Saturday, July 26, 2008

wereallnumber1 #10: the best blues players

Oh Brother(s) Where Art Thou? or, "The Marshmallow Blues "

Jonny Lang, world's greatest bluesman

Muddy Waters ... nevahurdovum.

Was reading on The Rev. Keith A. Gordon's blog (of Devil Music Dot Com fame) about white bluesmen and got to thinking about my own experiences as an avid hobbyist bluesman. For those of you who don't know, I am an avid jazz and blues instrumentalist, and I play a number of string instruments, primarily bass and guitar, and I write blues songs. If it matters to you, and I suspect it does, I fashion myself after the Kings (Freddie and Albert), though I throw in a little Burrell and Montgomery to keep the pack guessing, but all in all, I would characterize myself as a contemporary blueshound with an ear to traditional jazz and blues influences. One of my favorite things to do when I have spare time is jam along with friends – you know, plug in, lay out a few templates, conjure up some spirits (as well as consume some spirits) and practice a little alchemy.

That was my plan on one of my last evenings in Tucson, Arizona.

So that evening, I convened with a couple of folks that I've had the good fortune to meet over my time there through a colleague of mine in my graduate department. Ed and Randy are a couple of real nice guys who all share with me a love of music and a kind of culturism associated with music that I find quite genuine and warm. Ed is a natural resources professor at the U. who is originally from Port Arthur, Texas and cites as his musical influences folks like Memphis Slim and Howlin' Wolf. His son is also a talented musician who plays keys for Jo Dee Messina (not sure who she is, but I'm sure she's lovely). Randy plays for a few area bands, a mixture of classic rock, modern rock, and funk outfits, and just plain out can bang the skins (that's play the drums, perverts). Our previous get-togethers have been nice, playing old jazz and blues records on the stereo, drinking a few beers, schooling Randy (who is from Minnesota) about what it was like growin' up in the South, and best of all, playing some good ole fashioned blues music.

Randy's up for anything. Ed likes blues-rock – a little Fleetwood Mac, some Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc., and also really digs Albert King, Dr. John, and Bo Diddley. And he is also a musical sponge that enjoys taking in the musical interests of others ... take for example, a couple of months back, he wanted to play "Honey Hush" by Foghat (which is really a cover of a song originally done by Big Joe Turner). Good stuff. In exchange, I taught him "I Ain't Drunk" by Albert Collins. Then we settled into a groove and played "Cold Shot" by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nice thematic links (nagging women, obstinate men) and interesting chord dynamics and lead pattern opportunities. Then we had a beer and listened to a Blind Lemon Jefferson song that Ed remembered from his childhood. All good stuff.

Which takes us to my final night playing with those guys. Ed and Randy invited a couple of guys over who are "blues music enthusiasts" and 30 year vets of playing the bar scene here in Tucson. They seemed like affable enough guys ... though, one was overdressed, had already had too much to drink by 7 pm, and had a trophy wife to cheer for him as he played harp. The other guy looked both dazed and confused, and among other things, told us a story about a tractor he'd bought recently. Not to use on his farm mind you. For decoration. Yeah.

Anyhow, claiming to love "blues music," they proceeded to launch into a version of "All Along the Watchtower" that was so painfully bad I penned an apology letter to the Hendrix family in my head on the way home. And then an Elvis song. ELVIS! I walked out of the room at that point, mumbling something like "my mother is calling me ... over here ... I gotta ... yeah." And then Johnny Cash. And then Led Zeppelin. I wanted to tear the A string off of my guitar and make it into a noose by this point.

We finished the evening with a version of "Crosscut Saw" that was passable, but one of the jackasses was pounding the guitar so hard you could barely hear the rhythm guitar I was laying down ("Crosscut ..." has a rumba-influenced lead, so the guitar is quieter). Afterwards, they went on and on about how "Crosscut ..." was one of SRV's best songs. After repeating that it was an Albert King song twenty times to no avail, I packed up and prepared to call it a night.

So here's my take on it. First of all, when someone says "blues" and "Tucson" in the same breath, be forewarned, it ain't gonna be pretty. And I think it's because there's so few black people here to tell white folks any better. They been playing "blues" in a vacuum here for so long with few outside influences that virtually anything passes for blues (I remember going to Sakura a few years back for "live blues" and getting a "Pink Floyd" cover band). In fact, our local blues band of import, the "Bad News Blues Band," plays ... no shit ... James Brown and Temptations songs. Um. James Brown and Temptations were a lot of things ... blues ain't one of em (well, maybe James on "This is a Man's World," but that about it).

Fact of the matter is, any white bluesman or blueswoman of any import cites black influences. For Clapton, it was Freddie King. For LedZep it was the entire state of Mississippi, evidently (delta blues). For Elvis it was Wolf and Waters (though he never sounded a bit like either with that corny-assed "uh-huh" ... and by the way, I'm like Chuck D in this bitch ... f**k Elvis and John Wayne!!!). So white blues here in Tucson, sans black influences, is just a poor facsimile, and that, more than red beans and hamhocks, block parties and penny candies, b-ballin in the park and the MLK center after dark, made me miss black people more than ever.

Now don't go flyin' off the deep end here and call me a "reverse racist" (for a couple of reasons, primarily, because there is no such thing as "reverse racism," numbnuts, it either is or is not racism ... "reverse racism" is what ... a hug? A mortgage at a reasonable interest rate? Not getting shot 50 times by plainclothes cops?). After all, some of my best friends are white (hee hee, that really is fun to say).

It's just that when we borrow y'all's music, we make it better. That's why so many white musicians have black producers to do remixes. You watch. Britney will be in a studio with the Neptunes in like negative 2 weeks to get that Federline filth off her ass (called it!). And Pharrell will probably let Snoop and Hugo hit, too. Same thing happened to Mariah back in the day. Just you wait. When Hannah Montana turn 18, I guarantee you T-Pain gonna be slappin her ass in a video all the way to #1 on the R&B charts. For better or for worse. Actually for worse.

But these cats I played with in Tucson borrowed blues music and did her dirty. I felt like Common penning "I Used to Love Her" last night as these white dudes did to blues music what people named Bubba do to white-collar criminals in federal joints.

And thats why I couldn't wait to get back to Louisiana, man. Where people know how to put a hock in the greens, cold milk on cornbread, "Electric Slide" on at a wedding, and a domino on a gotdamm folding table.

And where they know that Elvis ain't the effin blues.

In all seriousness ... RIP Sean Costello. You was down, IMHO.

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