Roots Watch: The Not-Boring Blues

Barry Mazor | February 13th, 2013

slidebrothersEngine is an American roots music blog, and for all of our regular emphasis on country, Americana, bluegrass and occasional roots rock, it’s impossible to cover this arena without bringing up the blues. Without blues, all of those genres would have developed along a whole lot more one-note and delicate lines, if they’d been born at all. The challenge in talking about blues in 2013, though, is that, depending on when you happened to have come of age, you may well have long-since written off the whole arena as a relic of generations and experiences past, or as a resting place for self-indulgent repetitive output of noodling, middle-aged would-be rock guitar gods.  It’s long been commonplace, too,  to hear younger audiences (of all races, by the way) dismiss blues whole hog on much the same terms as traditional country—as downbeat, always-cryin’-about-something emanations of cranky old people, unaware by this point of the breadth of mood, and subject, wide age-range and instrumentation that had truly been the case in the field.

There’s no denying that the blues isn’t the hot pop music of the moment, as it was 80-90 years ago, and to a degree was again, only louder, 60 to 65 years ago. It did exhibit all the signs of becoming a “legacy” music after 1970, when, following an obvious core audience shift towards (white) rock fans, considerable disconnection from its home roots, and seemingly last-stand innovations from the Buddy Guy/Magic Sam generation of Chicago artists and Jimi Hendrix, it looked like reiteration, if sometimes by skilled musicians and singers, not invention, was the music’s fate.

This is the sort of month that can remind us all that none of those apparent dead ends truly were that: the innovation didn’t stop; the audience and its demands didn’t entirely go arena rock, the themes are not set in old stone.

There’s been no extension of the blues idiom more thrilling in recent years than what the kings of sacred steel guitar have been doing, in small part because their slide guitars have previously unavailable (or at least, unexploited) sustain capability. The key players, being spiritually committed members of The House of God Church, have not always been comfortable taking credit as blues innovators, but they transparently are that, if with an accent on the uplifting not the downbeat, on an often astonishing, powerful new CD out next week, (Robert Randolph Presents) The Slide Brothers. This cross-generational project puts sacred steel giants The Campbell Brothers (Chuck and Darick), Calvin Cooke, and Aubrey Ghent in one supergroup, and appearances by the more widely-known Randolph, Shemekia Copeland, and Hendrix bassist Billy Cox.  This would be a must-hear if only for the breathtaking Calvin Cooke-Chuck Campbell turns on several Elmore James blues, but there’s extraordinary skill, imagination and live-on-tracks freshness throughout.

Otis Taylor has been an exciting blues innovator for years, an early advocate for the reinvigoration of the blues banjo, an extender of the music with influences of modern trance to the point of running an “Otis Taylor Trance Blues Festival,” and an extender of blues subject matter, from the unexpectedly light autobiographical and sometimes quite serious political.  His new one, My World is Gone, is an unprecedented album length, blues-derived yet narrative exploration of Native American life and culture, today and yesterday, working with his friend Mato Nanji of the band Indigenous. If you went for musical explorations in this direction by Johnny Cash or Marty Stuart, check this out; it’s haunting, musically varied, (horns are involved) and ambitious in the best way—with accomplishment to meet the ambition.


Maybe you haven’t heard or even heard about Bobby Rush, a star of the African-American blues circuit, which, contrary to much under-informed commentary, has never died. The lively juke joint and auditorium audience involved is often the same women of a certain age seen decked out in fine hats at church the next morning, and their preference is for blues and soul of the unreservedly raunchy variety; Rush, nearly 80, has supplied that for decades.  (Album titles have included “Raw,” and “Lovin’ a Big Fat Woman.”)  His new Down in Louisiana, out next week, breaks that mold, stepping closer to “general” blues audience expectations, and such a rich, effective and sometimes funk-driven example of guitar, blues harp and Hammond organ blues results that it should be an ear-opener for those who’ve missed this lasting, ongoing career.

The Indiana, Bean Blossom-area based trio The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band is very much living proof that given instrumental prowess, unbridled, irreverent energy verging on punk (reflected also in their name), and using constant touring to hone the band’s tight rhythms rather than jam noodling, you can still come up with something tough, engaging and true.  They play fingerstyle National resonator guitar, washboard, and drums, respectively, and the “Reverend’s” vocals resonate too.  I’ve been playing their new Between the Ditches a lot, and think that could happen for you.


And also check out the more-discussed Ben Harper/Charlie Musselwhite collaboration Get Up! The veteran blues harp player and sometimes underestimated 40-something roots star turn out to make an engaging combination, focusing on Chicago flavored electric blues;  here’s an extended version you might not have heard about with a DVD added.

And by the way: Speaking of DVDs and bluesy soul, Bear Family has two new ones out, Walking the Floor Over You, parts 1 and 2, featuring four episodes each of circa-1965 color Ernest Tubb TV shows with Texas Troubadours that include young, clean-cut singer Willie Nelson, emerging drummer turned singer too, Jack Greene, and Leon Rhodes on guitar.  ET is axiomatic for me; you may claim to love country and not love the endlessly charming Ernest Tubb, but I just might be disinclined to entirely believe you. The shows are wonderful.  He sings “Waltz Across Texas.” And do remember, folks, as Mr. Tubb reminds us each episode, “Be better to your neighbors and you’ll have better neighbors.”

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