Born Under a Bad Sign


Blues is a music for troubled times, and as a year that started with little promise for the form descended into turmoil, the blues themselves were energized by a clutch of top-flight releases, mostly by veterans in snappy new suits. Blues is drapery that’s always around to try on. In 2001, what looked like the same old shabby dress turned bewitching.

Like all surprise triumphs, Maria Muldaur‘s Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain) tells us more than just what’s in the tracks. It introduces a Muldaur who sounds whole and at ease for the first time since she broke up with Jim Kweskin Jug Band fixture Geoff Muldaur. Always a warming presence in band and couple settings, her equal-emphasis eclecticism as a solo artist suggested that she commanded multiple styles at her pop peak, the eponymous 1973 album that featured her sole hit, “Midnight at the Oasis.” But her range more likely indicated a fragmented self that she’s been trying to integrate ever since, as she meandered through born-again gospel, prim jazz, corny nostalgic pop, and moldering rock. There was no reason to assume she’d ever find a mature voice for blues, though she steadfastly kept performing it. An unplanned cameo with a street band in Memphis a few years ago planted the seed of a tribute to country blues “stripped down to their bare essence,” as she put it—her own production, voices and guitars and no drums. She’s previously worked with guest celebs like Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and John Sebastian, and even done some of the same material, but this time the stars are aligned and her rougher, totally grown-up voice is at ease at last. The overall tone is frank enjoyment of lewd blues sentiment (“Me and My Chauffeur Blues”) mixed with bits of arousing release in gospel (especially “It’s a Blessing,” with Raitt). Muldaur has been an honorable journeywoman for decades. On Richland Woman Blues the dues she’s paid come back to her.

Buddy Guy didn’t need to find himself. Reviving his duet act with Junior Wells in 1972 or re-emerging as a tough-buzzard veteran in 1991, he always sold the same persona—sensitive stud with Roman-candle guitar. But he did need to fool himself. Otherwise, he’d still be stuck in a rut that’s just a grave with the ends kicked out. He had to stop playing with young-buck stiffs like Johnny Lang, had to stop trying to cover giants like Wilson Pickett and Muddy Waters with a hankie. On Sweet Tea (Silvertone), Guy shakes off routine by plugging into vintage machinery that covers the Roman candle with schmutz and tree moss, and by playing the neoprimitive songbook that’s been nurtured over the past decade at the Sweet Tea studio by the Fat Possum label. Said songbook usually gives him little more to do than chant phrases and groan. But Guy has been down way more roads and conquered more diverse audiences than T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, or the rest of the Fat Possum crowd, so he’s got more diverse and dramatic moves to squeeze into their songs. He gets into a sensual wrestling match with “Please Don’t Leave Me” and “She’s Got the Devil in Her.” He also has the resources to pump swamp gas into Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.” At the climactic solo of the extended “I Gotta Try You Girl,” Guy’s candle transmogrifies into a gigantic cottonmouth thrashing in the underbrush.

R.L. Burnside is a sketchy character.

(photo: Matthew Johnson)

If Guy profits when he rubs hard against the limits of Deep South blues, R.L. Burnside flourishes by living large within them. His early recordings with his family band, the Sound Machine, cranked out stunted, repetitive arrangements of boogie clichés. But as more of a rusty whine came into Burnside’s voice and he discovered the secret power of extreme reiteration rather than hapless reiteration, his uptempo tunes began to suggest a dancing skeleton of the blues, twitching until the ghostly vitality just cut off. In the live settings of Burnside on Burnside (Fat Possum/Epitaph), the band senses the audience well enough to keep the blues bones shaking until they suddenly fall apart with perfect timing. Even at his most ebullient, however, Burnside remains a sketchy character. A useful comparison is with the most doom-riddled blues reissue of the year, Lightnin’ Hopkins‘s Lightnin’ and the Blues: The Herald Sessions (Buddha), which puts an electric weapon in the hands of the performer who, along with John Lee Hooker, seems close to the root of current neoprimitives. Hopkins is poisoned, angry, sick, in lust, and you feel trapped in an airless, no-exit chamber with him for all eternity. With Burnside, you’re sealed in a sweat-hole club for an evening. But the show will end, and the doorman has a key.

James Blood Ulmer‘s Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (Label M) combines the tactics of Guy’s and Burnside’s albums—producer and second guitarist Vernon Reid hauled Ulmer south, then told him to relax and let roar on the same sort of blues evergreens that were stifling Guy. Still, where Ulmer’s really broadcasting from is the twilight intersection of blues, jazz, funk, and noise he visited most memorably on 1982’s Odyssey. This time he has superior words, particularly Willie Dixon’s urbane wit, set to riffs from primordial dives. But the original vocals of “Little Red Rooster” or “Back Door Man” or John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” or Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” do not overshadow Ulmer’s calm, soft, forceful phrasing. Because he seems to have forgotten the templates, so do you. As he did on Odyssey, Charles Burnham provides violin that’s alternately voodoo and simoom. And the freakouts, particularly the astringent denouement of “I Asked for Water,” while more intellectual than the barrages of Guy and Burnside, are not a jot more calculated.

Some tracks on Otis Taylor‘s White African (Northern Blues) snap and buzz like Ulmer’s, but Taylor, who can compose a tune on the spot if you feed him a couple words, is closer to talking blues than neoprimitivist drone, more like country blues revivalists Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart. But Taylor’s countryside has violent shadows and creeping stains on the earth, and he’s far from a newcomer. Born in 1948, he played in mostly obscure r&b and rock outfits from 1964 until 1977, when he got into dealing antiques. He only played music at home until his 1996 solo debut, Blue Eyed Monster. A follow-up, When Negroes Walked the Earth, illustrated its title with photos of Taylor’s father from the 1940s. White African is illustrated with mug shots of black men arrested for “vagrancy” in 1930s Kansas, and Taylor’s uncle, killed by a robber.

Aside from two change-of-pace tunes about obsessive lust and an independent woman, Taylor uses a drumless band sparked by his banjo and Eddie Turner’s lead guitar to tell angry, but not crazy-angry, cautionary tales that are thoughtful enough to make you flinch and sweat. Taylor’s soft voice sing-coaxes, whispers, or just talks his tormented characters to life. There is the homeless father in “3 Days and 3 Nights,” whose child is dying because he can’t afford medical treatment. Or the tormented soul in the eerie “Resurrection Blues” who understands he has to suffer before he dies but above all doesn’t want to become Jesus. The most harrowing track, “Saint Martha Blues,” describes how Taylor’s great-grandfather was lynched and dismembered. His great-grandmother persevered with hope for justice, and eventually a church was named after her. Taylor has said he wants to make big statements with few words. He also wants to save the blues from endless party-time.

If time-forged music designed to kick against troubles is particularly welcome these days, its ever famished niche marketplace deserves thanks for sustaining it. Weekly showcases and mainstreamed clubs devoted to blues are as established as ever. The demand for 12-bar guitar youngsters is the denim underground equivalent of pop’s harmony teens and get-downloaded nubiles. The huge difference is that wrinkles are fatal in the pop scene, but grayheads must participate in any blues resurgence to undercut suspicion that it’s all a rootless shuck. Around 40 years ago, seasoned blues performers dropped their amplifiers and took up acoustic to show they were linked to the folk. Now old hands adopt greasy sound or deliver tart history lessons to prove that their blues, and they themselves, are not restricted to the mall or the museum.