The Black Keys: Chulahoma

The Black Keys
Fat Possum

It is a well known axiom that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when the imitation comes out making the honoree look bad, then it’s time to crawl into a hole. The whole idea behind the blues (and other forms of music) is to imitate, while putting a personal stamp on things. Many British rockers got their inspiration (and their early licks) from mimicking American blues artists (Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and John Lee Hooker were looked upon as icons by the young Brits). Admittedly, those artists were easy to copy, since simple three-chord blues licks didn’t require any degree of musical rocket science. Flipping it around 180-degrees, the late (David) Junior Kimbrough was a very difficult nut to crack.

Kimbrough, whose idea was simple enough, was a master practitioner of “trance blues” — the art of playing the same chordal progression over and over until it gets into the listener’s pores and oozes out of his/her skin and into his/her soul. Easy, right? Not unless you can play a detuned guitar like Kimbrough did. He started with what local (Mississippi) musicians called “Spanish” tuning, and then from there, downtuned to his own liking. Kimbrough, like most blues musicians at the time, didn’t use a pick — he used his fingers to pluck both the bottom end and either a chordal rhythm or solo at the same time. He also sang in a tough-to-decipher pleading wail, but a clue as to what he wanted would be evidenced by the fact he fathered 36 (yes, that’s correct — thirty-six) kids. Okay, so Junior was horny — does that make him a bad person?

Point is, it’s damn near impossible to imitate Kimbrough — his guitar playing was nothing if not unique. Many have tried to honor him in their own style (check out the Fat Possum compilation Sunday Nights: the Songs of Junior Kimbrough), but of the 15 bands/artists who lay down tracks on the compilation (including Iggy Pop doing two different versions of “You Better Run”), only one captured Junior’s spirit and playing to near perfection: the Black Keys.

It’s not as though Dan Auerbach hadn’t attempted to do Kimbrough’s works before. Auerbach, the guitarist/vocalist half of the Black Keys (drummer Patrick Carney comprises the other half), first took on Kimbrough on the band’s debut, The Big Come Up, with a decent, raucous version of “Do the Rump”. But what gave Auerbach and Carney full Kimbrough cred was the brilliant, stunning version of “Everywhere I Go” on the Keys’ second album, thickfreakness. You could feel Junior’s ghost channeling through Auerbach’s guitar — he nailed the song perfectly. (The only other person who could play like Junior would naturally be one of his offspring, his son David.)

“My Mind Is Ramblin'”, the song the Keys did for the Kimbrough compilation, is one of six featured on Chulahoma, the duo’s tribute to one of their heroes (and sadly, their last official release on Kimbrough’s old label, Fat Possum). It has the juke joint feel that Kimbrough’s sonics were noted for, and Auerbach eerily bends his notes in similar fashion. And the thing that makes what Auerbach does more astonishing is that he and Carney are it — a two-piece band that eschews overdubs. Kimbrough was the only Fat Possum artist who actually used a bassist in his work (usually his late friend R.L. Burnside’s son, Garry), so Auerbach is playing the bass parts at the same time he’s doing everything else. His vocals carry enough rawness to compare with Junior’s, too.

Let’s not forget Carney, either. His drumming, at times simple, at others, complex, is the driving force that allows Auerbach to do what he does. As for the other quintet of songs, the opener, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”, is haunting, just like the original. “Have Mercy on Me” starts off as a stompin’ rocker, but quickly switches over to the sparseness that Kimbrough employed throughout the entire song — it’s a great listen. “Work Me” was one of the few solo Kimbrough songs in his repertoire — no bass or drums — so it takes a bit of getting used to with Carney’s slow, solid pounding. “Meet Me in the City”, one of Kimbrough’s most popular songs, is slowed down a tad by the Keys, making it more of a shuffle than a bounce. “Nobody But You” is a straight-ahead driving song — if Kimbrough’s blues were rock, this would be the song that would likely rock the hardest. Auerbach and Carney do an excellent job not to let the song get away from them.

And after the closer of “My Mind…”, there’s a confirmation of what the Black Keys have done via an answering machine message from Mildred Washington, Junior’s common-law wife. On the message (she has obviously heard the album), she had nothing but high praise for the duo, saying that they were the only ones to capture what Junior was all about. What better critic could there be? All I’m doing is echoing Mildred — the only thing wrong with Chulahoma (the burg where Junior’s last juke joint was located) is that it’s an EP — it leaves you hungry and wanting more. I have no doubt other Kimbrough songs will find their way to Messrs. Auerbach and Carney — it’s just the order of things. What Chulahoma does is reinforce the essence of the Black Keys’ original material — a hypnotic, intense style that sticks like musical glue.

RATING 9 / 10