The primal, gurgling wellspring of all American music, the blues has become a theme-park ride, a cozy comfort zone for white rock fans to experience the weltschmerz of the black underclass from the safe remove of a red Naugahyde sports-bar booth. Isaac Tigrett’s House of Blues clubs are the leading global franchiser of faux-vernacular authenticity, and as such represent the final triumph of marketing over make-it-funky. The fussed-over interior design schemes, with their Howard Finster folk-art knockoffs and Cooperstown-like shrines, beat a complex, strange, filthy, and still breathing low-art form into submission—manifest destiny with a beer tab.
Blame Eric Clapton. Before he and a handful of prostrating Brits made the blues their personal crusade, the music occupied an entirely different sphere. While rock artists kept labels like Chess and Sun afloat, blues greats on those labels were creating the canon that would be consumed like a salt lick. When Clapton covered Freddie King’s “Hideaway” as a star sideman in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1964, his performance instantly turned the amplified Chicago blooze style into a hegemony, and enshrined Clapton as the leading white emissary of nativist style. With his hollow mastery of stolen licks and superhero virtuosity, Clapton reduced the blues to a fatuous personality cult, shot full of embalming fluid. He’s always been a far more convincing vocalist than guitar god. And he’s always been better off mimicking J.J. Cale than Freddie King, anyway.
Slowhand’s recent collaboration with B.B. King, Riding With the King, is typical of his forays into “authentic” blues. There’s a millionaire’s concerted effort to strike a world-weary pose, a hint of no-count transgression to keep everything real, and a lot of rote note-bending. King has always been a kindred spirit of Clapton’s, having long ago betrayed his Vesuvian talents for a Brylcream-slick nightclub act so intent on hitting marks you could synchronize a Swiss watch to it. Is it any wonder that this ebony-and-ivory corporate synergy produced an album that entered Billboard at No. 3?
Riding With the King is meant to be Clapton’s homage to his mentor; hence, the Driving Miss Daisy cover shot, in which Clapton is chauffeuring a grinning, tuxedoed King in a Caddy convertible. But the album’s just another Clapton con, in which solemn, Smithsonian stabs from Bill Broonzy and Maceo Merriweather are interspersed with radio stabs like Doyle Bramhall-Charlie Sexton’s “I Wanna Be” and John Hiatt’s obnoxiously self-effacing title song. As compromised hack jobs go, it gets the job done. But it’s too inoffensive to produce the nitty-gritty fission Clapton and King pretend they’ve achieved.
If Riding is an example of the blues as classic rock, then the primordial sludge produced by the north-of-the-Delta wackos on the Fat Possum label is the blues as indie rock. Too far left of center to appeal to Clapton fans, the label’s deep eccentricity and outsider-art snob appeal have endeared it instead to Gen-Y Magnet readers who’d never dream of buying a Sam Adams from a bartender in a Blues Brothers T-shirt. Fat Possum recently signed a distribution deal with L.A.-based Epitaph, home of Rancid Offspring.
Fat Possum is the key blues label of the past decade, introducing rock fans (and Jon Spencer) to R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, two primitive moderns that Alan Lomax himself would have been thrilled to discover. But if Fat Possum fans think they’re any more evolved than Clapton fans cheering politely whenever “God” deigns to put an old coot like Buddy Guy on the bill, they’re merely favoring context over content. Still, there’s no shortage of fascinating characters on Fat Possum’s roster—not least an old jalopy called T-Model Ford.
An unlettered septuagenarian with a rap sheet, Ford stamps out wildly undisciplined variations on trance blues; the songs on She Ain’t None of Your’n are hazy Rorschachs that bleed off the page. Nothing is foursquare, and everything gets distilled into an indeterminate, jagged rhythm. On tracks like “Chicken Head Man,” there’s the pervasive sense of just wanting to get on with it, and not bothering with niceties like narrative logic, rhyming couplets, or A-A-B-A chord schemes (typical haiku: “She asked me/So I told her/That is why/That I’m here”).
Robert Belfour is a more accomplished guitar basher, but his sentiments come out just as murky. A former construction worker from the same region in North Mississippi that spawned Burnside and Kimbrough, he’s got a marble-mouthed flow, chopping up simple phrases into jumbled shards while he plucks his acoustic like a third rail. “Poor Black Mattie, girl ain’t got change of clothes,” he sings, his deranged, craggy bellow sounding like Pearl Bailey twisted on corn liquor while his fingers cast a mesmeric spell. With a voice cracking with the rage of the oppressed and cuckolded, 60-year-old Belfour is a silent sufferer who’d rather wallow than fight. Too bad; I know a couple of guitar-slinging slicks that could use a little old-time religion.