Saturday, October 26, 2002

The Blues Ain’t Nothing But a Botheration On My Mind
Now that I’ve played my final show with Blueshammer, it’s time to move on to something else. I would have stayed with them, but if I’m going to play in a blues cover band, I want to play material that’s way sicker than what we had been playing. After all, what can you do to a Colin James tune except emulate its shiny Caucasian faux-blues façade, working to produce a facsimile of a facsimile of a facsimile until there’s no detail, no discernable craft, no beauty left.

I remember explaining Blueshammer to Diana Wegner, the scarily intelligent Print Futures instructor I’m working with on a presentation for the STC conference. She asked me what kind of blues we played.

“I guess it’s mainstream blues, like Colin James and Stevie Ray Vaughn and stuff.”

“Oh,” she said. “I like the blues, but I don’t like it with too much, um, ‘white man’ in it.”

I had to agree with her. My concept of “real” blues isn’t a very well informed one. I keep coming back to Deep Blues, a documentary I saw on Bravo! a few years ago. It featured Eurythmic Dave Stewart and Rolling Stone writer Robert Palmer visiting the Deep South to investigate the current state of the blues. RL Burnside starred in one segment. A couple years later he hit the mainstream with albums on Matador and Epitaph.

Another segment of the film featured Junior Kimbrough and his band playing in some juke joint. They blew me away. They sounded truly unearthly. The drummer played with sticks—not drumsticks, but sticks he must have pulled off a tree. The top joint of his crash cymbal stand collapsed after his first hit, and he kept whacking the cymbal through the rest of the song anyway. Junior played sitting down, well-weathered and sixtysomething, and sang along with his guitar riffs. He sounded pained and haunted to a degree I can barely imagine, let alone ever express in song. That’s the blues.

But let’s give the white man his due. I recently acquired Red Herring, the latest album from Half Man, a band that expertly straddles the line between blues and heavy rock. They’re Swedish; that’s how white they are. They’re sick, though. They play songs like John-Lee Hooker’s “Sugar Mama”: nine minutes of a three-note progression that not many bands would have the guts to attempt, but Half Man pull it off with soul aplenty. They follow that up with “Departed Souls,” a menacing instrumental with a creeping bass line, tremolo guitar and off-kilter drums that lull the listener for a while before the song ventures into all manner of freakout sections. On their previous album, The Complete Field Guide for Cynics, they had the good taste to cover PJ Harvey (who, for a pasty white woman, definitely has the blues). On Red Herring they cover Frank Zappa’s “Willy the Pimp,” real slow and dirty-like. Occasionally Half Man fall back on too-familiar riff constructions—“Grass Stains” reconfigures Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” riff ever so slightly—but their style is so well-cultivated that I can forgive such small crimes. Half Man is the kind of blues band I want be in.

So I haven’t given up on the blues. As a white boy, though, I recognize my limitations. I know what I like, and I’m happy to enjoy it from the sidelines for now.

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