Don’t call Leo Bud Welch a late-bloomer. Welch is more like the ever-blooming honeysuckle vine of some endless fantasy spring. And although he’s been honing his craft at Bruce, Mississippi’s Sabougla Missionary Baptist Church since 1975, it was early 2014 before his debut album Sabougla Voices arrived — to a good bit of justified fanfare. Voices was a record that captured the sound of a rowdy churchgoer: the message was the gospel, the medium was the blues, and the medium was the message. Welch’s new album, I Don’t Prefer No Blues, doesn’t juggle idioms so much as it absorbs them — these are proper jook-joint jams and rock ‘n’ rollers, designed for dusting brooms and wang-dang doodles. He may not prefer no blues but they seem to prefer him.
While Welch shares the same penchant for rolling rhythms and winding guitar figures as his more famous North Mississippi counterparts, his blues are shorter, more tightly packed and piquant, less given to the swirling tidal drones of Junior Kimbrough or R. L. Burnside. Pound for pound, track for track, Welch latches onto the stringent intensity of the hill country blues but lets go of the ramshackle. For example, “I Woke Up”: it’s a fairly straightforward take on the rhythmic figure of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talkin'” but the band swerves between a lockstep tightness in the verse and a more wide-angle chorus, pulling off each of these maneuvers with a swiftness and dexterity that was mostly absent on the classic Fat Possum releases of the early ’90s.
Anachronistic as it sounds, on I Don’t Prefer No Blues it often feels as if Welch is working out a pared-down template for Exile on Main Street or — a little closer to home — Jim Dickinson’s American counterpart Dixie Fried: like those two, Welch’s is an album full of loose grooves with pointy edges; a dusky, humid atmosphere; a willful celebration of dark nights and cold ground. (“Sweet Black Angel”, a song that shares a title and some of the bleary ethos of the Stones’ classic paean to Angela Davis, only deepens the Exile connection.) The set’s opener, a bass-driven take on the traditional tune “Poor Boy”, hangs Welch’s reaching vocals on a wall of background singers and achieves the rare distinction of sounding both stripped down and impossibly heavy. I think “lapidary” might be the word. This is followed by “Girl in the Holler”, a low-slung rave-up in which Welch’s ad-libbed admonition — “Get it, get it” — takes the frisky-old-man thing that attracts so much attention in Bob Dylan’s recent work to a whole other level. Elsewhere, the Staple Singers’ “Pray on, My Child” is transformed into “Pray On”: a wah-wah-induced case of the psych-blues.
In a conversation with fellow-novelist Darcey Steinke, the great Mississippi writer Barry Hannah once described the music of Jimi Hendrix as the sound of the blues in a helicopter. I’m still looking for a similarly apt analogy for Welch’s performance on I Don’t Prefer No Blues but that may be because the machine this music describes hasn’t been invented yet: on this latest album, Leo Bud Welch makes the blues sound like the future and, at 82 years old, Leo Bud Welch’s future is bright.