Saturday, March 07, 2009

Breaking Windows to R.L. Burnside

A couple of years back I was talking to a trucker friend about my growing despondency over rock music. “You listen to the blues at all?” he asked. I rolled my eyes. “What was that for?”

I said I'd followed some of eMusic's recommendations for blues artists. It seemed to me their hired Poindexters couldn't get excited over any recording more polished than two strings thumb-plucked on a porch next to a field full of crickets.

“Well,” said my friend, “you should check out a guy named R.L. Burnside.”

Burnside's flinty, brawling style of blues proved to be just the ticket. Better than that, the big man seemed to enjoy it when youngsters booked him for the studio to help dig his groove. My first Burnside disc was A Ass-Pocket Of Whiskey (A, e), 40 minutes of Burnside messing around with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I hadn't heard of JSBE before this, and probably couldn't discern a deconstructionist from an exhibitionist. But Spencer carries on like a kid brother who just got invited to play with the big boys, breaking windows he knows he'll have to pay for in the morning. This disc seems to get blues fans — including John Morthland — foaming at the mouth, but even Morthland has to admit it sounds like Burnside is having fun. So was I. The album is nasty, brutish and short and loaded down with more “mofos” than I cared to tally up.

Morthland and company are especially dismissive of A Bothered Mind (e) which revs up Burnside's recordings to hip-hop and electronica beats. Morthland best appreciates the earlier stuff: First Recordings (e) and Acoustic Stories (“on which he's accompanied only by a harmonica player” — and a handful of crickets (e)). A Bothered Mind completely swept me in. I know a few of the artists featured, and most of them sound like they're hoping a little of Burnside's electricity will rub off on them. It makes for kick-ass fun, actually, and is especially delicious when played at night, while driving into the city.

Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (e) is similar in style, and contains some genuinely unsettling material — particularly “R.L.'s Story,” which recounts the year Burnside's father, brother and two uncles were murdered. This is an unusual piece because it doesn't seem to be “performed”: Burnside talks, the tape rolls, then loops back and plays again while Kenny Brown's bottleneck slides from deep to deep.

Performance, it seems to me, is the chief virtue of the blues. Aesthetes can get their kicks from obscure recordings, and finding the “genuine” blues masters, but it seems to me that much of the blues is about messing with the audience. Consider this interview with blueswoman Janiva Magness (a performer I quite like). The interviewer recounts some of Janiva's early tragedies (parents who committed suicide, teen pregnancy, giving the baby up for adoption, etc.) Janiva does little more than acknowledge this. The interviewer presses on: “And then you met the love of your life, for a minute.”

Janiva pauses. “Which one?”

That's pure blues. Now try this on:

“I didn't mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”

That's from Burnside's wiki. The whole scene — six months in jail for killing a man, only to be released in order to drive tractor — strikes me as being juuuuuuust a bit tall. But so long as he's working that single chord and the room is jumping, I'm right there with 'em — breaking the windows.

Links: R.L. Burnside interview. Michael Blowhard really digs the blues.


DarkoV said...

Based on your fine write-up, I'll have to give Mr. Burnside another listen. For me, at least, he paled next to Junior Kimbrough,a rival of Mr. Burnside's. Kimbrough's music is tough to take, but worth the ride. When one of your albums is titled "MOst Things Haven't Worked Out", you know you're not for a happy listening. There's nothing fancy about his playing, just straight-ahead bore screechy strumming that beats down any possibility of a happy ending. I played "Lord, Have Mercy on Me" from his "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" on a friend's blues show I was subbing for and had a caller ringing me up to get these "damn depressing blues off and get me some happy shit on". I empathized with his pain, but I let the song play out to wring out the last gram of joy out of the listener's ear. It's masochistic blues that Mr. Kimbrough played.
There's an intersting story about his house and the padlock he had on his fridge, but that's another post.

I'll have to dig out some Burnside again and give him a more fair listening.

Whisky Prajer said...

Was there a rivalry between Kimbrough and Burnside? So many of these interviews make it sound like it was all one big happy campfire, but I can't imagine that was the case: there were only so many women fans of the music.