With the death last June of John Lee Hooker, American blues lost one of its few remaining geniuses from the generation of World War II-era players that effectively defined the genre as it mutated from an acoustic to an electric form. Giants like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Hooker created music of hypnotic power that traced the Black exodus from the rural South to Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit. Recorded mainly for “race” labels in the 1940s and ‘50s, marketed exclusively to Black audiences, the originators of electric blues were largely unknown to a mass audience of post-War consumers looking for entertainment. (The line between black and white could be as fluid in this as in many other aspects of American life, however: Elvis Presley’s first regional hit for the Sun label—whose guiding light, Sam Phillips, had earlier recorded blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf—was a cover of Delta bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s AllRight Mama”.)
It took the Folk Revival of the early ‘60s and the mid-‘60s British Invasion to bring the blues into contact with a wider “pop” audience, as adherents of both movements, from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones, championed the seminal musicians who had greatly influenced their own music. The growing popularity of artists like King and Hooker in the ‘80s and ‘90s, who continued recording with latter-day followers and platinum-sellers like Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, is surely deserved and difficult to begrudge. This rise in commercial viability exacted a price, unsurprisingly, in the artistic vitality that had made their names in the first place, as the blues turned (like mainstream country) into a slickly produced and guest-star-studded music nearly indistinguishable from contemporary rock ‘n’ roll.
All of which leads us to Fat Possum, the irascible, dogma-free, Mississippi-based label dedicated to recording artists that exemplify the spirit of the blues. As owner Matthew Johnson says in the liner notes to the label’s Not the Same Old Blues Crap II, a new sampler (a hard bargain to beat at only $4.99) of nine Fat Possum artists: “American teenagers, the record buying public, don’t associate blues with anything good. How could they when all they’ve been exposed to is the cheesy, cigar-smoking, frat-rock, and tourist-trap side of it? At the other end of the spectrum . . . but just as distasteful, are the folklorists, museum keepers, and musicologists—[their] cozy existence insulated from reality with non-profit corporate checks.” Fat Possum, now nearly a decade old, distributes its records through punk label Epitaph, which gives an indication of its own folklore-free persuasion; the label’s greatest strength is this refusal to be pigeonholed as either backward-looking preservationists or marketing-friendly sell-outs. Johnson has captured men of the same generation as King and Hooker who never made it—or more likely never tried to make it—in the business end of the music. This is “real blues”, make no mistake, but Fat Possum artists have also tinkered (not always successfully) with hip-hop beats and modern production techniques, and there’s nothing museum-like about the intense emotion conjured up on this second volume of Not the Same Old Blues Crap.
To start near the end: Not the Same veers off the tracks only once over the course of its thirteen songs, with a cover of Tom Waits’ “House Where Nobody Lives” by King Ernest Baker (who died in a car accident shortly before the record’s release in 2000). Professional and delicately played, the soulful piano and muted horns add an R&B touch to the ballad that slides by amiably enough without leaving much of an impression. Fortunately, the remainder of the album consists of one highlight after another—from the opening country blues of Scott Dunbar’s “Easy Rider” to the surf-inflected soul of Super Chikan’s closing “El Camino”. In between we get label “stars” such as R.L. Burnside (whose droning “Goin’ Down South” is one of the best on an album of great songs) and Junior Kimbrough; the spare, acoustic imprecations of Asie Payton; and the stomping “Sail On” from the nearly 80-year-old T-Model Ford. Paul Jones produces the collection’s most experimental track, a remix of “Goin’ Back Home” that harnesses studio trickery without reducing the impact of the song’s classic “I’m goin’ back home to you” chorus. (The more traditional next track, also by Jones, is perhaps a sequel of sorts: “I’m Gonna Leave”.)
Recorded over a span of three decades in a wide variety of settings, from studios to clubs to living rooms, the tracks on Not the Same betray nothing of the “tourist-trap” sensibility that Matthew Johnson rightly disdains. The artists here inhabit their songs just as fully as better-known players like Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson, bringing an intensely personal, idiosyncratic vision to their own versions of the blues. A number of the artists presented here - Junior Kimbrough, Asie Payton, Scott Dunbar—have died since these songs were recorded, and the others are no longer young. Not the Same Old Blues Crap II provides a fittingly irreverent remembrance for an essential generation of musical innovators.
// Notes from the Road
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