PopMatters talks with 21-year-old bluesman Eli Cook about cranking it up, turning it down, and balancing the expectations of different crowds.
You'd probably think the grisly voice belonged to one of the last relics of the old music world -- a battle-scarred old man on a rickety Mississippi porch swing, probably in his 80s, black, and maybe even diabetic, if we're talking about the esteemed B.B. King. Gotcha! The singer is actually alleged blues guitarist Eli Cook, a white kid from rural Virginia who just turned 21. Last year's ElectricHolyFireWater is a totally remarkable effort for someone so young, but the twist is that it's also remarkable for a tradition so old.
Cook isn't really a bluesman, but he plays one in the press releases. Miss Blues'es Child, a collection of early acoustic recordings, was a much more conventional example of a blues albums, and it ignited quite a bit of buzz when the original 2005 release was picked up for national distribution the following year. But all the while, he's been in the back room cooking up something entirely different -- and mostly sacrilegious, at least for the crowd that responded so well to the first album.
Miss Blues'es Child's prodigy was "Don't Ride My Pony", a country-jangle solo blues which, halfway through, trots out the revelation that the pony in question is blind. Why, exactly? It doesn't really advance the storyline or have any bearing on the rest of the song at all, but this is the blues, man, and what could possibly be bluesier than a blind horse? Well, a three legged dog, perhaps, but that's about it.
Operating in a space so dominated by pitchfork-waving traditionalists, then, Cook deserves a nod of respect for trotting out a surprise of his own on the follow-up to Miss Blues'es Child. ElectricHolyFireWater channels Alice in Chains as readily as Muddy Waters, blending the century-old blues that Cook is known for with the '90s grunge he was raised on. It's as though the DeLeo Blues Brothers are lamenting Scott Weiland's hell-bent determination to sink Stone Temple Pilots with his drug habits, or perhaps it was Tom Morello rather than Robert Johnson who made that deal with Satan.
Now, Cook's solo acoustic shows do still lean more toward blues in its conventional form. But not too far -- actually, he prefers early one-chord songs to 12-bar. "Very few people listen to that stuff at all," he says. "You rarely hear it, and that's actually bluesier than anything else. Blues didn't develop its form until the '40s and '50s. It was really such a raw art form."
He also tends to play with a slide, and half the time he ends up running his acoustic guitar through a distortion pedal just to make sure it really hits hard. "I'm almost always fingerpicking, and there's a lot of slide, very little soloing in the traditional Stratocaster sense," he says. "Playing alone, you have to keep the bassline going with your thumb and keep the melody going with the slide. It's a lot of fun because you don't really watch the frets -- you're following the sounds. The more you think about it, usually, the less good it is."
Cook's heart is ultimately in the electric project. "It has been for a while," he says. "I can be a lot more creative." That's probably because it has a stronger identity and is less likely to be washed away by decades of competition. The influence of blues on rock musicians has been analyzed ad nauseam post-Zeppelin, of course, but in Cook's case the sources, and the improbability of their convergence, are clearly delineated rather than slyly co-opted. It's not really a melting pot -- it's more like a jar of Goober Grape.
It's also because Miss Blues'es Child was a more immature effort. "I had just then, in that six months' time, started trying to write songs, which I had never tried to do before," he says. "The very first songs I ever wrote were on Miss Blues'es Child, and they sounded very much like blues." In that case, perhaps the emerging electric sound is just Cook growing into his true artistic voice.
This, of course, creates a bit of a conundrum when he's asked to play for a big house in a blues-happy environment. For jazz festivals, in particular, he'll usually tone down the headbanging. "We'll tweak songs so they're not so heavy," he says. "There's definitely some of that going on live. Some songs are appropriate for certain settings."
That's unfortunate, because Cook doesn't really want to segregate them. "A year ago it was a little more black and white, but since then I've started using more distortion in the acoustic sets and playing more raucous material," he says. "Ideally I'd hope that someone who liked one would appreciate the other." We all know that's a pipe dream when it comes to blues purists.
Thus, Cook ends up wearing hats that he's entirely capable of handling, but somewhat uninspired by. "It's kind of a catch-22," he says. "It gives people a frame of reference -- I guess that's good in a way -- but in another way it's bad, because when people are expecting blues and you're playing hard rock, they throw tomatoes."
There are also, er, demographic considerations. "You don't get enough panties thrown at you with the Delta Blues niche," he adds. "The panties-to-tomatoes ratio is definitely in favor of the hard rock."
Even more confusingly, Cook's listening habits are changing, and elements drawn from Pantera to Funkadelic are now working their way in as well -- his face lights up when he talks about the Meters, for example. We can draw Venn diagrams all day, but wherever you may want to file him, Cook is no doubt a reminder that the blues still has somewhere it can go. If it so much as blinks, he might just shrug and leave it behind, bopping and bouncing off into whatever iteration comes next without a care in the world -- least of all what anybody might expect that to be.