love Comes to Town.” Part of Bono’s now-forsaken Search for the Soul of America, the enlistment of King also proved a deft commercial move, coming at a time when mainstream audiences had finally begun to embrace the blues—not as the cornerstone of American music but as the ultimate beer-commercial Muzak. The song brought out the worst in both performers: Bono’s histrionic posturing, and B.B.’s King-of-the-Blues routine, honed on countless TV talk shows. Hearing the song today as a staple of classic-rock radio is a revelation: Just substitute “Bud” for “love” and you can almost see the beer truck, good ol’ Boner at the wheel, pulling up to Dan Aykroyd’s House of Blues for a delivery of cold-filtered bombast.
In 1996, any dickweed with a Red Dog in one hand and a harmonica in the other claims to be playing the blues: It’s a bona fide recreational activity now, a nightcap after a hard day of snowboarding and hang gliding. Meanwhile, Musician mag poster-boy Robert Cray is revered as an elder statesman, and Bonnie Raitt is hailed as the world’s greatest slide guitar player. Enthusiasts crow about a blues renaissance when in fact these are dark days, especially when you consider the projects some coked-up record exec might be contemplating: Hooker ’n’ Hootie, Raitt fronting Stone Temple Pilots, or Cray teaming with alternative yodeler Jewel. (Don’t laugh, the entertainment biz has never been sicker.)
Matador has already beaten the conglomerates to the punch by pairing up a couple of kindred spirits and heroes of their respective underground scenes: blues man R.L. Burnside and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Unlike those earlier fathers-and-sons get-togethers, there are no big-headed reputations and bullshit hype to live down, and the result is an off-kilter shocker. Though it probably won’t sell squat, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is an astounding success, an over-amped, ferocious assault on standard notions of the blues—as well as a damn fine party record.
The 69-year-old Burnside first came to national attention in Deep Blues, a 1991 film documentary about the thriving blues scene in the north Mississippi hill country. Unlike the well-known Delta blues, the hill country style features repetitive droning rhythms derived from the region’s fife-and-drum tradition; its most famous practitioner was the late Fred McDowell, from whom Burnside learned as a young boy. Even more than his mentor (whose notorious I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll album was recently reissued on CD), Burnside punishes his guitar as if it’s a percussion instrument, banging out torrents of one-chord patterns that resemble voodoo incantations: “The essential character of R.L.’s blues is chaos-on-wheels,” raves critic Robert Palmer, who produced a Burnside record. “It rocks as hard as any music on the planet while spreading sonic waves of sex and mayhem far and wide.” Capped by Burnside’s bellowing baritone, this is a wild, unpredictable racket, its slashing cross-rhythms bearing little relation to the formulaic 12-bar blues that sells suds.
Like his neighbor Junior Kimbrough, Burnside has played the local roadhouses all his life, but it wasn’t until the late ’60s that he made his first recordings. Since the early ’90s, he and Kimbrough have been the stars of the tiny independent Fat Possum label, launched in Oxford, Miss., by former editor of Living Blues magazine Peter Lee. Burnside’s initial Fat Possum releases were mostly studio re-creations of his raucous shows, but 1994’s Too Bad Jim proved an artistic breakthrough: Backed by a band including his son Dwayne and fellow McDowell disciple Kenny Brown, Burnside rewired old standards like “Shake ’Em on Down” and “Old Black Mattie” into ferocious five-minute excursions into pure rhythm. Moreover, “When My First Wife Left Me” and several originals detailed Burnside’s hard-luck themes mined from firsthand experience (further confirmed by a jarring liner note about his dog Buck, featured in the cover photo: “killed in a drive-by shooting”). Not just some fossil of primitive blues, the grizzled, graying former student had founded his own school.
In the spring of 1995, Burnside went further into uncharted territory, touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the bassless alt-rock trio boasting a bit of a misnomer: Spencer’s interest in the “blues” is mostly an ex-punker’s fascination with black music in general: The band’s records, metallic odes to ’70s funk and soul stylings, garnered a backlash along with a cult following—with critics charging that Spencer patronized his sources and that the band’s stance was an empty pose. For sure, it’s always been hard to take his affected singing (mostly an endlessly chanted “The Blues Explosion is Number One!”), which resembles Nicholas Cage doing his Elvis impersonation. As for the music, last year’s guest-produced, dub-crazy Experimental Remixes proved that once you turn the levels down on Spencer’s vocals, the band rivals Royal Trux, Come, and Detroit’s unheralded Mule for a volatile concoction of punk attitude and blues-rock combustion.
The band’s collaboration with Burnside should answer the naysayers once and for all: Not even co-billed (despite the fact that Matador’s their label), the members of the Blues Explosion meet Burnside and Brown head-on, and both sides win. Recorded one afternoon in Mississippi, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey makes a bruising, dirty noise, profane and full of menace and graveyard humor. You can hear echoes of Howlin Wolf’s early-’50s Memphis band led by Willie Johnson, but there are also shards of distortion that recall Exile on Main Street and the Stooges’ Funhouse and Raw Power.
At the heart of the din, always, is Burnside: His crabbed, stubbornly repetitive guitar work is the backbone of this beastly squall. No matter how much holy hell the young ’uns raise, he’s still running the show. On the album cover, he’s depicted in a lurid drawing: He’s lunging drunkenly forward in an undershirt and falling pants, clutching his belt like a whip, glaring malevolently, back turned to a couple of curvy blondes with—what else?—ass pockets of booze bulging from their cutoff shorts. R.L.’s obviously got mean things on his mind, evil notions that get a full airing in these songs.
In “The Criminal Inside Me,” Burnside celebrates a backwoods party crasher, a “little squirt” loaded down with booze and a .44 and ready for action: “I got a ass pocket of whiskey and front pocket of gin,” he warns. “If you don’t open this door, I’m gonna kick the motherfucker in.” Few gangsta rappers have sounded as convincing. “Goin’ Down South,” begins with his woman leaving (“I heard her feet…”) only to descend into a mojo-stalker’s anthem (“Goin’ with you, babe, goin’ with you, babe/I don’t care where you go”) chanted over a four-guitar firestorm that Henry Rollins would kill for. In “2 Brothers,” R.L. tells of twins finding trouble after hopping a fence in the wee hours: “‘I feel something running down my leg,’ said one, and then the other brother said, ‘I sure hope that’s blood—I hope you ain’t broke that goddam bottle of gin.’” In a weird talking-blues vamp called “Tojo Told Hitler,” R.L. imagines a phone conversation between the Japanese general and Adolph: “Not a goddamn thing you told me came out right/I thought you said them Allies couldn’t fight.” Then comes a typically far-out non sequitur: “The bee stung the bull and got them to bucking/Eve and Adam broke the law and started the whole world a-fucking.”
Throughout these anarchic proceedings—as much drinking session as jam—Spencer seldom sings and only rarely even approaches the mike, wisely playing the fool (and occasional bartender) to Burnside’s old man of the hills. Mostly, he exhorts and baits R.L., at one point asking if he can borrow 40 nickels for a bag of potato chips: “If you don’t get out of my face quick,” snarls Burnside. “I’m gonna kick your ass, you son of a bitch!” It’s all in good fun, but it only makes you wonder what R.L. might do if he really was pissed off.
Though there’s a good deal of playful trash-talking, the music itself never gets frivolous. Burnside’s updating of “Walking Blues” retains Robert Johnson’s sense of dread, as Spencer’s eerie theremin bleats take the blues into the twilight zone. In the album’s standout, another version of McDowell’s “Shake ’Em on Down,” Burnside pays tribute not only to his past but to the punks crowding into the tiny, makeshift studio. Even compared to the revamped take on Too Bad Jim, this one positively cooks. Burnside begins the trancelike rhythm, and one by one the musicians join in, building a big wall of sound. There are barely two verses to this song, and they don’t matter anyway. This is dangerous stuff, carried away by its own sheer force. Judah Bauer’s harmonica wails dart like a shoo-fly in and out of the swirling sound, which somehow remains at once solid and precarious—just imagine a cement-mixer without brakes rumbling down some winding country road.
Contemporary blues boosters point out that there are more blues records being released than ever before, as if the sheer bulk suggests a resurgence. But despite Fat Possum and other maverick independent labels, the genre is as standardized as any in the music industry; unfortunately, Burnside’s sonic barbecue is a bizarre fluke rather than a harbinger of better things. The blues has been polished into a package of empty virtuosity, and even the old lions have lost their fangs in favor of clean, white dentures: “He plays the same note that he perfected 25 years ago, and he acts like he’s got to sweat to get the note out of the goddamn guitar,” author Albert Murray groused about B.B. King in a recent interview. King may have earned the right to rest on his laurels, but no such excuses can be made for the showboat, feel-good soloing that now defines the blues for so many.
But R.L. Burnside proves that not everybody has closed their back door on what used to be castigated—and even outlawed—as the devil’s music. As Palmer recalls in the liner notes of Too Bad Jim, “And then there was the time R.L. drifted past a microphone that just happened to be recording, muttering darkly to himself: ‘The Devil: that’s who I’ve been serving.’ The scary thing is that R.L. thought nobody was listening.” A Ass Pocket of Whiskey provides compelling evidence that Burnside was making no empty boast.CP